Brand associates are often conceived in verbal terms, as concrete descriptions and more abstract concepts; they may be captured by single words or longer phrases that express thoughts and emotions. But brands may be linked with visual images (pictures, drawings, photos) that capture the same brand ideas, sometimes even more efficiently than verbal expressions. The image may depict many things and events that remind us of the brand, and not just the brand’s products. As the media and inter-personal communications become more loaded with visual images, they are likely to feature also more frequently in human memory networks of brands. Furthermore, brand associations can be linked in different ways where one associate leads to another, and together they build richer and more meaningful brand concepts.
Visual images deserve, therefore, greater attention of researchers and managers in brand studies, and representation in models that portray brand associations. Applied researchers Charles Young, Eldaa Daly and Russ Turpin (Ameritest research firm) propose an interesting and promising approach to capturing and modelling verbal and visual brand associations in consumers’ memories. Moreover, they reveal pathways that connect between brand associates in tree-like mapping models. The memory maps entail the meanings of associations to consumers, especially as they emerge via links in hierarchical pathways, and their impact on ‘behaviour’ (i.e. purchase intent). It should be noted, however, that the verbal (semantic) expressions and visual images are portrayed in separate maps; the researchers offer an additional form of visualization to bridge between images and semantics of (verbal) associates. (“Plotting the Powerful Pathways”, Quirks Marketing Research Review, March/April 2021, pp. 48-54).
As a theoretical foundation to their methodology, the researchers present the “Memory Triangle”, comprising verbal memory and visual memory, which means in other words that verbal and visual inputs feed our memory. The triangle is built of five layers, from memories shared with others (representing ‘culture’ and social networks) at the bottom, climbing up to recognition, recall, unaided awareness, and the ‘self’ (or ‘i’) at the top. Recognition refers to episodic and procedural memory while recall refers to semantic memory. Admittedly, some of the relations posited in the memory triangle are not entirely clear. For instance, (a) recognition functions at the level of brand image and recall functions at the level of brand positioning — this distinction in roles is not clear; (b) why recall works better or faster on semantic memory than recognition, and vice versa regarding episodic and procedural memory?; (c) what is the difference between recall and unaided awareness — the latter is implied to refer to ‘top-of-mind’ recall, which is a primary class of recall (it signifies a higher share of memory for a brand).
More importantly, as this seems even more relevant to their approach, Young and his colleagues refer to the concept of ‘brand fit’, which “implies that the ideas, images and emotions created by new advertising somehow links back to an existing network of brand associations“. This concept ascribes to crucial memory processes of combining existing and new information in memory, how knowledge is updated, and how memory is used in new experiences. The researchers further suggest that better fit corresponds with the shape and structure of memory networks, and “new memories created by new advertising fit like puzzle pieces into the existing pattern of brand associations, images and feelings“. New advertising is not guaranteed to generate this outcome since it depends on how the advertising message is composed and designed so that indeed it fits into the existing memory patterns, and adds to them; when that is achieved, the analogy of “puzzle pieces” is well placed. It is noteworthy to mention that memory processes are bi-directional. In particular, consolidation pertains to the match and integration between new and existing information in memory networks, while in the other direction, existing information can be retrieved for helping in elaboration of new stimuli or inputs. Brand fit, in this regard, may both improve the shape and structure of memory, and be facilitated when the structure and content of existing brand memory is more coherent in consumers’ minds (i.e., the puzzle pieces would fit in faster and better). These seem to be the foundations on which the mapping models of memory nets (or ‘trees’) are built on and reflect.
The maps constructed by the researchers are in the form of nets, yet they exhibit some order like in trees. On the one hand, the net has a top ‘target’ node of purchase intent as in a tree model structure, and there seems to be hierarchical order between nodes in the net. On the other hand, the pathways connecting nodes are not strictly organised in layers and branches, where some pathways may stretch between separate ‘branches’ in the net. We could describe these maps as ‘hybrid tree-nets’. As indicated above, two types of maps are proposed:
The map of semantic memory networks is based on verbal expressions of associates with a brand (e.g., ideas, perceptions). The expressions are represented in statements to which respondents assign ratings (of agreement). Perceptions that are more highly correlated with motivation are closer to the top; lines of pathways endowed with higher correlation are thicker (stronger connection). A semantic memory map can guide communication designers on which perceptions are more worthwhile to reinforce, being more likely to invoke stronger motivation to engage with the brand; the pathways would suggest how to build more persuasive propositions to consumers.
The map of visual memory networks is based on visual images collated from advertising campaigns. The map applies picture-based measures from respondents of memorability, emotion, and fit with the brand. Visual images (e.g., pictures, frames from video clips, photos) serve as nodes in the visual memory map, instead of the verbal nodes in the semantic memory map; the principles described above hold also for the visual memory map. The magnitude of correlation between composite scores of image memorability and emotionality represents the emotional distance in memory between images. The non-verbal image associates are said to correspond more closely to instances of episodic and procedural memory related to the brand, and are more potent to be laden with emotions.
The linkage of verbal memory with semantic memory should not lead us to conclude that images do not have meaning — visual semantics and visual rhetoric can be just as significant and impactful as verbal expressions. However, the visual and verbal representations can differ in form, detail (at concrete and abstract levels), and implications, due to the differences between visual and verbal languages. The relations between verbal and visual associates are well demonstrated in the additional diagrams of correspondence between a verbal semantic construct (derived in the semantic map) and relevant visual images (captured in the visual map), and vice versa (i.e., one can seek visual exemplars that correspond with a verbal concept or verbal concepts that correspond with a visual image).
The memory maps and other diagrams are demonstrated in the context of a case study on Oreo cookies (conducted for educational purposes). In the verbal-semantic map, for example, being “fun to eat” cookies is more strongly or closely connected in memory with “are a playful snack”, “are a tasty snack”, and “are a good treat”. The construct “fun to eat” is at the top, closer to purchase intent. Of the nodes higher in the semantic map, “fun” and “love” (emotional) are the primary drivers of purchase intent. The associates “fun” and “playful” seem to be synonymous, yet “fun” has a stronger weight and is positioned higher in the net ; the researchers show that after presenting the ads, the association of the brand with “playful” was reinforced, further increased its correlation with “fun”, and thereof strengthened the contribution of the “fun”-“playful” path to motivation to purchase. The visual memory net includes “action” and “social” images that, according to the researchers, suggest about Oreo cookies that “you can play with in your hands”, “dunk them in milk”, and are appropriate especially in social occasions or gatherings (e.g., at the family dinner table).
Young, Daly and Turpin show how it is possible to tell an interesting and insightful brand story through their verbal-semantic and visual memory nets, with practical implications for advertising and brand strategy. The methodological approach is strongly intertwined with essential memory concepts that are relevant to the results they present, although one can argue with some of their theoretical propositions. This approach should be a welcome contribution to the field, especially in virtue of its inclusion of both verbal expressions and visual images as brand associates.