embed your memory cues in the marketing

Memory Cues – Excellent CX Is Useless If No One Remembers It

by Colin Shaw on July 11, 2019

When we buy things, our memory generates the choice set that we have under consideration. It is essential for your Customer Experience strategy that you understand how customers create memories and how to ensure your brand is included in that set of recalled choices. 

For example, pretend that you are out with friends and need to pick a restaurant. Usually, you and your friends would try to think of what restaurants you remember that are close to where you are. Then, you would try to narrow it down by which ones you remember are good/cheap/fast/healthy or whatever other metrics you are using to pick a restaurant. 

One of the things this example shows is that as a restaurant owner, it doesn’t matter how good your restaurant is. It also doesn’t matter how close it is to various locations or how short the wait time is either. If people don’t remember your restaurant when they’re deciding to go out to eat, it’s like your restaurant doesn’t exist.

We explored how we retrieve these memories at the moment of decision in a recent podcast. We also talked about how you can ensure when your customers are deciding on what to buy in your category that they include you in that retrieved set. For my regular readers, it might come as no surprise to learn that this entire area of memory retrieval has to do with emotions. 

We’ve talked about memory from several different perspectives because it’s an important  topic and area for research. Much of what we talked about previously was how memories are formed and stored in the mind. 

Today, we focus on the retrieval side. If you want customers’ memory to work for you as a business, it would be good to ensure that your information gets stored in customers’ minds and also that it gets retrieved at the right time. To do this, you need memory cues. 

We have discussed the “fishing net” model before to describe how episodic memories are connected.  The idea is that many individual bits of data join to create memories. We use the fishing net to illustrate how when you pick up a bit of data, which is represented by one of the knots in the fishing net, the rest of the data comes with it, like the other parts of the fishing net connected to the knot you are holding. 

However, what causes you to grab and pull out some of these net knots? Also, what activates these memories and then, by association, the ones connected to them?

To answer these questions, I want to push the metaphor further. So, imagine you’re in a shallow pool, and the net is at the bottom of the pool.  As you pull up some of those knots, they are going to break the surface of the water. That would be like them entering conscious awareness. 

However, you’re also pulling up knots that don’t break the surface but are now much closer to it. These parts of your memory are activated implicitly and are much more likely to influence you, even if they don’t “break the surface” of consciousness.

We can direct conscious memory retrieval. In other words, we can actively try to remember things. In my restaurant example, you and your friends were trying to remember what was close by and what was good. However, there are also unconscious environmental background cues. 

The Intuitive and Rational Systems describe the two ways we think about things. As you will recall, the Intuitive System does many things behind the scenes. One of them is forming memory structures. It ties the knot in the fishing net and gathers similar knots to it in the net structure.  

The Intuitive System is always trying to be helpful, making things efficient, fast, and easy for you. It is scanning the environment, and if it thinks that there’s anything that could be useful to you, it will start to pull it toward your consciousness, like pulling up those knots from the fishing net and bringing them closer to the surface. 

In other words, the Intuitive System associates things. If you have feelings that co-occur in an experience, then the Intuitive System associates them, putting their knots closer in the net. It pulls them together and forms the memory. 

How Memory Cues Influence Customer Behavior


A study from Stanford showed how the cues work. The researchers asked a group of people to keep a food diary for two weeks. 

At the one-week mark, researchers then asked the participants to come back into a different lab for what was ostensibly a separate study. Under the guise of working with this nonprofit trying to encourage college students to eat more fruits and vegetables during the day, they had the participants listen to the slogan.

However, there were really two slogans. Some people saw the motto, “Live the healthy way. Eat five fruits and veggies a day.” The others saw the tagline, “Each and every dining hall tray needs five fruits and veggies a day.” The participants liked the first one better than the second one and thought it more likely to influence them.

A week later, the study participants turned in their food journals. So, what the researchers had then was a week of participants’ food diary, then an intervention where the people saw the slogan, and then another week of their food record. What the research team found was the group that heard the second slogan, ate more fruits and vegetables than the other group. “Each and every dining hall tray needs five fruits and veggies a day” was much more successful in influencing the behavior of the participants. 

