Short and Sweet: Branding for the Long-Term Memory

Imagine two billboards on the side of the freeway. One has a powerful image and a word or two; the other has a paragraph of text. Which of these are you most likely to understand and digest? Which will stick around in your long-term memory? Hint: it’s not the one with the paragraph.

A scientific study in 2011 determined that we Americans took in five times more information than we did in 1986—the equivalent of 174 newspapers a day. And that was 2011. The amount of content we’re subjected to increases with every passing year. With so much information bombarding our brains at any given moment, it’s unsurprising that a billboard with an image and a single word is easiest to grasp.

There’s a good reason for this. In 1956, cognitive psychologist George A. Miller determined that the number of objects the average person can hold in working memory is 7 ± 2, i.e., between five and nine.

Miller’s Law, as it is now known, has substantial value in advertising and marketing, so much so that it’s become a general rule of thumb in the industry. Whether or not you’re aware of the principle, it’s in practice everywhere. There’s a reason why the most successful tag lines—“Just do it,” “A diamond is forever,” “Think small,” “I’m lovin’ it”—are rarely longer than a few words. Short phrases are easier to understand in short-term memory, so they have a better chance of being absorbed into long-term memory.

The challenge for advertisers and marketers, then, is to create something catchy, meaningful, and immediately recognizable so that their target audience will form long-term associations with the brand. Combining a short tagline with a powerful visual component reinforces the brand and commits it firmly into long-term memory.

This challenge of conveying information in an easily consumable way is often a crucial part of building relationships between brands and consumers. So the next time you’re developing a marketing message, consider the consumer’s capacity for short-term memory and information assimilation. “Short and sweet” creative will help pave your way to a more recognizable and memorable brand.

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