ellipsis flag icon-blogicon-check icon-comments icon-email icon-error icon-facebook icon-follow-comment icon-googleicon-hamburger icon-imedia-blog icon-imediaicon-instagramicon-left-arrow icon-linked-in icon-linked icon-linkedin icon-multi-page-view icon-person icon-print icon-right-arrow icon-save icon-searchicon-share-arrow icon-single-page-view icon-tag icon-twitter icon-unfollow icon-upload icon-valid icon-video-play icon-views icon-website icon-youtubelogo-imedia-white logo-imedia logo-mediaWhite review-star thumbs_down thumbs_up

6 steps for getting your brand into their heads

6 steps for getting your brand into their heads Joseph Carrabis

The ad slogan "Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is" probably activates an earworm to every reader over the age of 50. Earworms are musical sound bytes -- marketing jingles and song snippets -- that once active are hard to shake. Alka-Seltzer's popular "plop, plop, fizz, fizz" campaign marks a generation of U.S. based consumers who saw and heard it repeatedly.

6 steps to get inside your consumer's head

Traditionally, earworms happen by accident. Now linguistics, neuroscience, and psychophysics are showing us how to make earworms on steroids:

  • Smart earworms that activate when your customer is about to select a competitor's product

  • Time-based earworms that become active in a consumer's consciousness when you want them active

  • Earworms that work their way into the consumer's entire brain, don't let go, and make the consumer's brain work for you

At NextStage, we call such things brainworms. The formula we use brings together basic principles that tap into consumers' natural brain tendencies to better brand your audience. It's an easy and straightforward methodology that's both inexpensive and proven with some major brands. Here's the recipe to create your own brainworms.


The brain has two basic types of memory -- short- and long-term. Branding occurs in the part of long-term memory called emotional memory. This is where the brain stores pain, joy, sorrow, love, etc. When you hear a song that reminds you of riding with your friends in your first car, when you smell something baking and remember your parents teaching you how to cook, or when you look at your life partner and your heart flutters remembering the first time you met, those memories are coming from your deep, emotional memory.

Everyday events become strong emotional memories through repetition, specifically three or more times. Marketers want consumers to have deep emotional commitments to their brands. That level of emotional commitment can only occur in deep memory and the transition from short-term to long-term to emotional memory starts with repetition.

The first time you tell somebody something, it goes into short-term memory. The brain is waiting for instructions on whether to forget it or store it for future (long-term) retrieval. The brain gets that instruction when you tell them the second time and when you add some sensory information to the message (we'll get to the sensory part in a second).

The third time you tell somebody something, you start fooling the brain into thinking whatever you're telling them is important. The brain basically says, "Boy, they're repeating that a lot. It must be important. I better remember it," and into long-term memory it goes.

But the brain can forget things even in long-term memory without sensory information to lock that information into place.

A sense of touch

Memories get into emotional memory when there's some kind of sensory information attached to them. This is why certain songs, images, smells, and people can evoke strong emotional memories while other things don't. Those strong sensory attachments cause our minds to magically transport us to the time and place when that memory was first encoded in our brains. We smell cookies baking today, and we're back in Grandma's kitchen as she pulled them from the oven. We grip a fly rod today and remember our fathers teaching us how to cast.

This sensory information -- sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch -- is easy to add to branding efforts. Color, font size, images, embedded videos, and audio feeds -- even well-written text -- can cause sensory attachments to otherwise neutral information. The trick is to make the link between the information and the sensory experience positive. This goes back to long-term memory, specifically associative memory, because this sensory information causes emotional responses that are associated with the original branding message and, you guessed it, drives whatever you're telling them into deep, emotional memory.

Have them look in a mirror

The single strongest branding element is trust. If someone you trust tells you that product A is a great product, you believe them. You don't ask for ancillary information or quiz them on their belief. Studies have shown that the highest levels of trust are with family members followed by peer group members. What marketers have intuitively known for years -- and what science is proving -- is that people trust their mirror-selves the most. In other words, the more a brand spokesperson looks like the target audience, the more positively that target audience responds to the brand.

Consumers will automatically attach a positive emotional memory to the branding information when the brand spokesperson looks, talks, acts, and thinks like them. It will be as if they're looking in a mirror, and they'll believe what they see in the mirror, even if they don't like it. The mirror-self's belief becomes the target audience's belief.

Use small words

There is a reason we use the term "small words" rather than "monosyllabic" when talking to children: "Small words" is easier to understand. Both terms mean the same thing, but most people take longer to understand the latter than the former.

That time difference in understanding has to do with neural processing and actionability. People don't look for subtleties of meaning with small words because we learned in childhood to pay attention and respond rather than deliberate. This ease of processing and understandability combined with a lack of subtlety translates into actionability and can be remembered as a simple formula:

Actionability = (ease of processing + understandability) - subtlety

People respond more easily and rapidly to simple statements than complex ones.

