Memories of Christmas Past

‘It’s the most wonderful time of the year’.

Even here in Hong Kong where I’m now living, there’s a very special, tangible feeling at Xmas time unlike no other.

This year, I’ve been observing from afar Xmas advertising from brands in the US and UK.  I have to say, generally I think it’s getting better and better each year, and for me, the outstanding highlights have been Lego, Tesco and John Lewis.


Nothing controversial about those choices, I think most people would agree they’re outstanding pieces of work.  But I’ve been thinking about what makes them great and I think they all have one thing in common.

That’s that they all understand that Xmas is really about memories of Xmas’ past, and these ads all brilliantly tap into the existing memory structures, associations and stories we already have about Xmas.

We make sense of the world around us only through our memories and stories from our past.  It’s how we know who we are when we wake up in the morning and how we know what brand to choose from in what would otherwise be an utterly confusing supermarket (actually my first few experiences of Hong Kong supermarkets were a bit like this, like having brand amnesia from not knowing anything about the products on shelf!).

As Daniel Kahneman has written, we have two selves.  The remembering, storytelling self and the experiencing self.  The remembering self maintains the story of our lives, while the experiencing self who lives, feels and knows the present.

But what he also suggests is that the remembering self is the one that holds sway over us. The remembering, storytelling self actually makes future decisions for us, not the experiencing self.  We even think of our future as anticipated memories.

So what these ads have in common, whether it’s a father building dreams together with his son made of Lego bricks, or reminiscing of Xmas’ past with the family through the generations or a throwback to animated Disney classics, they  all appeal to the memories and stories that define who we are and what we understand Xmas to be all about.  We all have stories similar to these, and when we see them played out in front of us, we’re reinforcing those happy memories and encoding new ones with these brands forming new associations with them.

So when it comes to decision making about where to shop or what to buy, when our remembering self cranks up into decision-making mode, it will call upon the strongest; most salient memories forged in out brains and the brands most intrinsically, creatively and emotionally associated with them.

Just as a footnote, Xmas brilliantly demonstrates Kahneman’s theory of the two selves. There’s something very special about Xmas, in that our memories of experience are often much fonder than the experiences themselves! It’s these memories we wish to treasure and the things we do at this time of year are often to form new anticipated memories.  That for me is what makes the new Apple spot so great.  Xmas is all about these memories, and they just really get it.

Irrational Persuasion

Much of marketing is about communicating a brand’s superiority relative to other brands. It makes sense – the reason for building a brand is to make it price inelastic, for people to have the belief that it offers something worth paying more for.  Superiority is a common objective found in briefs and it’s often a metric chased after in tracking reports.

We want people to believe our brand is better than others.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that.  A strong value perception is what makes a brand, well, valuable.

But there’s still a widely held belief in marketing that superiority is a function of rational persuasion.  A simple assumption that if you can convince people with logic why brand x is better than brand y, they won’t dispute the logic and purchase it next time round.

For decades now we’ve known this isn’t the way the human brain decodes (advertising) information.

We know we don’t rationally evaluate every single choice we make.

We know the brain’s System 1 processes and contexts are the driving force behind decision-making

We know most communication is implicit appealing to the emotional, sub-conscious brain

We know that distinctiveness is more effective than product differentiation

And we know that at the end of the day, brands get bought because of mental and physical availability – fame and ease of purchase are what count.

And yet, the industry still tries to convince itself that people sit at home logically evaluating advertising messages.  Inexplicably, so much of marketing is still geared towards providing rational reasons as to why one brand outperforms another with the kind of cognitively processed messaging that our brains try to filter out as much as possible to conserve energy.

There’s no denying great brands start with a great product.  And by all means communicate the product’s core functionality in order to increase saliency- to make the brand mentally available when it’s most needed to be recalled.

Superiority derives from the feeling people have about the brand, the meaning, relevance and ideas they attach to the brand beyond the product’s physical attributes.

Those emotions and memory associations are buried deep inside the brain, they’re not stored in the effortful, slow and calculating working memory part that rational and persuasion based advertising appeals to. And given an opportunity to conserve it’s energy from cognitively processing things it couldn’t care less about, our brains ignore this kind of rationally persuasive stimulus.  

