Do you rather recognize or do you rather recall brands?

A cognitive experiment on automotive brands

Existential remarks make us question daily facts that would be otherwise left in the hand of destiny.

Every day I make a decision based on what matters most to me, or at least based on what I think it matters most (to me). One day, I decided to find out if “what matters most” is something trainable, something attainable through influencing the mind to think in a certain way.

Do I recognize symbols, shapes, colors, brands just because I am repeatedly exposed to them, because I was taught to remember them that way, because there aren’t any options that contradict what I already know … !?

What do I really know?

recognition = the form of memory that consists in knowing or feeling that a present object has been met before.

I just recognize stuff. I just recall them.

recall = remembrance of what has been previously learned or experienced.

How is that any different?

I couldn’t tell you how our brain works when retrieves information from our memory but I have this decent idea according to which recognition acts when a set of stimuli assists the cognitive process, meanwhile recall functions as an independent achievement of our memory, tracking down on its own the knowledge sought by the brain.

Could one of them be more “effective”?

To find out I did an experiment.

brand literacy = the ability to make sense of and compose the signs of a brand culture, and to understand the meaning of the systems and patterns that are at play… to relate to the brand’s contemporary status in its imagined consumption context.

Experimental Design

I was working in a creative agency when I thought this experiment through, so it seems logic enough that it has been conducted with reference to brands, consumption awareness and the degree of acquiring literacy through advertising.

Apart from the intricate research, I based my experiment upon (which I won’t describe here), I think my approach towards what works best for humans when you create a piece of print, an advertising video, or a billboard, draws precisely the distinction and importance of opting for recognition or for recall in the process of teaching customers your brand culture.

Who were my subjects?

I picked 20 individuals, at about 23–28 years old, half women — half men, all with university degrees, same wage level. From a cultural point of view, you can name them Eastern - Europeans. I divided them into 2 statistically equivalent groups and assigned them a questionnaire. Let us call them group A, the one that was supposed to recognize brands, and group B that was supposed to recall brands.

What kind of brands?

Automotive brands seemed the most appropriate. My subjects didn’t possess a car, but they would most likely buy one in the following years as owning such an item is the next step in becoming a respectable young adult, after graduation (and a must before marriage). So, they weren’t necessarily researching the market, or paying special attention to automotive deals at that time, nor did they focused on catching the trend, or maniacally imparting opinions on the matter, in social media, or other form of communication.

A car is a big investment for a young adult; it is is not a fleeting trifle. Stable, knowledgeable choices are considered in buying a car.

I needed my findings to be about a sound consumption decision, not some sort of just-pick-one process that does not signifies anything in terms of cognitive understanding of the buying behavior (although I could underline some solid theories there too).

What brands precisely?

I studied many advertising materials from the automotive industry and I could depict some patterns in their communication techniques. I selected and grouped 10 brands as it follows:

  • brands that focus on rational — explicit advertising: Volkswagen and Mitsubishi.
  • brands that focus on rational — tacit advertising: Toyota, Honda, Hyundai.
  • brands that focus on emotional — explicit advertising: BMW, Lexus.
  • brands that focus on emotional — tacit advertising: Audi, Mercedes — Benz, Mazda.

So, what was the experiment about?

There were three stages in the experiment.

  1. First round of questionnaires — the before assessment of the subjects for actual knowledge about the automotive brands, stated above.

They did not know:

  • in which group did they belong (group A — recognition or group B — recall). They didn’t even know there were two groups. In most cases, they didn’t realize who were the other participants from the study, although they were all from my group of friends.
  • that there were 10 major brands of interest for this study. The questionnaire items included a lot more brands than those studied.
  • which brand belonged to which advertising knowledge strategy (rational — explicit; rational — tacit; emotional — explicit; emotional — tacit). They didn’t even know the brands were selected according to them or what these strategies meant. They found out at the end of the experiment.
  • and they had no idea, what so ever, of what was going to happen next.
What did the questionnaire items looked like?


  • Recognition consisted in matching the brand names with the proper picture / or other types of stimuli. This is a case of assisted cognition because the subjects are given a definite amount of options, which they simply have to fit in their mental places. By eliminating the other given possibilities the brain actually recognizes that one match is actually the correct one.
  • Recall was also based on a limited set of options but no other clues were given. The brain has to assess, independently, each option and draw a conclusion; in this case, come up with the correct brand name.

