Memory-based decisions are dominant when choices are limited. Forty years ago, when there were four soda brands and two stores in the neighborhood, consumers could memorize options and recall what was needed. In the current landscape, where a surplus of soda options exists, it makes memory-based choices less relevant.

As the environment gets increasingly complex, our brain doesn”;t have the capacity, nor the care, to remember soda options. As a result, humans have learned to cope with this problem in two ways:

Ignoring information
Outsourcing decisions, or what cognitive scientists call, “;cognitive offloading”;.

Cognitive Outsourcing –; Great Choices, Little Effort

Cognitive outsourcing sounds like a futuristic term out of Star Trek, but in reality, we have performed this mental function for decades. Have you ever counted on your fingers instead of using your head? Or have you used a calendar to remember an important date instead of storing it in long-term memory? Cognitive outsourcing is relying on technology, people, or the environment for cognitive functions to reduce the demand on our brain, which helps humans make good enough choices while using less mental energy.

3 particular areas humans outsource:

Technology: We Google definitions instead of remembering them. Facebook reminds us of people”;s birthdays. Smartphones keep track of numbers. Netflix tells us what we like to watch. Automatic monthly subscription services like Dollar Shave Club, provide products so that we don”;t have to remember to buy a razor.
People: We use Amazon reviews to make choices, instead of looking at product features. We ask trusted friends for fashion advice instead of searching for ourselves.
Environment: We don”;t remember the snack aisle in the grocery store, but we know how to get there once we are in the store. Structural cues such as a building, landmarks, slopes in the terrain, signage, or any structural feature can alleviate our need for memory.

More Cognitive Outsourcing = Less Need for Memory

The shift from “;memory-based choice”; to “;cognitive outsourcing”; is driven by two factors: 1) an increased accessibility of technology (e.g., technology at our fingertips) and 2) proliferation of brands, products, benefits and choices (cognitive overload). Our brain adapts to these changes not by trying to remember different products and distinctive features, but instead, by “;outsourcing”; choices to the environment to minimize the burden on our brain.

The demand for cognitive resources has intensified, making it less likely to use precious mental real-estate for brand names.

Marketers Listen Up! Mental Availability and Brand Salience are Fading Concepts

Brand salience, the propensity of a brand to be thought of in buying situations, is an important factor for brands, but it is not the complete picture. Investing resources on building salience and mental availability has three issues…;

1. Memory is not a Pre-Requisite to be Chosen

Many iconic brands possess a privileged place in memory, but being accessible or salient during consumer choices is not a pre-requisite to be chosen. We are increasingly witnessing small, unheard of brands and new start-ups are winning over consumer choices compared to the top of mind iconic name brands. Being remembered and top of mind at buying occasions can help but it is not a necessary condition for being chosen!

2. Memory is Reactive

Being thought of in buying situations (brand salience) hinges on customers 1) having a need, then 2) recalling a brand in a buying situation. Newer marketing tactics are not passively waiting for customers to get into a “;need state”; but instead are creating needs for customers. Proactive marketing should not wait for customers to get to the store or shelf, but leverage new channels, technology, and the power of social influence to generate new buying occasions for their products. Instead of fighting for the “;moment of truth”;, brands are creating new buying occasions in the mind of the consumer (proactive) instead of being remembered (reactive).

A “;memory-centric”; focus on marketing will be one step behind the competition. Brands are fighting a war of cognitive resources that will never be won with memory in the future. To many incidental, momentary cues can impact decisions.

3. Memory is a Poor Investment

Brands exhaust resources to boost brand salience and mental availability with the hope of increasing the probability of being chosen. However, the marketing required for a brand to be thought of in buying situations is like pushing a boulder up a mountain or trying to squeeze six people into a VW bug. It”;s hard and can be a waste of resources. If consumers consult with their memory for buying, brands are not making it easy enough for customers to choose them. There are limited time and space in the buying cycle for effortful memory.

Investing in brand salience can increase the probability of purchase, however, it”;s important to consider 2 things:

the amount of marketing spend needed to get your customer base to recall your brand at a moment that matters (sustained over time)
the probability increase of being chosen from memory investments

What Should Marketers Do?

Memory is not dead, but limited. The fight for limited mental real estate has diminishing returns for marketing. Marketers should move beyond “;memory-based marketing”; (e.g., brand salience, mental availability) toward working with how consumers outsource their cognitive resources. Instead of plowing resources to force-fit your brand into the minds of consumers, brands should reduce the cognitive burden of being chosen.

The goal of winning consumer choices via outsourcing is making it cognitively easier for customers to choose your brand.

Understand –; How can/are consumers outsourcing their decisions. What technology, social influencers, or environmental cues facilitate choices for your category?
Identify –; Opportunities to Circumvent Memory. What can we impact to circumvent memory-based choices to prompt purchase? Think about new occasions, new jobs to be done, new channels to communicate.
Execute –; Make your brand easier to Choose –; cognitively fluent to process (simple communication, heuristics, fluency devices), easier to choose (reduce complexity at the shelf, piggybacking, distinctive assets), and physically easier to buy and use (e.g., less packaging, DTC, subscribe, Auto-pay, reorder)

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