Monday, 7 January 2008

The Digital Art of Memory

Stella Artois 'Memory Palaces' from Commerical Archive

“Storytelling,” the screenwriter Robert McKee once wrote “is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.” His is a sentiment shared by most global brands. Strong brands are those that have strong stories to tell. “The more coherent and compelling your brand story,” Mark Thomson tells us in Crafting a Compelling Brand story, “the more it will power the success of your enterprise.”
The key purpose of branding is of course to create a strong set of easily recalled associations in the memory of the consumer. And to this end, stories are incredibly efficient ways of doing this. They are well known mnemonic devices. Before the advent of writing, oral societies used narratives as a way to memorise and preserve information about their cultures and their past. Even today, psychologists list narrative as one of the four strategic techniques used by the human brain to remember clusters of information effectively. No wonder then, that stories have become such integral parts of most brands’ existences.

But as story expert Sam Keen reminds us in Story Lore, we are perhaps a society fast approaching our narrative limit. “We are the first generation bombarded with so many stories from so many authorities,” he tells us that, “in a sense, we are saturated with stories.” The world of narrative is becoming just as cluttered as the world of commercial messaging. The fact that the average person can receive anywhere up to 3,000 commercial messages a day is a statistic that has been bandied about the advertising industry for quite a while now. But what about the sheer number of narratives we encounter on an average day? We are bombarded with stories from the news, our friends, work, television shows, radio shows; in fact when you stop and think about it the list is enormous. And brands themselves have numerous stories to tell; not only is there the overall brand story but a wealth of individual product stories as well, not to mention the increasing number of consumer-generated stories on top of these. Keen could well be right. We are a society on the verge of saturation point when it comes to stories.

But narrative was of course not the only mnemonic device used by our ancestors to link together and memorise pieces of information. They used spatial devices as well. The Romans for instance, famously constructed so-called “memory palaces” in order to remember complex stories, fables and speeches; a process also known as The Method of Loci. The imagined loci were physical locations, usually large familiar public buildings. To utilise the method, you would walk through the building several times in your mind's eye, viewing distinct places within it. After a few repetitions of this, you would be able to remember and visualise each of the places. To then memorise a speech or a story, you would break it up into small pieces. Each piece would be represented by an imagined object or symbol and then placed into particular places within the imagined loci. Each piece could then be recalled, simply by imagining that you were walking through the building again, visiting each of the loci and viewing each of the images that were placed in the loci.

Indeed, this technique did not simply disappear with the collapse of the Roman Empire. It is still very much in use today. Brands quite often use spatial mnemonic linking devices; a few years ago for example Stella Artois created a series of posters designed to strengthen the brand’s association with film. The posters functioned like 2D memory palaces; objects that symbolised famous films were placed in various loci around an everyday, public scene such as a street or a beach. In effect the brand was creating miniature Stella Artois memory palaces for us to wander around and recall well-known stories. This technique has, not surprisingly found its way into the digital arena; M&M's with their Dark M&Ms viral puzzle, Virgin Digital with their 20 greatest bands puzzle and Absolut Vodka with their 82 bottle search. By creating virtual memory places, all three brands were able to associate and link themselves with a wealth of stories and tales.

In today's cluttered world, branded memory palaces (or places; they can, according to psychologist’s be any place, even a town) can offer consumers a way to organise, store, memorise and navigate the myriad of stories and associations that are thrown at them by brands. Indeed one of the strongest brands around today is one already conceptualised by most of us as a town; Nike is now almost synonymous with the concept of a ‘Niketown.’ Conceptualising a brand as a place rather than as a personality has a distinct advantage when it comes to recall. "Our spatial memory" remarks Steven Johnson in Emergence "is more powerful than our textual memory." It is easier to conceptualise and memorise a brand as a place than to memorise what it says. Indeed, Marlboro, one of the strongest brands of the 20th century wasn’t just a brand. It was a country.

“To a large degree,” Mark Thomson writes, “crafting a good brand story is about applying the lessons we’ve always known. Remember the tales we used to love as children?" This is an interesting bit of advice. I don't think it is any co-incidence that the stories we remember most vividly from our childhoods are more often than not, spatial stories; Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and of course, Harry Potter to name but a few of the most famous. These are all examples of stories that take the reader on a journey through landscapes filled with weird and wonderful objects; giant bong smoking caterpillars sat on toadstools, crocodiles with clocks in them, talking beavers and yellow brick roads. Perhaps this is something brands are beginning to cotton on to, using on-line environments to create weird and wonderful spatial journeys. The more unusual the objects associated with your brand stories or products, the more likely people are to remember them as they pass through - just as in The Method of Loci.