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Selling Good Memories

For millions of years, every organism on earth has tried every single day to master one non-negotiable skill: survival. Anything that threatens the survival of the organism must be dealt with in the swiftest manner. Consequently, they (including humans) have evolved a number of crucial skills that will allow them to stay alive longer. Take humans for example. We have developed eyes that can detect contrast between moving and stationary objects or distinguish between things that are close to us or in the background. Something with a shadow MUST be on the foreground and the thing on which the shadow lies, the background. We have developed reflexes that when we see something that, even though it looks like a snake and is in actual fact a snake, will make you run in the opposite direction. It is common knowledge that organism today is so advanced that it can still learn to stay alive after being mauled by lions or injected with potentially fatal poison by a snake.

In order to accomplish this crucial survival feat of staying alive, the brain must be able to make quick decisions – or judgements, as they are called. For this reason, the brain has developed its own set of mental shortcuts or heuristics to arrive at the decision. To do this, much of the processing happens in the unconscious part of the brain.  However, as you move from, say, a context of survival to a less threatening context of an annual meeting of investment bankers, the first priority of the brain is still the same: survival, because the brain does not discriminate based on context. Having to make a decision upon on which millions and millions of  dollars rest, you would not see a reason why you would not in the end make a decision that is optimal for all parties concerned. But you would be wrong.


Availability of information

Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman has been instrumental in identifying errors in human judgement and decision-making. Kahneman outlines in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow many of these mental shortcuts and the way he and Amos went about identifying these biases. One such thought experiment caused them to utter that “when you can think of it, it must be important”. They called it the Availability bias. The ‘fresher’ a thought is in memory, the more ‘available’ it is and therefore more important in making a judgement about a decision. Asking a customer about an experience they had with a product is likely to be negative if an unsatisfactory experience is still fresh in memory. This is beside the possibility that on all previous occasions the product experience was more than satisfactory. It is as if memories are stored in a lineup to be recalled, each memory taking its place in front of the most recent memory. The most recent memory are instrumental in how subsequent experiences will be shaped. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that when you can easily recall that a herd of buffalo nearly ran you over, that you need to incorporate this (f)act into your repertoire of dangers you need to defend yourself against, it is likely to be important to survival.


But is a more recent experience in memory really more important and beneficial for survival than, say, one that happened two weeks ago? The theory by Kahnemann and Tversky I believe to be a good theory. The experiments they have conducted and how I, for one, see this bias in other people’s live seem to be true. But I have a problem with this bias as a survival ‘tool’. Why do people not see that they do not necessarily have to be able to think about something to provide a good probability for it to happen? I suspect that it’s got something to do with the attention bias. If you can’t think about something, then it is so unlikely to happen that you disregard it as something that is not possible to happen at all.


Further Research

I am of the opinion that future research into ‘short-term’ memory correlation with behavior will help marketers better understand memory’s importance in decision-making.

This is consistent with what has recently been discovered about memory: imagining the future invokes our memory. The scope of the research is beyond this article. What is important, however, is that this psychological phenomenon should be quite easy to test through fMRI studies. As volunteers are asked to image a ‘picture’ of their future, the hippocampus, where memory resides, should light up like a firework in the night sky.

What are the implications of this research? I firmly believe that marketers should focus on selling to ‘short-term’ memory. Say for instance that you know people want to live a happy lifestyle, then providing customers with evidence that it indeed does work, will make them consult their short-term memory before making the decision. One way this can be achieved is through what is known in brand management as a Category of One Brand. Getting a brand to represent a whole category, for example, beverages, would imply that that brand is so ‘available’ in a consumer’s memory that the whole concept of beverages (in this example) is linked to one single brand.

  1. bookmarked!!, I love your blog!

  2. Yes! Finally something about strong memory.

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Werner van Zyl
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