To call the U.K. a nation of smartphone zombies sounds sensational, but a recent IPA TouchPoints project revealed that we spend half of our waking hours consuming media and online information. Our reliance on mobile devices shows no signs of slowing, and the annual flurry of new technology gadgets launched at events such as the Mobile World Congress and CES is creating even more options.
Considering this level of media exposure, senior marketers are understandably worried that it’s becoming harder to cut through the noise and hold the attention of viewers in a meaningful way. But from the brain’s perspective, what does this media overload actually mean—and is it all bad?
The More Things Change ...
First of all, the huge amount of tech now available to us hasn’t fundamentally changed the way our brains function. Many of the principles familiar to marketers still apply, and, rather than worrying about a cluttered landscape, there’s a strong case for seeing each new piece of tech as a new creative solution.
Additionally, the amount of time spent with a brand is not nearly as important as how we remember it—so shortening attention spans needn’t put paid to effective marketing. This reflects how memory works—it’s more like a still camera than a video recorder. Information is encoded or stored into memory as “snapshots,” therefore, it’s short, intense peaks of response rather than long, drawn-out concentration that marketers should be trying to elicit from viewers.
Decades of neuroscience research, however, can provide a helpful guide for marketers. By highlighting subconscious processes that are as relevant now as they were hundreds of years ago, marketers can continue to maximise the opportunities that new tech brings.
The Brand Room
In order to make effective connections with viewers, marketers should first understand how our brains store information and perceive the brands we come in contact with. The “brand room” is a helpful analogy for the neural networks that we create in response to brand messaging.
Consider your brand as a “room” in the brain, which begins life bare and unacknowledged. Over time, and through repeated interaction with the brand, the room becomes furnished with opinions, colour, memories of the brand and its associations.
Traditional advertising—TV spots for instance—is well suited to furnishing the brand room. Numerous studies have shown that this type of advertising is most effective when it seeks not to drive immediate sales, but rather to foster better brand associations in order to shape consumer behaviour over a longer period of time.
However, the challenge is not only to keep all contents of the room positive (and relevant to the brand’s needs) but also visible at the right time. After all, consumers are unlikely to think of a brand for no reason, so the room largely sits in darkness.
Switching on the light is a question of finding the right switch. Marketers must determine which elements of their brand iconography and messaging have the potential to become iconic triggers—essentially shortcuts into memory that act like light switches for the brand room, illuminating all the brand associations that long-term marketing has developed.
They can be anything from logos and slogans, to specific colours, sounds, shapes, or even people. Shorter-term communications are better suited to creating triggers, as these can be leveraged by a brand consistently along the path to purchase.
The Other Ad Blocker
Given the rapid proliferation of new technologies, marketers and advertisers alike will be heartened to hear that, once you’ve furnished your brand room through more traditional advertising, many of the newer, shorter dwell time media channels are perfectly suited to deliver these “triggers,” and so can work in a way that complements television.
However, be careful of going for the hard sell across these platforms, as, from the brain’s perspective, a brand that screams and shouts could run the risk of switching on our in-built “ad-blocker” that naturally fields anything it considers to be an overt selling message.
Instead, marketers should plump for more subtle and creative methods of engaging audiences. Our brains can pick up very subtle brand cues without a hard sell attached, and these provide triggers that are just as effective as more overt selling messages. Indeed, a five-year neuroscience study found that adverts which intertwined the product with a narrative, as opposed to an overt selling message, elicited a 17% higher memory encoding response.
This finding suggests that, in online channels, it’s advantageous to use distinctive brand assets with only subtle overt branding attached. If more active engagement is required, a degree of personalisation or localisation can also help, but again without very overt brand messaging.
Mobile and digital out-of-home forms of advertising are particularly well suited to this, as they’re able to deliver targeted and contextually relevant content, which will subtly illuminate the brand room at the desired points along the path to purchase.
Whilst it’s true then that the onslaught of new tech has changed the ways in which marketers and advertisers can reach consumers, it has yet to fundamentally change how our brains process branding information. The key principles are as crucial as ever, and, instead of shying away from new tech, marketers should seize the opportunity to reach customers in more creative ways than ever.