Emotion and the Formation of Brand Memories

First published August 21, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In my last column, I looked at how beliefs can affix labels to brands, which forever after form our first brand impression. Beliefs are a heuristic shortcut we use to reduce the amount of sheer thinking we have to do to come to quick and efficient decisions. Today, I’d like to focus on emotions and their part in the forming of memories.

Why “Selfish Genes” Remember

First, from an evolutionary perspective, it might be helpful to cover off why humans are able to form memories in the first place. To borrow Richard Dawkins’ wording, memories are here to ensure that our “selfish genes” are passed on to future generations. While memories are incredibly complex and wonderful things, their reason for being is mindlessly simple. Memories are here to ensure that we survive long enough to procreate. This is why emotion plays such a huge role in how memories are formed and retrieved.

Researchers have long known that emotions “tag” memories, making their retrieval easier and the resulting effect more powerful. In fact, very strong emotions, such as fear or anger, get stored not just in our cortical areas but also get an “emergency” version stored in the limbic system to allow us to respond quickly and viscerally to threatening situations. When this goes wrong, it can lead to phobic behavior. Emotions add power and urgency to memories, moving them up the priority queue and causing us to act on them both subconsciously and consciously. The very meaning of the word emotion comes from the latin “emovere” — to move.

Driven by Emotions

Emotional tagging works equally well for positive memories. Our positive emotions are generally affixed to three of the four human drives identified by Nohria and Lawrence: the drive to bond, the drive to acquire and the drive to learn. For the selfish gene, each of these drives has its evolutionary purpose. We have the strongest positive emotions around the things that further these drives the most. We reserve our strongest “bonding” emotions for those that play the biggest part in ensuring our genetic survival: partners, parents, children and siblings. In some cases we share a significant portion of our genetic material; at other times, the complex sexual wiring we come with kicks into gear.

If we look at the drives to acquire or to learn, millions of pages have been written trying to decode human behavior in pursuit of these goals. For the purpose of this column, it will have to suffice to say that markets have long known about the power of these drives in shaping human behavior and have tried every way possible to tap into their ability to move us to action, usually through consumption of a product.

In summary, we reserve our strongest emotions for those things that are most aligned with the mindless purpose of the selfish gene, passing along our DNA. These emotions tag relevant memories, giving them the power to move us to immediate action. Perceived threats trigger negative memories and avoidance or confrontation, while positive memories drive us to pursue pleasurable ends.

Brand + Emotion = Power

This emotional tagging of memories can have a huge impact on our brand relationships, in both positive and negative ways. While I’ve painted a very simplistic picture of the primary objective of emotions and memories (and the heart of it is simple), the culture we have created is anything but. Memories and emotions play out in complex and surprising ways, especially when we interact with brands.

Brand advertisers have become quite adept at pushing our evolutionary hot buttons, trying to tag the right emotions to their respective memories. Their goal is to affix a particularly strong emotion (either negative, referred to in marketing parlance as prevention, or positive, which we’ve labeled promotion) to their particular brand construct so that when the memories that make up that construct are retrieved (along with the attached beliefs and brand label) they are powered with the turbo-charge that comes with emotion. If the marketer is successful in doing this, they have unleashed a powerful force.

When emotions play a role, our motivation comes not just from rational decisions, but a much more primal and powerful force that sits at the core of our subconscious brain. The most successful brands have managed to forge these emotional connections. And when the emotions remain consistent for a particular brand, there are coalesced into a strong brand belief that is almost unshakable once formed. This is why your father buys nothing but Fords, Mac fans wouldn’t be caught dead with a plain grey laptop ,or coffee connoisseurs swear that Starbucks is worth the price.

Next week, I’ll give you one particularly interesting example of how one brand belief and its corresponding emotions developed, in a fascinating study from the emerging world of neuromarketing.

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