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Cognitive Branding

This is slightly off topic — it’s more about advertising — but since Anheuser-Busch’s Super Bowl ads are singled out, and also because it’s quite interesting, I thought I’d pass it along just the same. An article in yesterday’s Advertising Age by a Lisa Haverty, titled Don’t Flush Your Ad Down the Super Bowl: Unless Your Spot Has Fundamental Cognitive Elements, No One Will Recall Your Brand, begins with this ominous warning. “If you’re not Bud, don’t bother.” Ouch, if I were spending $2.7 million on an ad promoting the Bulletin during the Super Bowl I wouldn’t be very happy to read that. But apparently unless I’m careful to incorporate “some very fundamental cognitive elements” in my ad, people will end up remembering it as another Bud ad. The Cognitive Science Conference — doesn’t that have fun time written all over it? — held last August in Tennessee (and sponsored by the Cognitive Science Society) revealed in a study that “[a]ds with poor ‘cognitive scores’ were misattributed by consumers, and beer ads were attributed to the huge Super Bowl presence that is Budweiser.” There are ways to avoid this from happening. As Haverty suggests, you have to follow the basic principles of cognitive science to make people remember who you are, or in the jargon, reliable brand recall.

Here’s an interesting example:

Take, for example, the concept of “working memory.” Information has to go through working memory to get into long-term memory, where brand awareness and loyalty reside. One of the principles of cognitive science is that a person can hold and process only about seven items in working memory at any given moment. This actually varies from about five to nine in the general population. If your ad has so much information that it exceeds working-memory capacity, you’ll lose control over what consumers are able to remember. Cog-sci lesson: Respect working memory.

There are a few other examples, read them if you find this sort of thing as fascinating as I do. What I really take away from all this, apart from the simple fact that one must be careful in how to spend $2.7 million, is something I always suspected about any large company’s approach to blitzkrieg advertising. By year after year being the biggest advertiser during the Super Bowl, A-B has set themselves up in a very enviable position. Any other beer or related commercial runs the risk of having their own ad remembered by consumers as being for the competition. Talk about a gamble. They’ve effectively made it almost impossible for any other beer company to reach their audience during one of the most-watched television events of the year. In essence, they now own the event, ad-wise. The cynic in me thinks that if they paid for it, they should reap the rewards, but my idealistic side hates that any big company with vastly more resources than all of his competition can just use a bludgeon to maintain his market position. But that’s what’s happening in virtually any industry you can name. Once upon a time, hundreds and thousands of small local and regional businesses competed more or less on a level playing field, at least more fair than today’s environment. Go anywhere in America today, and the number of national chain stores and other businesses dominating and squashing local competitors is astonishingly near completion. And that’s not good on so many levels. As the science of advertising gets better and better, we’ve truly been manipulated into thinking what’s good for GM is good for America. If that idea is allowed to run its course there will be two or three brands, at most, for literally every type of good you can name, and even at that each will be remarkably similar to one another. Only the cognitive branding, advertising and marketing will be able to identify any difference, and they’ll do so by the most dishonest of methods possible. Geez, I need a beer.

As an aside, there’s a very funny critique of this AdAge article by AdHurl, which as far as I can tell is by a thirty-year veteran of the ad game, George Parker. He calls out Haverty for her overuse of the word “cognitive” throughout her piece. It’s snarky and hilarious. A kindred soul.


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