• Rick Julian

Brands on the Brain: The Neurobiology of Memory and Experience

What is a “Brand”? Some intangible abstraction? The ethereal composite of vision, sound, touch, and emotion? Brands are that, but they are more. Recent research in neurobiology suggests that ideas are more than vapor. They are tangible and have physical residence in our brains. And now, scientists (and you) are actually able to see what the physical structure of an idea is.

In layman’s terms, nerves are comprised of branch-like struc­tures called den­dri­tes. Each den­drite branches in­to twig-like pro­tru­sions called den­d­rit­ic spines–up to 10,000 of them. These spines are formed by your real-life experiences, so that if one is consistently exposed to similar experiences they literally grow and take shape within our brains.For example, from the moment you were first born, you had millions of micro experiences you called “mother”: her touch, her voice, her eyes, her skin, her warmth, her spirit. . . everything good, bad, and indifferent that you have ever experienced about her resulted in a unique dendritic structure in your brain that is the repository of the idea, Mother. When you hear the word “mother”, your brain goes to that dendrite to retrieve “her”. So it is with “love”: a dendrite composed of your joys, your pain, your dreams, your disappointments . . . and, scientists postulate, all other ideas.Including brands.

Exactly how dendrites learn and memorize is still not clearly understood, but great progress is being made. Even at the relatively primitive level of our current understanding, we can apply two basic, yet profound principles to branding and marketing.

Just as we burn files onto CDs, memories are burned into our neurons. But these basic units of memory, “memes”, must be constantly recycled so that the memories remain there. Brand building and retention requires two primary components:

1. Consistent presentation of a branded experience: frequency over time.

2. A consistent experience of the brand: continuity.

Inconsistency in either component will lead to either memory decay, or cognitive dissonance: people will simply forget about your brand, or become too confused about what it means, resulting in dendritic atrophy. Essentially, use the dendrites (and use them well) or lose them.

Of all the brands with whom we’ve worked, none has ever practiced these principles more artfully, intelligently, and consistently than Coke. It is safe to assume that a significant portion of the world’s humanity has a dendrite parked in its collective brain called “Coke” whose branches represent the color red, the contour of the bottle, the burn at the back of the throat, the logo wave, and the emotion of “happiness”– sensory experiences their branding efforts have consistently recyled through our synapses over the course of our lives. I encourage you to practice this same wisdom in a way that is true and authentic to your brand.

Finally, while I’ve been writing here about branding, there is a much larger story being told. It’s the story of the mechanics of our humanity, the awareness of which must be accompanied by responsibility. As marketers and branders, our work does, in fact, truly live in the brains of its recipients. Let’s make the most of this opportunity by growing healthy and positive dendrites in the form of great ideas, imagery, sound, and experiences that feed and enrich–leading to profit for both our clients and their consumers.

p.s. Everything is everything.

Photo composite (L-R) : 1. Dendrite 2. Dendrite close-up 3. An elm tree in winter 4. A street map of San Francisco, 5. Satellite photograph of the Mississippi Delta.


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