Use short sentences

Short sentences, or declaratives, and especially short sentences written clearly are more easily incorporated than complex parsings involving multiple conjunctives, disjunctives, and grammatical elements.

Consider where you slowed down when reading the above, and you get the idea.

Short sentences build on what the brain does with small words -- it understands them easily and rapidly. Short sentences are more easily understood and leave less room for lexical ambiguity. As before, less ambiguity and easier understandability lead to actionability, which is what moves branding from an afterthought to a brainworm that won't let go.

Use direct address and active voice

Direct address is what happens when someone is talking directly to you. Literally, it gives one the sense that the speaker is paying attention to them. The extreme form of this is feeling under a microscope, but when used properly, one gets the impression the speaker is genuinely interested in them. The "showing interest" initiative is translated into emotional attachment and well-being so we get a memory and sensory two-for-one.

Active voice occurs when sentences have a subject-verb-object structure. Compare "This sentence uses active voice" with "for example, this sentence is an example of passive voice." The latter breaks the sentence into two parts, and the mind has to perform more neural gymnastics to make sense of it than is required with simple active voice.

Direct address combined with active voice creates a sense of motion, action, sometimes urgency, and a need to act or respond to the message.

Active voice and direct address are best used in branding in the first sentence of your content especially when quickly followed up with a conversational mix of active and passive voice, direct and indirect address. The mind responds to the active voice, direct address, then incorporates it with the emotional tone of the conversational message. The brain interprets the combination as, "Oh, they just wanted to get my attention. OK, now I'll listen to what they have to say."

Putting it all together for marketers

Studies show that the previously cited techniques used together have some powerful branding side-effects.

Research shows that a branding message repeated throughout the day (not all at once, spread them out) and coming via different media channels causes faster branding than a single message repeatedly delivered via a single channel. After something is in long-term memory and there's a time delay between storing and relearning (rebranding), the individual will think "oh, yeah, I heard that somewhere else" or "oh, yeah, I knew that." In either case, the brain evaluates the message as true rather than questionable. Any time a brand message is automatically considered true is a plus.

Peer group spokespeople whose language mirrors the emotional biases of the audience invoke what is called destination memory. Consumers who are able to focus on the emotional tone of speakers could remember the source of those messages more easily (they were branded). Emotional appeals cause better branding as people will remember the source of emotional information. The key is to have them remember a "friend" sharing the information, not the brand itself.

Small words, short sentences with active voice, and direct address
Invoking a brand name often in communications (branding messages) using these elements has been shown to increase memory of the brand, positive imagery, and lead to brand-directed decision making.

Here's an automotive example that brings all of the above elements together into a branded online property called "My(brand)Story.com." The goal is to move consumers to thinking of brand versus brand model:

  • Mirror: Amateur, self-produced videos of owners that emphasize desired brand-associated concepts rather than  individual brand models are recruited.

  • Touch: These videos are either used or promoted on all media channels.

  • Touch, mirror, and memory: All viewers are invited to vote on the best videos. Owners are invited to vote and upload their story to My(brand)Story.com. Winning video producers and randomly selected voters win the same prize (important for neuroeconomic fair-exchange reasons).

  • Small words, short sentences, mirror, and memory: Voters are asked to vote in two concept categories only. What video gave you the most sense of concept A about the brand? What video showed you the most of concept B about the brand?

Joseph Carribis is founder and CRO for NextStage Evolution.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Abstract and colorful background template" and "hand drawn brain" images via Shutterstock.

Joseph Carrabis is Founder and CRO of The NextStage Companies, NextStage Global and NextStage Analytics, companies that specialize in helping clients improve their marketing efforts and understand customer behavior. He's also applied neuroscience,...

View full biography


to leave comments.

Commenter: Luca Conti

2014, November 18

Interesting also for the nostalgia component related to sound and memory.
The emphasis on the concept of trust was extremely interesting.
Also the direct address, active voice, mirroring and other considerations are so useful.
This was actually one of the most useful articles I have read in the last years

Commenter: Norberts Erts

2014, April 26


Commenter: Michelle Courtright

2014, April 22

I love this article--the focus on the neurological aspects of marketing is just what I've been trying to incorporate into copy, graphics, and video. I'd love for you to go more in-depth in future posts! Great to have a more academic article about this topic--thanks!

Commenter: Emily Weeks

2014, April 17

Working for a digital agency that focuses on web development and branding, it was interesting to read a piece that focuses on internal factors playing a role in branding. People often focus on the external so much that they forget that vital component of human nature, which is ultimately what attracts or detracts us to brands in the first place.