Just like genes compete for limited resources in order to survive, memes compete for our limited attention. Memes only exist in our minds, but ‘survival of the fittest’ still applies: if an idea doesn’t reproduce, it dies out (gets forgotten). There is only so much room in your head, so marketers must compete for space. Customers rarely know more than 2-3 brands in any given category, don’t know more than 1-2 things about each brand, and don’t waste more than a few miliseconds of brainpower on most purchases. They buy the one that’s good enough, that feels right in the moment, the one that’s familiar.
Brand advertising’s job is to make those miliseconds count – build the memory structures and brand associations that make it an easy decision. As Byron Sharp states, “The easier the brand is to access in memory, in more buying situations, for more consumers, then the higher the overall mental availability”. It’s not enough for the product to be physically available on the shelf, or listed in the search results. The product must also be mentally available and accessible to the consumer, something they’ll look for, recognize when they see it, and actively consider.
The shift to digital makes marketing even more of a memory game. Online there are no limits: shelf space is infinite. When you remove the bottleneck of physical limits on how many products fit in a store, the new bottleneck becomes discovery. With unlimited products, attention becomes the limited resource. This is why Google, Amazon, and Meta have built such a fantastically profitable businesses. The search engine results page, product listing page, and social feed are the new arbiters of consumer choice. If you’re not featured, you effectively don’t exist. The digital world is eating the physical world, so not existing digital is increasingly the same as not existing anywhere. Research by James Hankins for the IPA showed that share of search – your brand’s Google search data relative to a basket of competitors – can reliably predict 83% of a brand’s market share.
As technology progresses, and culture evolves, we become more nurture than nature. That makes our memes more important than our genes. They certainly evolve a lot faster: milliseconds versus millions of years. Unfortunately our memes can be more easily manipulated. A former Design Ethicist at Google warns of “an army of high-IQ engineers informed by Ivy League persuasion labs tasked to create algorithms aimed solely at capturing and holding our attention”.
The race is on to capture what Warren Buffet calls “Share of Mind”, and brands that aren’t easy to remember, won’t survive. “Kodak had that in spades, 30 years ago, they owned that. They had what I call share of mind. Forget about share of market - share of mind. They had something in everybody's mind around the country, around the world - the little yellow box and everything - that said, 'Kodak is the best.' That's priceless”. Whether through exploiting cognitive biases, or simply outspending competitors, research has shown that generating excess share of voice – your mind share if bigger than your market share – reliably drives growth, as the two eventually equalize.
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