So what do we do about it?

The following appeared in the 21 May issue of New Scientist:

Advertisers beware: whenever you showcase your brand, you also activate your competitors’ brands in the minds of your target audience.

Sue Sherman from Keele University, UK, showed 96 people a list of familiar banks. When the volunteers were then asked whether a familiar but non-listed bank, NatWest, was on the list, 71 per cent said yes.  To make sure that people were not simply guessing which brands were on the list, volunteers also had to decide whether their memory of each item was vivid or whether they thought it was likely that it was there but could not recall any details. Across all brands tested, 31 per cent of people who experienced a false memory described it as vivid.

Sherman says one explanation for this false memory effect is that when we see or hear a list of associated words it awakens other semantically related concepts in our minds. When we are tested on what was actually presented it is hard for us to distinguish between concepts that have been activated externally by seeing or hearing them or internally by association.  The strength of the false memories varied depending on the type of brand, with banks and beers more likely to be falsely recalled than charities, probably because they belong to a smaller group of associations.  Sherman also found that false memories for non-listed brands increased over time, with people more likely to say the brand was on the list if a longer time had passed between test and recall.

Johan Karremans of the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands suggests that immediately after the task people would use their short-term memory to help them recall the listed brands. After a delay, short-term memory would be accessed less easily, so people would increasingly have to rely on existing associations between the brands.  Jane Raymond of Bangor University, UK, says advertisers are well aware of this problem. “To get around it, they try to make their ads tightly linked to something that makes their brand distinctive and not widely associated with others in that category,” she says.

Sherman says her research shows that this is often not being done effectively by advertisers.  The work was presented last month at the British Psychological Society conference in Glasgow, UK.

So what do we, as agencies, do about it?  How about capitalizing on it?  Seriously, why not?  Let’s use potato chips as an example.  If my competitor (say Frito Lay) can get someone to crave chips – to the point that the person makes a specific trip down the chip aisle – then they’ve done 80% of the work.  I’ll just focus my efforts on catching attention at the point of decision.  Now the real question – how do I do that?

Maybe it’s price?  If I am significantly less than the consumer, then perhaps that will be the decision point.  Maybe it’s better packaging or a better callout in the aisle itself (floor graphic?  dangler?).

The point is that we don’t know and that’s the point . . . we don’t know.  Since we don’t know, we have to try and address everything.  Without knowing where a consumer is during the buying cycle, we need to be aggressive (or competitive on price – or address the cache of being higher-priced); we need to have packaging that stands out based on recall and preference – we need to have callouts that drive recall or renew loyalty.  We need all of these things.

Or do we?  Maybe the problem is that the ads weren’t good enough in the first place and that’s why people couldn’t recall.

Bottom-line . . . I think this is why we say that every campaign is unique and the answer is never that simple.  We have to be able to answer a bunch of questions (and know which new questions to ask) in order to come up with cost-efficient effective campaigns.  That’s why for us, the process is task.  It is knowing how to analyze and draw conclusions from research and past experience to help our clients determine the approach that works best for them that makes the difference.

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