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What We Know About Memory and its Implications for Modern Advertising

Challenging the notions of brand awareness and differentiation.

The human mind isn’t something new to the team here; we’ve already dipped our toes into topics like human decision making and the rationality of emotion. Today, we take the deep dive into memory.

The neat thing about studying memory is that few things are more meta; we use our brains to study our brains, then try to remember how we remember… I know, insane in the membrane! If you can wrap your head around that, then the rest of this will be a breeze.

Before we shatter some cornerstone presumptions of modern advertising practice, let’s briefly review what cognitive psychology and neuroscience have uncovered about memory types, storage, and retrieval.


It’s generally acknowledged that memory can be broken into three main categories: short term, working, and long term.

Short term memory refers to information we retain for immediate use and discard. It’s very limited in capacity, typically holding around seven items for just a few seconds (e.g. a phone number we don’t expect to dial again).

Working memory is much like short term memory in capacity. Though their distinction is often blurred, for our purposes we can differentiate working memory as brief manipulation, as opposed to just retention, of information (e.g. calculating tax and tip when eating out).

Long term memory, as the name implies, is information we accumulate over our lifetime and continually access, both consciously and subconsciously.

The types of memory and their hierarchy.

As you can see, long term memory is a dichotomy of explicit/declarative memory and implicit/procedural memory. Typically, these will be compared as explicit vs. implicit or declarative vs. procedural; interchangeable terms we’ve chosen to group for ease. Explicit/declarative memory refers to information we can consciously access, such as facts and meanings (semantic) or events and personal accounts (episodic). Conversely, implicit/procedural memory covers skills and associations that we subconsciously access, such as riding a bicycle and considering it fun (Heath 2012).

Remembering what a bike is (semantic), the time you learned to bike (episodic), and how to bike (procedural).

Long term memory comprises the meat of all our memory and is the most pertinent of the three types to advertising, particularly in its storage and retrieval.


At its core, memory is essentially our means of storing and retrieving information. This process is best represented by the deceivingly simple encoding-storage-retrieval model.

In this model, encoding is the point of learning new information, storage is the process of committing it to memory over time, and retrieval is the act of resurfacing said information for future use. The dotted line from retrieval to encoding represents the idea that continual retrieval reinforces encoding and storage. We can liken this to your experience on Medium right now— you read a new article, commit it to memory as a piece on psychology, and later retrieve it over water cooler conversation. The more times it’s retrieved when prompted by the topic of psychology, the more strongly associated and memorized it’ll become (Foster 2009).

This is an oversimplification, though. While “psychology” is a valid term to help you code, remember, and retrieve this article, so are various other elements: topics I’ve mentioned like memory, advertising, and bike-riding; television shows Fresh Off the Boat and The Simpsons from which I pulled the GIFs thus far; even the digital platform Medium on which this is hosted. All of these are perfectly viable elements through which to commit this article to memory, which suggests that there exists an extra dimension to the encoding-storage-retrieval model. Enter our penultimate piece of science and the most widely recognized model in cognitive psychology, neuroscience and marketing: the Associative Network Theory.


If you take the earlier encoding-storage-retrieval model and consider that not just one, but multiple elements, or cues, can help you encode and retrieve memory, then you might picture the new model like so:

This is the Associative Network Theory (ANT). All it states is that new memories don’t form in a vacuum, but rather in association with existing memories, thus resulting in an ever-growing, complicating network.

So now that you’ve got the basics of memory down, let’s apply them to some of the oldest and strongest presumptions of advertising practice to date and see how they hold up (spoiler alert: they don’t).


Two of the most common asks mentioned in client and creative briefs are to drive brand awareness and create brand differentiation. The appeal of these is clear: the more consumers that recognize the brand, the better, and the more unique the brand, the more recognizable it’ll be. Given that the goal of advertising is to drive business effects for the brand, these asks presume two things:

  1. A brand that is widely known will be remembered more often at purchase.
  2. A brand that is different will be remembered more often at purchase.

In light of what we’ve just learned about memory and how retrieval depends on the cues associated with encoded information, we can see how these presumptions may not hold water. Let’s take a closer look at each.

The practice of driving brand awareness is cemented in increasing brand recognition and brand recall respective to the category. In other words, improving retrieval of the brand’s name from memory with the category as the cue. An example of this would be an unaided recall question asking survey respondents what soda brands came to mind first. The problem with this ‘top of mind’ awareness goal, much like our encoding-storage-retrieval memory model, is that it’s insufficiently one-dimensional. Awareness relative to just one category cue neglects the fact that memories require a multitude of cues to establish themselves strongly within our neural network.

Consider the variety of cues that can prompt Homer to remember donuts.

Now consider brand differentiation as a practice and how that lines up with the ANT model of memory. The former presumes that moving away from your competitors into a white space of opportunity is advantageous, while the latter guarantees that category competitors will naturally and unavoidably share many cues, and that these are the most likely to prompt retrieval. In this case, pursuing differentiation actually moves a brand away from the natural cues its competitors are capitalizing on.

So, where does this leave us? Fret not, for science has a solution.

Aaron Paul gets it.


Our current understanding of memory and the ANT model leave us with quite a lot of opportunity to work with. In fact, a good deal of marketers have already taken advantage of these findings.

Take for instance the concept of brand salience proposed by Jenni Romaniuk and Byron Sharp of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute. The concept adds an extra dimension to brand awareness, and evolves the focus to a brand’s propensity to be retrieved in multiple buying situations, prompted by various types and modes of cues (Romaniuk and Sharp 2004). For example, let’s compare the McDonald’s brand before and after the addition of the McCafe line of coffee. Global awareness of the brand was arguably top-of-market during these times, but the addition of proper coffee to the fast food chain’s arsenal expanded their range of retrieval cues beyond just burgers and fries. Sales results were superb not because of increased brand awareness, but rather a growth in the number of buying situations McDonald’s was now considered in (Sharp 2010).

Similarly, brand differentiation is being up-heaved by brand distinction, which emphasizes the use of a brand’s unique assets to strengthen its portfolio of cues and thus bolster existing avenues of brand retrieval. Consider the famous words “15 minutes could save you 15% or more on your car insurance.” You may not remember the humorous antics in the latest Geico ad you saw, but you certainly won’t forget that age-old line anytime soon. The consistent use of distinct brand assets like slogans, sounds, and logos help cement a brand in memory more reliably than departing in a different direction.

Of course, memory is just one facet of the human mind that plays a role in advertising. So too, do the studies emotion, habit, judgement, and decision-making. While the jury is still out on many matters of the mind, enough definitive research has answered the dinner bell and come home for the advertising industry to progress far past where we currently are. We just have to open our eyes to it.

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Foster, J.K.(2009) Memory: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Print.

Heath, R. (2012). Seducing the Subconscious: The Psychology of Emotional Influence in Advertising. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

Romaniuk, J. & Sharp, B. (2004). Conceptualizing and Measuring Brand Salience. Marketing Theory, 4(4), 327–342.

Sharp, B. (2010). How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know. South Melbourne, Victoria: Oxford University Press.



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