Ahead of her guest appearance at our ‘Marketing Effectiveness on Trial’ Summit, Ehrenberg-Bass Institute’s Associate Professor Rachel Kennedy explains the role of mental availability in driving brand success.

To delve into how advertising works, it is useful to tap into the advances in knowledge made since 1980 about the human brain and how it works. Given that advertising needs to work through buyers’ memories, it is important that we understand how our brains form new memories, encode stimuli and identify what gets retrieved. For new brands, this means that we need to know how people learn about them (especially the role of advertising in this) what is it is that they encode – e.g. the brand name or the look of the product – and what barriers might stop or delay memory occurring.

The understanding we have of memory, advertising and buyer behaviour leads us to believe all new brands need to build what can be termed mental availability. This relates to the propensity of a brand to be noticed or be at the forefront of consumers’ minds in buying or consumption situations. It reflects the quantity and quality of the network of memory structures that potential buyers hold about a brand. Therefore, much brand advertising is about building and refreshing the relevant memory structures that help increase awareness of a brand for potential buyers in a range of situations where they may consider opting for that brand.

Established brands have a head start, as they have already established memory networks in the minds of many potential buyers and have more users who know about them. There is evidence that advertising and usage effects linger for long periods. Prior users are also more likely to notice advertising for brands that they already buy.

New brands have to overcome this mental availability barrier. And, in the heavily cluttered modern world with lots of choice and lots of advertising, this is not an easy thing to do. But, given that repertoire shopping is the norm, combined with near instant loyalty for new brands, this suggests that it is not an unreasonable barrier.

“Very few new brands are actively disliked; the problem is far more often one of indifference.”

The real world of brands is complex, with lots of choice. Shoppers are often time-poor and our brains have limits; we are not perfectly rational, carefully evaluating all alternatives – instead, we are cognitive misers, who ‘satisfice’. Emotions are what people pay attention to and influence the decisions we make.

It can be useful to consider brands as mental shortcuts that save shoppers time and mental energy, and advertising facilitates this. The many consumers who buy branded medications – even though chemically equivalent generic substitutes are available at the same stores for much lower prices – are relevant examples of the value of brands to shoppers; it saves them having to think.

It has been suggested that “…the Internet has changed the launch process – now companies seed products with influencers, leak information to reporters, bloggers, and consumers, live-stream launch events globally, and reward brand advocates with exclusives. The insatiable 24/7 news cycle and the dominance of social media makes launching a new product far easier in some ways – and more difficult in others.” Clearly, there are some new opportunities, but the established knowledge about how brands compete and grow suggests that, even with these changes, the fundamentals have not changed, and cost-effective and broad mental and physical availability will remain critical.

Brands need both mental and physical availability to enter a market, and to defend their sales from new entrants. Nobody can buy a brand if it is not available. Consumers won’t consider it if it does not come to mind or get noticed.

Advertising remains important in order to provide creative publicity for brands and to drive sales that would otherwise not occur. It helps build and refresh the memories that exist in the mind of habitual shoppers, memories that are a key mental barrier to entry for many new brands. However, the success of some innovative brands that are either very distinct or disrupt the category – in managing to increase mental and physical availability via advertising or other means – demonstrates that there is more than one way to enter a market.