The researchers argue that the second slogan was more successful not because it was better, more intelligent, or more persuasive than the first, but because it included a memory cue. Having ‘dining hall tray’ in the slogan meant when students picked one up at mealtimes, the Intuitive System would note the dining hall tray and bring the slogan close to the surface of the student’s consciousness, or maybe right into it. 

Another example of marketing making a memory cue through advertising is the pharmacy chain Familiprix. When they started running this particular campaign, Familiprix was the third most popular pharmacy chain in French-speaking Canada. 

Now, in most urban environments, you’re equidistant from three or four different pharmacies no matter where you are, so whichever one you remember first is where you are going to go. To facilitate their brand’s memorability, Familiprix ran a series of short ads (:15 seconds) with the same format:

  • They would show somebody in a situation where they would need something from a pharmacy. 
  • A pharmacist would be standing in the scene wearing a white lab coat.
  • The event would happen, and the pharmacist would say, “Aha! Familiprix!” 

Here is a compilation:

These ads were funny and short but also created this cue. If you stub your toe, cut yourself, or felt sick, a part of your Intuitive System would tell you, “Aha! Familiprix.” They also have this memory cue embedded in all of their messaging, which was not just encouraging you to remember and store it to memory but also to retrieve it from memory at the right time.

Emotions also facilitate storing things in memory. If they’re positive emotions, they can become associated with your memory of the brands. 

Humor is especially effective at storing things in memory. You feel happy when you think about this brand because they’ve made you laugh before.

However, you need to measure emotions to know if you are embedding the proper cues. Many organizations use facial expression analysis on adverts to find out which emotions customers feel at different moments. Using Authentic Emotion Measurement with our clients in our global Customer Experience consultancy, we discover which emotions are evoked in a digital experience so we can optimize them to facilitate customer loyalty.

Fascinating, But What Has This to Do With CX?


When you are communicating with and marketing to customers, you need to include environmental memory cues into your message. If you can implant one into your message, your customers’ Intuitive Systems can call that memory to the surface and influence the customers to choose your product or service. 

The most practical advice is when you are planning your experience or messaging for your customers, consider not only what is necessary information to get into their heads but also give some thought as to when you need them to retrieve it. In other words, at what point on the customer journey (e.g., geographically, environmentally, physically, etc.) does that message need to come back to them to be retrieved from memory and influence them.

Think about the environments and context. Consider what the customers might be doing when they need your product or service and see if you can embed your memory cue in the marketing or in the experience itself. These memory cues facilitate the retrieval at the optimal point in the customer journey.

Remember the environment too. Customers could be walking down the aisle in a store with all of your competitors’ products there, also. How can you stand out from everybody else at that moment that ties into the memory cue you embedded to trigger memory retrieval? If you do the same thing as everybody else, you could miss the opportunity to activate that memory cue at the buying decision moment.  

Perhaps most importantly, remember the emotional perspective. Determine which emotions drive and destroy most value for you. If you don’t know, research to discover them. Then, evoke that emotion at the memory cue point.  

Customer memory is a fascinating subject. It is also a vital one as customer loyalty is a function of memory. As I have said before, people do not come back to you for the experience you provide; they come back to you for the experience they remember you provide.  

Like most things in Customer Experience, it all comes down to understanding the customer at a much greater depth than most organizations do. Knowing your customers is an invaluable tool when you are designing a Customer Experience strategy, and it is crucial for setting up memorable messaging. 

If you want to benchmark your organization’s performance in the new world of behavioral economics against other companies, take our short questionnaire.  Once you submit, we compare your answers against what we know about the market and send you a free personalized report about where your organization is today. 

Intuitive Customer PodcastHear the rest of the conversation on The Vital Art Of Creating Memorable Messaging on The Intuitive Customer Podcast. These informative podcasts are designed to expand on the psychological ideas behind understanding customer behavior. To listen in, please click here.

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Colin Shaw is the founder and CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of the world’s leading Customer experience consultancy & training organizations. Colin is an international author of six bestselling books and an engaging keynote speaker.

Follow Colin Shaw on Twitter @ColinShaw_CX

Colin ShawMemory Cues – Excellent CX Is Useless If No One Remembers It