Brand Labeling: Building Our Beliefs

First published August 14, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Up to now in this series on search and branding, I’ve been looking exclusively at how and why we use search engines. But the idea of the series is to show how branding and search can work together. So in this column, I’d like to start from the opposite end of the spectrum: our brand relationships, from a memory retrieval perspective.

Storing Complex Concepts

In the computational theory of mind, the prevailing theory that seems to best explain how our minds work (although it’s not without its detractors), the elegance with which the brain processes complex patterns of information is remarkable. These are called constructs, and brands are no exception.

For any complex concept, the components of the concept are individual and scattered memory patterns, called engrams. Engrams are groups of activated neurons that fire together. But the more complex the concept, the greater the network of engrams. For a person we know well, like our mother, we could have a huge number of scattered components that make up our concept. Snatches of memories, what her voice sounds like, what she looks like, what her banana loaf tastes like. All these, and many more, individual memory components make up our concept of “mother.” And these fragments are stored in various parts of the brain. When we remember what our mother looks like, it’s an engram in our visual cortex that fires, the same part of the brain that fires when we’re actually looking at her. We’re actually picturing her in our mind. When we hear her voice, it comes from our auditory warehouse.

Our Neuronal Warehouse

The concept of a vast neuronal warehouse is actually a good analogy. When we call up our concept of “mother,” it’s assembled on the fly from the individual sections of the warehouse. The retrieval call goes out, depending on the need, to the various parts of the brain, and the required components are brought together in our working memory and assembled in the conscious part of our brain. Each memory is custom made from available parts. If we were looking at a model of the brain, we’d see maps of neurons “lighting up” across the cortex, almost like a lightning storm seen from above the clouds.

But with a construct as complex and extensive in scope as our mother, there needs to be a shorthand version. We can’t retrieve every single piece of “mother” every time we think of her.  So, the parts retrieved are restricted to the context we do the retrieval in. If we’re buying a dress for our mom, we retrieve components that include her body shape, her color preference and probably memories of other things she’s worn in the past. We don’t retrieve her banana loaf recipe because it’s not relevant.

Executive Summaries of Memories

But there’s also a labeling process that goes on. For complex constructs, like our mother or a familiar brand, we need a quick and accessible “label” that sums up our feelings about the entire construct. This is the top of mind impression of the construct, the first thing that comes to mind. It helps us keep the world straight by providing a shorthand reference for the many, many constructs stored in our memory warehouse. These labels have to be simple. In the case of people, the summing up usually determines whether we like or dislike the person. It’s a heuristic shortcut that is built up from the sum of our experience and exposure which determines whether we’re willing to invest more time in the person. The same is often true of brands.

The power of these labels for brands is absolutely essential, because they determine our attitudes to everything that makes up the construct. The brand label, or belief, is a gut feeling that impacts every feeling or attitude towards the brand.

Top-of-Mind Brand Beliefs

Often when I’m speaking, I’ll do a little exercise where I’ll show well-known brand labels and ask people to write down the first thing that comes to mind when they see it. What I’m capturing is the brand label, the top-of-mind belief about the brand. Apple generally brings out labels like “cool,” “cutting edge” or “design.” Starbucks is labeled “indulgence,” “great smell,” “delicious” or, less positively, “overpriced.” The entire scope of our experience with the brand is labeled with a few words. Obviously, our entire concept of Starbucks is usually much greater than just the way it smells or tastes, but for the people that have assigned it this label, that’s the best overall descriptor and the easiest access point. The rest of the details that make up our concept of Starbucks can be unpacked at will, but for these people, they’re all packed in a box that is labeled with “great smell” or “delicious.” If the label is “overpriced,” this may be a box we seldom unpack.

Next week, we’ll continue to look at how we store our concepts of brands, what can make up our brand constructs and the role emotion plays.

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