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Effectiveness Brand Strategy Marketing

​There’s a fine line between an ad being instantly forgotten and remembered forever


By Richard Harriford, Global group planning director

July 4, 2024 | 8 min read

VCCP’s Richard Harriford, author of the new report ‘Cracking the Memory Code,’ explains why being remembered should be at the front of marketers’ minds.

One of the early Compare the Market ads

If being seen is enough to be remembered, let me ask you a question: What’s on the other side of a penny? Not the one with the Queen on it (God rest her soul), the other side. Most people have seen it thousands of times. Yet most people haven’t a clue.

How many times are people going to see your next advert? I’m guessing it’s fewer times than they’ve seen the back of a coin. I’ll share a stat you’re not going to remember either: Less than a fifth of the advertising we make is remembered - and that’s by people we know have seen it recently. Most of what we make as an industry goes straight into the memory bin and isn’t even noticed.

This is hugely important because shopping is a closed-book test. Most people don’t shop with the adverts printed out in front of them, but I really hope someone, somewhere, does.

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For most of us, what’s top of our minds is what’s top of the list. If I don’t remember you, chances are I don’t buy you. Don’t trust me, trust Byron Sharp. People don’t buy what they like, they buy what they know. People are more likely to marry people they share an initial with. How’s that for liking what’s familiar?

Suffice to say, making sure your brand is memorable is the single most important thing marketers can do, and most of us aren’t doing it most of the time.

And yet.

“If you like a lot of chocolate on your biscuit, join our…”

“Just one…”

“Do the shake and vac and put…”

VCCP has been experimenting with people’s advertising memories and it turns out that when people remember things, they can remember them for a very long time. Everything we see exists on the fine line between being instantly forgotten and remembered forever.

Close your eyes and try to recall everything in front of you right now. What else is on this webpage? What color is the floor? Where are your keys? What’s in your immediate field of vision that you’ve already forgotten?

The brain isn’t trying to remember; it’s constantly trying to forget. Filtering information for what’s important and what’s insignificant. Most information doesn’t make it.

So what can we do about it?

To start with, it’s important to note that not all information is created equal.

On Sunday night, 70 seconds before England were set to “crash out” of the Euros, Jude Bellingham turned himself (unexpectedness) and every England fan’s world upside down (emotion). He then ran over to the touchline and made a rude gesture (character). The crowd erupted into ‘Hey Jude’ (catchy jingle). The Sun - the only people left who realize the value of wordplay - called it ‘Saved by the Bell’ (humor). I’ve seen that goal again a dozen times since (repetition).

“Won’t forget that one!” someone suggested afterwards.

The brain is a mystery, but being memorable isn’t.

After Cowry Consulting–the UK’s leading commercial behavioral psychology consultants and part of the VCCP family–examined responses to 100 ads from the last 50 years, they found the same six things come up again and again in the most memorable ads.

  • Emotion - it made me feel something

  • Unexpectedness - something I didn’t expect to happen, happened

  • Humor - it made me laugh

  • Catchy jingle - I could sing or repeat it afterwards

  • Character - there was a big personality at the heart of it

  • Repetition - they kept coming back to the same idea

These are the key ingredients of memory. Without frontrunning, our report, the psychology behind each is genuinely fascinating. Surprise intensifies emotion by up to 400%. People believe information that rhymes simply because it rhymes. Consumers are curious about new things but also deeply afraid of anything that’s too new.

You don’t have to use all of these ingredients. But if you aren’t using any of them, you’re serving something forgettable to your customers and expecting them to remember you.

However nuanced the debate gets, no one seriously disagrees that salience drives effectiveness in our industry. I asked the person who leads a brand that repeatedly tops the list of most memorable ads how they keep making good work. He said, “We refuse to make bad work”.

Yet, most of the time, we don’t.

And don’t get me wrong, I get it. I’ve seen great campaign thoughts turn into recessive banners directed at communicating USPs. But in fifty years, how many people will remember them?

What’s remarkable about our industry is that, at our best, we create work that is remembered forever. People still remember Hamlet Photo Booth. The Meerkat. The Gorilla. Specsavers’ first rollercoaster ride. Thoughts that ignite something in people’s imaginations that keep burning long after it stops being shown. That keeps paying back.

If it isn’t surprising, emotional, funny or characterful, they won’t remember it. In short, if we’re not enjoying it, they’re not remembering it.

Next time you’re making something for public consumption, ask yourself this: Who’s going to remember it? If you get it right, your work could be remembered forever–what an incredible job to have.

To find out more, download Cracking the Memory Code - the first report from VCCP’s Challenger Series thought leadership programme.

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