advertising, branding, IPA|ED:two, planning, researching

The Ecology of Engrams

en·gram [en-gram] – noun

encoding in neural tissue that provides a physical basis for the persistence of memory; a memory trace (1)

E·col·o·gy [i-koluh-jee] – noun

branch of biology dealing with relations and interactions between organisms and their environment, including other organisms (2)

I believe the concept of the individual brand engram for the purposes of marketing communications is redundant. I believe that a truer reflection of brands can be found by examining the dynamics of engram herds within a population.

1. The Myth of the Isolated Engram

The emergence of neuroscience has informed us that brands are not definitive established entities. Rather they are ideas. An ever-changing and dynamic concept of meanings and associations held – amongst millions of others (4) – within our minds. As Wendy Gordon puts it, “a brand in memory is a totality of stored synaptic connections between neurones … gradually built up through the combination of many past experiences and ongoing current encounters with a brand” (5). The term engram – coined originally by Richard Semon in 1904 – refers to this ‘memory trace’ (6) within which a brand is held.

Two key properties emerge from this concept:

First, the brand-as-engram is largely malleable and open to influence. Whilst marketers would hold that this gives them remit to leverage this set of associations thru advertising and other means, the reality is quite different;

The stimuli we receive don’t uniformly alter the engram. Daniel Schacter notes that; “our memory systems are built so that we are likely to remember what is most important to us” (7). Not all stimulus is created equal, as Willmott and Nelson observe; “ in a networked society, where people not only have more contacts but rely on them more for advice and support … personal recommendations, and recriminations, have more weight” (8). In other words brand engrams are – by their very nature – most open to influence by other people. Brand engrams are most open to influence by other engrams.

The second property to emerge from the brand-as-engram concept is that because engrams are formed from different experiences in different individual’s heads, no two engrams can be the identical. As Wendy Gordon puts it; “two people can never experience an identical set of encounters with a brand, and therefore their brand engrams will be different” (9).

So brand engrams are mostly open to influence by other engrams, each of which is unique; the concept of the isolated and definitive brand engram is therefore a myth.

Brands aren’t individual ideas, but herds of ideas, within a population. Herds that over time will grow or shrink, become more disparate or move more tightly together, or that become more or less consistent; all as a result of their environment that includes other engrams. It is this latter facet of the engram herd – consistency – upon which this submission will focus.

2. The Importance of the Consistent Herd

Key to successful marketing of a brand is to have a consistent engram herd, with consistent meanings and values associated with a brand. As Wendy Gordon points out, “new entrants to established product categories require an enormous financial investment to build these values, which ensure that a target group of consumers are able to share a similar pattern of specific belief system about a brand” (10).

There are several reasons why consistency of engram throughout a herd is crucial; as a shared language for word of mouth, as a consistent reference for self-identity, and within the concept of transactive memory:

2.1 The importance of consistent herd in Word of mouth epidemics

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes what he calls ‘the law of the few’ and describes how it was beneficial to the spreading of Hush Puppies from a few individuals in New York’s East Village to the mainstream American malls; “The law of the few says the answer is that one of these exceptional people [the few] found out about the trend and through social connections and energy and enthusiasm and personality spread the word about Hush Puppies” (11).

But what the malls of mainstream America depended upon, what made the spread of the idea commercial on a large scale, was the creation and existence of an engram herd which consistently adopted Hush Puppies as cool. Gladwell’s ‘exceptional people’ may spread a message, but once tipped, it requires consistency of an engram throughout the herd to hold, and maintain it.

And what any individual relies upon when receiving or transmitting messages within a word of mouth epidemic is a consistent frame of reference throughout that herd, a consistent language, a consistent engram on which to build.

The point is backed up by Caroline Whitehall who – in describing tactics to reduce marketing inertia – notes that “most of us are only likely to change behaviour if there is evidence of a larger movement emerging” (12). What this tactic relies upon is a consistent understanding throughout the herd of what that larger movement means; in order to create meaningful understanding of what adopting that group idea or behaviour entails.

