A brand is a memory. At first glance, that statement feels like an oversimplification, or perhaps too retro. If it feels that way, it’s because what we think we know about memory is too simplistic. Understanding the nature of memory is now, and has been for a long time, one of the central mysteries of the brain. It is a vast and complicated problem for neuroscientists to unravel. Decoding DNA is trivial in comparison.

Advertising people would rather talk about ideas. But ideas are to memories as plans are to battles. Ideas are simple. Memories are messy. A memory is an idea that has survived contact with reality.

The substrate of memory is experience. According to Endel Tulving, the grandfather of modern memory research, “A memory is a change in a nervous system that allows it to learn from experience.” Importantly, memory is a physical change in the brain.

Memory is the physical link between past and future behavior. Future behavior is the outcome of predictions made by the brain based on lessons learned from past experience. A change in behavior in response to new or modified surroundings is directly linked to a change in memory derived from new experience, of either a physical or mental event.

Memory, therefore, is the neurological key to our ability to adapt to a changing, dynamic environment. Our ability to adapt is the primary function of our big brains.

A branded memory is a particular type or subset of memories linked to economic behavior in a changing, dynamic marketplace. Advertisers have long understood that the creation of a branded memory is an investment in a future purchase or stream of purchases.

A branded memory, of course, is not the memory of a single product experience or mental event, like the experience of watching a TV commercial. Rather, like atoms bonding together to form larger chains of complex molecules, branded memories can reach across many touch points and stretch back in time many years.

The strength of a brand is a function of the number and relevance of memories that have been generated in the brains of target consumers. For example, awareness and familiarity are key constructs of memory strength. Brands appear big or small based on the number and types of memories associated with them.

Therefore, the ability to imagine or create new memories of the brand experience is central to the marketing of brands. Understanding how advertising builds branded memories is key to understanding how advertising works.