Opinion

What every five-year-old knows about mnemonics

Nicknames are an everyday part of human speech, and something brands should take seriously when thinking about mnemonics and memory, writes Dave Trott.

While I was shaving, my wife said to me “Isn’t it Mike’s birthday this weekend?” I said “Which Mike?” Cathy rolled her eyes and said: “How many Mikes do we know?”

I said: “Well there’s Mike Reynolds, Mike Gold, and Mike Greenlees for a start.”

Cathy said: “Silly, obviously I mean Mike Yershon.”

Now how would I know that, just from the name Mike?

What we have here is an example of the need for mnemonics. There are at least four people we know with the name Mike. So what would normal people do?

We gave them nicknames, a mnemonic to distinguish them.

For instance, Mike Reynolds was ‘Rocky’, because he’s a tough guy who does martial arts. Mike Gold was always ‘Goldie’, obviously. And Mike Greenlees was always known as ‘Legsy’ because, when he was a young account man, he received a letter addressed to Mr Greenlegs.

Now if Cathy says ‘Mike’ I don’t know who she’s talking about.

But if she says ‘Rocky’, ‘Goldie’, or ‘Legsy’ I know exactly who she means.

This is the way normal people’s minds work in the real world.

It shouldn’t be too complicated for marketing and advertising people to understand. Without a mnemonic to differentiate your brand, you’re just doing an ad for the category.

I learned this on my first job. At BMP we had a beer called Courage Tavern, it wasn’t selling well. John Webster did a campaign with the line “Courage Tavern: It’s what your right arm’s for”.

Sales kept going down.

Eventually, planning was able to work out the problem.

The problem wasn’t the advertising at all, it was the name: Courage Tavern.

What’s important for drinkers is to show familiarity with the brand at point-of-purchase.

With this brand they couldn’t do that.

No one would ask for “A pint of Tavern” it sounded middle class and poncy.

And they couldn’t shorten it to “A pint of Tav”, it sounded daft.

So drinkers wouldn’t ask for it by name at all. They’d just ask for “A pint of keg” without specifying the brand.

So drinkers were given other brands and sales kept going down.

They quickly had to change the name to something drinkers could personalise.

So they changed it to John Courage.

Now drinkers could ask for “A pint of JC” or “A pint of John” and it sounded fine.

Sales went up, although it was the identical beer.

Being able to give it a mnemonic gave it a place in drinkers’ minds. That’s why we give our friends nicknames.

It differentiates the person we’re talking about and it’s an aid to memory.

Exactly what every brand needs.

That’s what a mnemonic is, a device to make your brand stand out in the mental Roladex.

Without differentiation everything is identical.

So things don’t stand out.

Which is, in fact, the purpose of camouflage.

To make whatever we’re trying to hide identical to whatever is around it.

Why on earth would we want to camouflage our brand?

Why would we want to make it identical to all the brands in its category?

And yet that’s what we do when we ignore a mnemonic.

We advertise the category, not the brand.

Do we really think that’s the purpose of advertising?

Dave Trott is a consultant, author and former ad agency creative director, and this article was first published on his blog.

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