2.2 The role of the consistent herd in communicating self-identity

Heath and Potter observe that “what we are all really after is not individuality, it is distinction, and distinction is achieved not by being different, but by being different in a way that makes us recognisable as members of an exclusive club” (13).

This construction of identity is achieved in various ways, the adoption and presentation of brands to others being one. We rely on the meanings and associations of the brands we choose to communicate something about ourselves, what Daniel Dennett calls ‘centres of narrative gravity’ (14).

The creation and communication of identity is wholly dependent on this centre of gravity, this consistency amongst the herd of what a brand means and the associations it therefore imparts to the individual who bears it. Only with consistency throughout the herd, other people carrying the engram are immediately aware of what – for example – wearing a t-shirt from Abercrombie & Fitch, or Armani, or Bathing Ape, imparts to the wearer.

Without consistency of meaning the message is at best diffused and at worst lost; the brand less effectively contributes to identity. Wendy Gordon notes that “A brand is metaphor for a complex pattern of associations” (15). Without consistency of engrams across the herd, that metaphor is meaningless.

2.3 The need for a consistent herd for a functioning transactive memory

A final example of the value of herd consistency is a concept developed by Daniel Wenger of the University of Virginia and described by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point; that of Transactive Memory. “When we talk about memory, we aren’t just talking about ideas and impressions and facts stored inside our heads. An awful lot of what we remember is actually stored inside outside our brains … we store information with other people” (16).

This ‘outside’ information is encoded within and amongst engrams, many of which will be held within those of brand engrams. For example when we talk about Live Aid with people who also hold that engram, we may be reminded of information about the concert and the events surrounding it that we may have forgotten. We recall that the event happened as well as those specifics most pertinent to us within our own individual engrams, but we expect and require the herd engram to hold the greater body of information and detail of that brand.

It is in many ways a concept analogous to that of the Wisdom of Crowds, and idea James Surowiecki expounds in his book of the same name: “under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them … chasing the expert is a mistake, and a costly one at that. We should stop hunting and ask the crowd” (17).

The same could be said of a marketer wishing to understand how a brand is perceived; stop hunting a ‘typical’ individual engram; no such thing exists. Start by understanding the nature and dynamics of the engram herd as a whole, in which the greater and truer reflection of the brand can be found.

3. Case Study – Articulating eBay’s engram herd

One brand that has seen a chasm develop within its engram herd is eBay, a brand that is seeing its growth slow (18). Existing heavy users hold very positive associations – both with the complexity of the site and the community around it. But a great many of the engram herd have lapsed from use of eBay, citing that it’s too complicated and riskier than conventional online purchasing (19).

These are two very different centres of narrative gravity. And they’re in direct conflict. I’d suggest that it is partly this conflict within the herd that is resulting firstly in the slowed growth that eBay is currently experiencing, and secondly in decreasingly effective marketing communications. Put simply, communications are failing to reflect, and therefore resonate with, the herd engram footprint.

Saying ‘buy this on eBay’ (20) isn’t indicative of the heavy user positive engram gravity well; to heavy users it feels patronising. Nor does it address the negative engram gravity well typical of lapsed users who feel that eBay is complicated and risky.

To test this theory, I conducted some proprietary quantitative research amongst 88 randomly selected consumers (from my Facebook friends!) and asked them to indicate whether or not a range of words applied to eBay as well as three other brands within the online commerce space – Amazon, Play.com and HMV.co.uk.

Figure 1 shows the extent to which various associations were made with each of the four brands. So for example across the 88 respondents 70 connected the association ‘affordable’ with Amazon, 56 respondents with Play.com, 46 with eBay etc. By pooling the associations we get an indication of the herd engram footprint for these brands, indicating the extent to which these four brands overlap with each other.

Figure 1: herd engram associations by brand 21

But when each brand is examined individually, a much more distinct herd engram emerges. Figure 2 shows only the eBay data, ranked by association.

