On memory

Memory is a strange thing. It reshapes our feelings towards past events by altering what we remember about them. An event we felt particularly angry about 8 years ago we might only feel mildly irritated by now.

Lately I’ve come across quite a few things that have touched on memory in some way or the other. They’ve all formed a long thread in my mind that I’d like to unravel a bit.

Joshua Foer’s ‘Moonwalking with Einstein’ that I just finished reading is a fascinating account of a journalist’s journey to the World Memory Championships. One of the most fascinating tricks of ‘memory athletes’, as they are called, is to create ‘memory palaces’ – venues they are familiar with that help them remember facts or numbers better by situating them in those structures. Well, actually they think of people doing something IN those structures (the PAO or people-action-object theory). To illustrate, I could remember what a chaebol is by thinking of Park Ji-Sung sitting on a building. However, I digress.

Emotions are a big part of Foer’s book. His memory coach mentions that the stronger the feelings you’re able to associate with your memory palace, the easier it is to recall something when you want it.

Martin Weigel recently wrote about ‘brand onions’ and how most brands fail to be memorable in situations they need to be; i.e in the shopping aisle. In fact, he uses the phrase ‘memory palace’ as well in this blog post (I’m not sure how much that has to do with Foer, though)! His point is that to be memorable you need to appeal to emotions by telling stories, no matter what YOU think your brand-defining pyramid/circle/square/triangle is. Byron Sharp and Daniel Kahneman form a big part of his thesis of course – humans being irrational, emotional beings rather than rational ones. Hence Nike is about inspiring greatness, Cadbury’s is about inspiring joy and so on – those are the routes to being memorable when you need to be. But you know all that.

Cut to some thoughts from a discussion on the links between narrative and memory that I was privy to, an event that was part of the LSE’s Literary Festival.

Writer Lisa Appignanesi spoke about memory as ‘the past tense of desire’ concluding that ‘the things we remember best are the ones we like the most.’

I put that in the context of what I do at work: trying to give people something to remember that they like – that they WANT to remember. Brands want people to remember them, but people will remember them only if THEY want to. And in order to make people want to remember you, you need to inspire strong emotions, like desire.

John Lewis took home the IPA Effectiveness Grand Prix last year because they appealed to emotions. P&G’s Thank You Mum campaign appealed to emotions, as did Channel 4’s ‘Meet the Superheroes’ campaign.

That’s not to say that the only thing that can appeal to emotions are TV ads. The Little Printer is doing a great job of improving itself to add emotional appeal. Volkswagen’s Musical Stairs appealed to emotion. Plan’s ‘Girls Only’ bus shelter appealed to emotions. The Good Night Lamp does, by making you remember people you love. We Feel Fine is still great after all these years because it is ALL about emotions.

Also at that event at the LSE Literary Festival, author Charles Fernyhough mentioned how memory is a ‘system with moving parts; many parts of the brain jump into action when a memory is recalled, assembling things in different configurations over time.’ Journalist, author and academic Professor Anne Applebaum said something else about memory that stuck in my mind: how very often a memory is created by committee – it is defined collectively by media and people.

This took me back to what Alex Balfour, the former Head of New Media of London 2012 said at The Story (a fantastic event, by the way) last week: he spoke about how the Olympics were about ‘orchestrating emotion on a massive scale’, and that they decided it was worth it to spend money to create good memories because that’s what people would take back with them after the event. He played a clip of the Olympics Opening Ceremony to start his talk, which made me tear up despite having seen it multiple times already.

What am I trying to get at?

It’s clear what sensible brands need to do. So many brands even today make half-assed, half-hearted stabs at selling themselves by pouring money into ads or messages people couldn’t care less about.

All they need to do is something worth remembering.

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