The intangibles, the memory associations and emotions one has towards a brand are the what makes a brand mentally available when it needs to be recalled from deep within our sub-conscious brain.

Effectiveness studies continually show that we best achieve price inelasticity through creating intangible feelings, emotions, meanings, ideas and associations attached to the brand held in people’s minds. Attempting to rationally persuade people of the product’s physical features relative to other brands will at best be quickly forgotten in the over-worked cognitive part of our system 1 brain, or at worst completely ignored.

Thinking in Context, Part 2

Where were we?

Just to recap, in the previous post I was reflecting that context should be given the same attention in our industry as content is undoubtedly receiving (and an excellent recent post by Karen Nelson-Field asks some necessary challenging questions about the effectiveness of social video here).

The power of context to change behaviour is immense.  Brands should be finding ways in which to harness it more effectively.

However, we’re now less able to control message delivery in the way we once were through, for the want of a better term, old school media planning.  We now have less control over the ‘who’, ‘when’ and ‘where’ that ensured a message was delivered in a tightly controlled medium.

But new technologies and platforms are allowing us to think less about channels and become more aware of the context of communication; to leverage the contextual opportunities presented for system 1, impulsive behaviour.

Google Now is an intelligent little app that sends contextually relevant information to your mobile dependent on time and location.  For example, the app’s alarm doesn’t just remind you to attend your lunch date.  The time it chimes depends on how far away you are from the restaurant and how much traffic there is on the way, offering alternative directions if necessary.  As Google describe it, ‘The right information at just the right time’.  This perhaps could be great for retailers with time sensitive promotions for example.


But what if we could go further and start to link data sets?  For instance, somebody searching Google for dining tables on their home desktop then gets in their car 10 minutes later.  A Google Now enabled device would recognise this from their geo-location data and serve an offer from Ikea straight to your mobile, with directions of their nearest store and how to get there.

A new context aware mobile platform called Gimbal does link people’s online and mobile behaviours with physical location awareness using geo-fencing technology (there’s a great video about it here).  So we can actually now deliver context aware, personalised, relevant content at precisely the right time.

Let me try and explain further…

My phone might recognise me as a Cappuccino loving Hong Kong resident working in the marketing industry with an interest in 1980’s comedy sci-fi films just from my online behaviour (Searches, cookie data and social activity leave some pretty large digital footprints!).  On my way home from work, my phone’s geo-fencing technology would identify when I’m within 2 minutes of a new Starbucks I’ve not been to before (it knows my regular haunt is Java Java) and sends me a notification of a new coffee blend on the menu and an offer to redeem.  Great, I think.  I’ll try that.  When I get home, the cup has a QR code of a free rental of Back to the Future which by taking a photo of enables me to download the film for free through their promotional tie-in with Netflix.  I download the film with my Facebook log-in, in the process telling my friends in a 5km radius of the new Starbucks about the store and the free film download, driving more footfall.

The opportunity to combine this contextually aware technology with the predictive power of Google Now, the purchase behaviour data of the likes of Amazon or a Taobao and the social behaviour data of Facebook or Weibo, could obviously open up countless new revenue streams for brands.

All of this essentially means new technologies, particularly mobile, are making it easier for brands to identify contexts and leverage their power through physical and mental availability.

The right information at just the right time.

Thinking in Context, Part 1

We hear a lot in our industry about branded content.  It can sometimes be effective. People do sometimes want to watch a brilliantly crafted piece of film from a brand, or a water-cooler moment (I’m thinking Red Bull Stratos here) or other forms of great branded content that makes brands famous.  But content of any sort is only consumed or interacted with if it’s either entertaining, useful or relevant, not because of the popular myth in our industry that ‘people are demanding more from brands’.  It’s simply not true. Marketing is still largely the uninvited guest to the party and as such has to work bloody hard to even get noticed, let alone be demanded to return.

As the industry continues to loudly bang the content drum, one thing we’d do well to remember is the critical importance of context in communication.  And for good reason.

Context drives so much of our decision making, our choice of brands.  It’s in context that communication derives meaning.  Contexts change behaviour.

But context isn’t just a matter of channel selection.  In the traditional communications model, brands could simply plan and control which channels messaging (content) would be received in, almost guaranteeing the ‘who, when and where’ of communication .  But in an increasingly fluid media landscape where brands tell their story across multiple touch-points, the channel is less relevant than the context it’s received in.