Figure 2: eBay herd engram associations ranked strongest
first 21

Big, community, choice and affordable emerge top (reflecting the positive gravity well), as do time-consuming and risky (the negative gravity well). In an individual engram this picture wouldn’t have emerged, the gravity well of that individual would have dominated. Only by looking at the herd engram are the range of (in eBay’s case less consistent) associations observed.

But the real indication of the relative strength of herd consistency comes when the brand herd engrams are compared. Figure 3 shows each of the four brand herd engram footprints as ranked by each brand independently of association (i.e. the first point on the x-axis is the strongest association for each of the four brands).

Figure 3 brand herd engram footprints as ranked by each
brand independently of association (21)

Amazon’s herd engram footprint has most connections concentrated across fewer associations. In short its herd is the most consistent. Amazon’s herd more easily and implicitly recognise what its individual members mean when they mention Amazon or when it is used as a display of self-identity.

The challenge for eBay is to use its marketing communications to help generate consistency across its herd engram. At present those carrying the engram are forming very different memory traces orientated around different experiences of the product, ensuring that broadcast communications resonate less well with the collective associations of eBay’s herd.

The challenge for all advertisers is to acknowledge the existence of the herd brand engram and accept its truer reflection of the brand as it exists across the memory traces of consumers. Articulate it. Measure its consistency. Identify the foci for the gravity wells that will influence the currents and eddies of the conversations and interactions – the ecology – of the herd engram.

Notes and References

  1. Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc.
    2006
  2. American Psychological Association (APA): via Dictionary.com
    Unabridged (v 1.1). Retrieved October 01, 2007
  3. Wildebeest herd grazing on savannah, Masai Mara Game
    Reserve, Kenya, as seen on
    the ‘Great Plains’ episode of Planet Earth. http://tv.yahoo.com/planet-earth/show/39817/photos/14
  4. Daniel L. Schacter. Searching
    for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past. Basic Books. p59
  5. Wendy Gordon. Brands
    on the brain: new scientific discoveries to support new brand thinking. Kogan
    Page. P112
  6. Daniel L. Schacter. Searching
    for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past. Basic Books. p57
  7. Daniel L. Schacter. Searching
    for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past. Basic Books. P46
  8. Micahel Willmott & William Nelson. Complicated lives;
    sophisticated consumers, intricate lifestyles, simple solutions. Wiley. p221
  9. Wendy Gordon. Brands
    on the brain: new scientific discoveries to support new brand thinking. Kogan
    Page. P115
  10. Wendy Gordon. Understanding Brands, by 10 people who do.
    Chapter 2: Accessing the brand through research. Ed Don Cowley. Kogan Page. p36
  11. Malcolm Gladwell. The Tipping Point. Abacus. p21-22
  12. Caroline Whitehall. Inertia is Good. Admap December 2005,
    Issue 467. p3
  13. Joseph Heath & Andrew Potter. The Rebel Sell: How the
    Counter Culture Became Consumer Culture. Capstone Publishing. p219
  14. Daniel Dennett. ‘The Self as a Centre of Narrative Gravity’
    in Self and Consciousness, ed F. Kessel, P. Cole, D.Johnson. Hillsdale, NJ:
    Erlbaum, 1992
  15. Wendy Gordon. Brands
    on the brain: new scientific discoveries to support new brand thinking. Kogan
    Page. P112
  16. Malcolm Gladwell. The Tipping Point. Abacus. p188
  17. James Surowiecki. The Wisdom of Crowds. Abacus. p xiv-xv
  18. As reported by eBay, specific proprietary data is
    confidential.
  19. The author. eBay proprietary qualitative research. June 2007
  20. This was – amongst other specific messages eg Trust &
    Safety – the general message communicated by eBay from circa. 2005 until
    mid-2007
  21. Independent proprietary quantitative research conducted by
    the author for the purposes of this paper. Sample on 88 respondents (recruited via Facebook – not nationally
    representative). September 2007
Standard

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