Memories exist to help us make decisions. Understanding how they do it promises to give brands and marketers a powerful edge.

A young man walks into his local bar and as his attention focuses on a bottle of Corona, his mind suddenly turns to a girl he kissed on a beach holiday in Mexico five years before; a 21-year-old girl walks out of the cinema after watching The Social Network and feels an overriding urge to eat a Big Mac; a taste tester swiftly changes his preference when told which of the drinks he is comparing is Coca-Cola; and in Switzerland, a student of wine stares incredulously when he is told that the vintage that he has just praised profusely is in fact the same cheap plonk that he has tasted and dismissed as worthless a few minutes before.

These are all examples of the power of affective memories, powerful associations that can leap unbidden to our attention through the activation of patterns of neurons in our brains, often by seemingly unrelated triggers. The first two are everyday examples of the ways in which these memories influence the fortunes of brands. The final two are taken from groundbreaking experiments that have sought to shed light on how.


Memory games

In the first of these experiments, a famous taste-off between The Coca-Cola company and Pepsi orchestrated by the neuroscientist Samuel McClure in 2004, tasters were first asked to sample the two drinks in a blind test. When they did so, preference was split roughly equally between the rival colas. However, when they were then served the drinks from branded containers, Coke became the favourite. Interestingly, fMRI scans of the tasters’ brains showed significantly different brain activity when knowingly drinking Coca-Cola than when consuming it blind. When it comes to enjoying Coca-Cola, something other than tastebuds is clearly at work.

The wine experiment provides more evidence as to what. In it, students of oenology were presented with four different bottles of wine and asked to taste them, rate them and then justify the scores that they gave to each. Unbeknownst to them, their drinks had been tampered with. A mediocre wine of poor quality had been poured into two of the bottles: one the bottle of a prestigious vintage; the other a younger, less prestigious label. The labels exerted a great influence on the scores this wine received: it drew positive scores and reviews when poured from an expensive bottle, and scathing ones when associated with a cheaper label. When told what had happened, all students had a hard time believing they had actually tasted the same wine on both occasions.


The remembering self and the experiencing self

In his landmark book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explores the potential difference between our “experiencing self” and our “remembering self”, pointing out in the process that our memories of an event can be reconsolidated while the event itself is still on-going. If a diner in a restaurant experiences a wonderful five-course meal only to have a waiter spill a glass of red wine all over his finest suit at the end of it, it is this final memory that dominates how the event itself is remembered (in this case as a negative experience). Likewise a bad experience that ends well will be remembered positively and recalled as a positive memory. As Kahneman puts it: “The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living, and it is the one that makes decisions. What we learn from the past is to maximize the qualities of our future memories”.


The triumph of memory over (present) experience

Both the wine tasters and their cola equivalents had been fooled by the powerful role that traces of the past play in preparing our brains for the future. As neuroscientists come to understand more about how memories form and re-form, they are realizing that anticipating experiences in this way is a vital part of their role. So much so that our most powerful memories may actually supplant or override our experiences in the present.

In our wine example, the brains of the students were already equipped with knowledge of the prestigious vintages and this memory trumped actual taste when it came to experiencing the wine. Could brands play a similar role, acting not just as the promise of enjoyment but actually causing us to experience that enjoyment as well? The cola example appears to show that they can, with the presence of a favored brand bringing memory networks into play and producing a more positive experience. Such influence within the mind is a powerful asset for any brand to possess. But our understanding of exactly how it forms – and how brands can act to improve their position within the brain – is only beginning to emerge.