And in purchasing scenarios, it’s often our unconscious mind (driven by emotional responses we’re rarely aware of) that makes decisions for us, such as deciding between brands.

Nowhere will you find this more eloquently explained than in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.  In it, he makes the distinction between the two systems of human thought.


‘System 1’ is the kind of intuitive, effort-free thinking we do without realising we’re doing it and drives most decision making in our day to day lives.  For example, just reaching out for the bottle of Evian on the shelf rather than cognitively evaluating each and every bottled water brand on offer.

‘System 2’ is the conscious, effortful decision making that’s laborious and slow.  We’re fully aware we’re doing this kind of thinking, such as solving a complex maths problem.

We’re rarely engaged in System 2 thinking as it expensively drains the brain’s energy mentally and physically – ‘one if its main characteristics is its laziness, a reluctance to invest more effort than is strictly necessary’.

Impulse purchases or purchases made on ‘autopilot’ are characterised by this.  These types of purchases aren’t made with prior intention or through system 2 processing. They’re made on impulse based on emotions stored about the brand and because of the context of the environment – a gentle nudge at the till, the weather outside or what other people next you at the table have ordered.

People’s behaviours are often modified by what’s close to them, what’s available – stimuli in the immediate context.  In How Brands Grow, Byron Sharp explains how brands that are easier to buy through mental and physical availability tend to be bought more often by more people.  Although this sounds simplistic, his theory of ‘availability’ suggests that just being thought about at all in a buying situation increases the chance of purchase.

So it’s imperative for brands to identify, understand and leverage the contextual opportunities for system 1; impulsive thinking.

The role of content in all of this is obviously to generate the sort of emotions and salience to make the brand thought about in these buying situations.  It’s importance shouldn’t be undermined.  My argument is more that context is being more overlooked than perhaps it should.
In Part 2, I’ll look more at how brands can apply technology to go about identifying, understanding and leveraging contextual opportunities for System 1; impulsive thinking.

Curios Court

I went for a walk around my neighbourhood today. Just a mundane, time-killing Sunday stroll in-between today’s thunderstorms.

But I noticed things today I hadn’t seen before. I mean, I probably have previously seen the sculpture above the gallery; the juxtaposition of the decrepit 1960’s tenement buildings against the futuristic sky-rises; or the old, faded Curios Court sign above the new Gourmet Burger Union shop. I’d just never actually taken any notice of them until now.


DSCF8466 DSCF8464

But why would anyone if you weren’t actively seeking to find anything out of the ordinary?

Only by being exploring and being curious about the things I’d normally wouldn’t pay any attention to did I notice anything interesting or thought-provoking.

This seems true of planning also. As planners, it’s our job to find something different about the brand, or to look at it from a different perspective to everyone else, to try to make the brand more apparent, tangible and palpable. In other words, to rescue it from a fate worse than being unpopular: being unnoticed.

Most brands happily fade into the background. But disguised by the camouflage of everyday life, we can’t expect people to go out of their way to take any notice. There are frankly more important things to be getting on with.

So only by exploring; being curious; looking for alternative view-points; noticing the extraordinary in the ordinary, can planners and creatives ever possibly hope for people to take any notice of brands that would normally pass them by.

Joan Miro and the art of ‘brand engagement’

I recently attended Art Basel here in Hong Kong.  It was a fantastic show, featuring the very best museum art pieces from past masters to emerging new talent, from right across the globe.  I wish I could have spent an entire day there but I had to make do with just a post-work evening visit.

During my visit, I spent a disproportionate amount of time admiring the work of Miro. I’ve always been a fan of his surrealist paintings but not since I visited the Fundacio Joan Miro in Barcelona some 10 years ago have I seen so many pieces of his brilliantly distinctively Catalonian influenced artwork together in one place.


I love how Miro’s work, and I guess surrealism in general, makes me feel.  It doesn’t appear to have a rational, logical message.  Interpretation is dependent on the receiver.  Looking at some of his work, I feel slightly awkward.  There are splashes of colour, jagged lines, irregular curves, distorted perspectives; it’s as if he’s paradoxically skilfully creating random creative accidents on his canvas.  I also feel a certain warmth though too.  I often don’t know why I like it, I just know I do.

