Boosting brand memorability: three lessons from behavioural science

In this blog, Alethea from the Incite Health team shares three tactics for making your messages memorable, using the concreteness effect behavioural bias.

Recently I picked up the book ‘The Illusion of Choice’ by the behavioural expert Richard Shotton, a fascinating read about the role of psychological biases in marketing.

The topic that resonated with me most was memorability.

Like other insights professionals and marketers, we strive for brand stories or messages to have impact, but how do we ensure the impact has longevity and cements the brand in customers’ minds?

A short exercise for you

To illustrate this point, take a few minutes to do this exercise: write down as much information as possible about an advert/commercial you’ve seen most recently.

Now let’s reflect:

  • What did you visualise as you were recalling this advert?
  • What type of information did you write down?
  • How would you describe the language that you used?
  • Finally, how easy was this task?

If you found this task difficult you are most certainly not alone. While powerful, memory is fallible as the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus shows us with ‘the Forgetting Curve’. Unless we make attempts to relearn information, we remember less and less of it over time and the biggest drop in retention is at the beginning, as soon as we learn new facts.

If you found details relatively easy to recall, you can be certain about the application of psychological biases in this advert to help combat the Forgetting Curve.

In ‘The Illusion of Choice’, Shotton centres on a bias known as the Concreteness Effect. It has been widely accepted that concrete concepts have a cognitive processing advantage over abstract concepts. Concrete concepts are those that are tangible and specific, such as objects that you can see and touch like a book, trees or a car. On the other hand, abstract concepts are less tangible and vague, such as a skill, a benefit or a claim.

Here, I will share three ways marketers can leverage this bias to boost brand memorability.

1 / Make it easy to imagine

One of the models proposed by academics to explain the processing advantage of concrete concepts is the dual-coding theory. Studies have shown that concrete words access the brain’s right hemisphere activating the imagery-based system, leading to faster and more accurate processing.

In the exercise you completed earlier, did you recall details that you could easily imagine yourself doing or seeing in real life?

As an example, think of the plethora of public announcements that were released to encourage people to abide to the COVID-19 social distancing guidance in 2020. Some notices such as ‘Please keep 2m apart’ were concrete, whereas others like ‘Please practice social distancing’ were abstract. It’s much easier to visualise and recall a distance of ‘2 metres’ than conjure up a vague term like ‘social distancing’.

The closer that messages convey reality, the easier it will be for your customers to visualise in the mind and retain.

2 / Tell a story

You’re more likely to retain information that means something to you. Storytelling is one of the most effective business tactics that take advantage of this. A compelling story is often relatable and makes the audience care by building a human connection that lasts longer than any fact or figure.

In the exercise, was there a strong story in the advert that resonated with you?

One company that has perfected the art of storytelling is the UK department store John Lewis. Together with communications agency, adam&eveDDB, they delivered a game changing Christmas television ad in 2011 titled ‘The Long Wait’. It featured a young boy impatiently counting down the days till Christmas so that he could give his parents their gift. Heart-warming and poignant, it amassed a million views on YouTube within the day of its release and increased sales by 9.3% versus the same period in the prior year.

Since then, John Lewis has continued to produce exceptional and emotionally-geared festive ads, creating anticipation and ‘hype’ among UK viewers ahead of each year’s release. By choosing storytelling over products and tapping into powerful emotions, John Lewis has successfully cemented the brand in customers’ minds and generated millions of pounds in annual festive sales as a result.

However, this year’s ad created by Saatchi & Saatchi, which took over the John Lewis and Waitrose advertising account from adam&eveDDB has divided opinions.

3 / Simplify, don’t complicate

In the exercise, what words or sentences did you write down? Were they long or short? Complex or simple?

We can fall into the trap of believing that complicated or expert language conveys intelligence, when in fact the opposite is true. In our industry, we are all guilty of using business-speak. Words and phrases like “drive business”, “streamline”, “one stop shop”, “proven”, “transformation” are abstract concepts and may be understandable in the office but less so among target customers and certainly unmemorable.

Instead, it is better to clearly explain what is meant in simple, concrete terms. In the US, the average reading level is 8th grade and according to Douglas Mueller, president of the Gunning-Mueller Clear Writing Institute, “People prefer to read and get information at a level below their capacity”.

Therefore, shorter and simpler is key. If you think about it, there are plenty of examples of childhood fairy tales that adults could recount decades later because, in part, of their simplicity: Jack and the Beanstalk, The Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears are three that come to my mind.

Not only is simple language easier to recall, but simple language used to convey complex ideas can lead to more favourable perceptions of the communicator as evidenced in the Princeton psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer’s 2006 study. Being simple can benefit brand and company image.

It is important to remember (excuse the pun!) that these tactics are not mutually exclusive and that they simply scratch the surface of the many ways businesses can leverage behavioural science in their marketing. Moreover, the concreteness effect results in a host of other benefits beyond improving memorability.

Having said that, I’m sure that each of us can provide examples of brand promotions or communications that are more top of mind than others and will generally find elements of good story telling, easy visualisation or comprehension. And, as Shotton argues, “If [your message] is memorable, you’ve got a better chance of success when someone is at the point of decision.”.

Brands and businesses aside, I think we could all challenge ourselves on how to be more concrete.