The items were quite diverse:

  • Hangman (game) items for depicting the brand name, with more letters for recognition, and just the first one for recall.
  • Half-car front pictures, without any logos, intended to make the brain recognize or recall the specifics of the car body, especially of the shape of the headlights.
  • Ads catchphrases of the brands intended to force the brain establish a more emotional connection to the things recognized or recalled.
  • Remembering which brand name has a certain model of car (e.g. Civic for Honda, or Q — series for Audi etc.), and which concept cars belong to them, according to their futuristic names as well as car body specific look (I obviously excluced any direct hints of logos from the pictures).
  • Symbolic imagery, history, personalities, suggestive objects—based items, as shown in the image above.
Note: All these item types were considered when planning the experimental period, so that the efforts of the study could be linked with the results registered at the end of it.

2. The experimental period — fancy name for what it really supposed. I created a dedicated Facebook page and a Wordpress blog, for the experiment, and forced all the subjects to subscribe to them.

A few rules; a few numbers:

  • The experimental period lasted around 36 days.
  • During this time, there were created 108 Facebook posts (78 print ads, 30 video ads) and 32 Wordpress articles (included both print and video references).
  • The posts and articles were only about the 10 brands discussed above, according to their own specific advertising knowledge strategy, from the 4 explained (above) as well.
  • I didn’t centralized, nor studied, the results to the 20 questionnaires from the first round, so I wasn’t influenced on what to post most often.
  • I distributed the advertising materials in a chaotic-diverse-sensitive way, so the subjects wouldn’t realize any patterns.
  • There weren’t posted more than 2 or 3 (rarely 4) things per day. But something was posted EVERY day.
  • No more than one advertising material per brand was posted in a day.

The subjects didn’t had to:

  • actively follow what I was posting on Facebook or Wordpress. The whole point was for them to organically receive advertising materials in their feed or inbox.
  • click, like, comment, reply or take any action at all. The experiment was intended to replicate a real environment, were subjects came into contact with advertising material in an accidental way, as a consequence of subscribing to a list or liking a post, not as a treatment condition or in forced circumstances.

The two social media interfaces adequately assured the subjects were exposed to advertising materials in a non-invasive way.

3. Second round of questionnaires — the after assessment of the subjects regarding the knowledge acquired in the meantime, about the automotive brands, mostly as a cause of being involved in this study (the cause — effect relationship is considered valid from a statistically point of view; I have a list of arguments in favor of this statement; don’t challenge me to a discussion).

The same questionnaires (without any changes) were given to the subjects for completion. Why?

  • the difference, in results, of the second questionnaire, compared with the results of the first one, would (statistically) declare the most efficient advertising knowledge strategy, when dealing with customers with similar traits to those involved in this study.
  • after 36 days of experimental period, the subjects have already forgotten what they didn’t know in the first place. So, the second results weren’t influenced. The subjects might have remembered or recalled more the second time, but that was the whole purpose of the study, to discover what (cognitively) sticks to them more efficiently, and what not.

What happened?

Charts happened. Based on two-sample t-tests.

brand salience = “the prominence or level of activation of a brand in memory” (Alba and Chattopadhyay, 1986).

The results were alarmingly similar, as evolution, when I clustered the brands into groups according to their salience.

That means:

  • there can be drawn conclusive opinions according to which the automotive brands are more salient because specific strategies are applied to them. BMW, Audi and Mercedes — Benz were highly recognized and recalled in both stages of the survey. Very few changes happen in the structure of the clusters anyway.
  • there are differences between Recognition and Recall, but it seems Recall drives the best results, not assisted cognition. Which kind of means that our brain prefers to do all the work and remember on its own, than be given direct hints. I think it’s partly because some hints might confuse the brain more, because it’s easier to filter memories than to decide which one is the correct one.
  • by the way, I did a neat job in dividing the subjects into two statistically equivalent groups. The groups proved to function in kind of the same way as mental structures.

I’m going to trick you and change the meaning of colors rights now.

Can you see it?

  • Emotional strategies work best.
  • Emotional — explicit strategies seem to have the greatest impact. Lexus sky-rocketed after the experimental period. BMW also had a considerable improvement.
  • Emotional — tacit strategies work pretty well too, but they register a more smooth path in their change.
  • Rational strategies seem to be quite boring. Except for the case of Honda that might not be so black-and-white in terms of how are they communicating through their advertising efforts.

One more thing. Do you recall what car was drawn in the cover picture of this article?

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