But isn’t that a lot about what creativity is?  Giving life to new creative accidents?  To make people feel something?  With Miro, I don’t know what the logic of his work is a lot of the time, but it captured my imagination to the extent it  made me feel different things.

And so it should be with brands.  We are in the business of making people feel something through creativity.  Yet so often, we lose sight of this clear and simple objective.  Firstly, we obsess over the rational message we think ‘consumers’ (I hate that word, what exactly makes a consumer different to an everyday person?) will remember.  Quite possibly the most seminal paper to ever be written about how advertising actually works makes this case far more powerfully than I’ll attempt to.  Fifty Years of the Wrong Model of TV Advertising by Heath & Feldwick argues that the benefit-led ‘information processing’ model of advertising where we expect people to recite back key messages we hit them over the head with goes against what we understand about human psychology.  Just like with Miro, the ‘message’ is of little importance.  Far more for critical for advertising to be effective is the relationship we create and associations we can forge at a low attention level, powered by feeling rather than thinking.  We all too often forget that the thing people remember is not what you said but how you made them feel.


“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
― Maya Angelou

Secondly, we all too often believe that engagement is a thing you can build through active participation rather than earn through being genuinely interesting and creative.  I was, for want of a better word, engaged by the work of Miro.  Not because it offered me the chance to interact with it, or because I could share it by clicking somewhere, or because there was some more content for me to find elsewhere.  But because it was brilliant, creative, inspiring work.  The lesson for brands is blindingly obvious so I’ll resist the temptation to labour the point.

However, this week I was not entirely surprised by another digital company getting in a muddle about the effectiveness of another type of engagement, the one that demands people’s time to create some sort of active participation. My only surprise is that it came from Google, who generally know better about these things.

The title alone, ‘The Engagement Project: Connecting with Your Consumer in the Participation Age’ is enough to drive me to write a separate sceptical blog post about it. Anyway, it states that engagement is critical.  With mountains of empirical data, Ehrenberg Bass and Byron Sharp in How Brands Grow would beg to differ.  At the risk of contradicting myself, I’m not saying engagement is not important, but maybe we need to take a step back and redefine what we mean by engagement.  Ehrenberg Bass and Sharp would argue that people don’t have deep, meaningful relationships with brands.  They just need to be salient to be bought.  Which is where creativity plays a huge part.  They need to remembered, and they’re more readily recalled if we create favourable memory paths in the brain which as we know happens more easily if we feel something at an emotional level.  Therefore engagement is important if we’re talking about it in the context of forging associations in the mind to develop a relationship with your brand.  The Google context is the time consuming, deep involvement kind of engagement.

In the Google article, it states ‘brands that will win’ will prioritise engagement over exposure.  This is wrong.  Reach conquers engagement, every time.  Think about it, compare reaching 100 people of which 20% purchase, versus ‘engaging’ 20 people where 50% purchase.  This theory (which they support with zero evidence) of engagement > exposure is again taken apart by Sharp with empirical data in How Brands Grow.

They also say ‘consumers’ want to be invited into the discussion.  Do they (sorry, I mean we) really? When the discussion is about brands, we have to accept that there are very few brands people want to talk about them in their everyday lives.  There are more important and interesting things out there.

Finally, the most concerning recommendation Google make is to turn the reach-driven funnel upside down and prioritise communicating with the 5% of your biggest advocates.  Evidence actually shows that ‘brand loyalty’ is largely a myth.  72% of Coke buyers also buy Pepsi. People are ‘brand promiscuous’.  Brand growth is driven by penetration, by recruiting ever more new brand users in habitual purchase. The truth is, most sales growth comes from light and infrequent purchasers buying into your brand very occasionally or never again.

So what this all comes back to is that original, simple objective of brand communication.  To make people feel something positive towards your brand.  That’s true engagement.  It’s not just about the message or the benefit you want people to play back to you in tracking, it’s not even about the conversations and interactions you have online with the 5% of your hardcore fans.

True engagement is about making people who wouldn’t normally think about you remember you as close to purchase as possible.  By making the memory paths as accessible as possible.  And that’s the hardest part.  Like the work of Miro, it requires creativity, distinctiveness, often courage too, and most of all it means making people remember how you made them feel.