Creating and Activating Brand Meaning in Consumer Decisions

Editor’s note: This article was originally presented at Making Cosmetics in Birmingham, U.K., March 28–29, 2012, as a paper titled “Creating and activating brand meaning in consumer decisions: Integrating critical brand stimuli through-the-line.”

  • If consumers aren’t making decisions based on POP marketing, the factors that are influencing them are more likely based on a continuous conscious and unconscious processing of brand stimuli.
  • Marketing messages need to be directed in both mass and niche channels, helping to build a larger presence and create a more significant association and network within consumers’ memories.
  • There are core visual mnemonics that trigger semantic memory networks and predict the likely reaction to consumers’ exposure to these visuals while in a shopping environment.

Contesting the premise that the great majority of consumer decision-making takes place at the point-of-purchase (POP) and arguing that the nature and extent of POP information processing is primed by explicit and implicit memory representations of brand stimuli and meaning, this article addresses how beauty brands should stress the need for an integrated perspective of above-the-line (directed at mass audiences; ATL) and below-the-line (directed at niche audiences; BTL) communications that better reflect the rapid, holistic and continuous decision-making processes of low involvement consumers. Here, the authors present an approach for identifying those elements of brand stimuli that are critical to both developing and activating semantic memory networks, via both ATL and BTL communications.

The Impetus for Consumer Decision-making

In 2003, Pira International highlighted a significant shift in focus and investment toward POP communications activity on the grounds that 70% of customer purchasing decisions are undertaken at the point of purchase.1

As the authors believe this POP decision-making is often not the case, it is argued that the nature and extent of POP information processing is primed by memory representations of brand stimuli and meaning. The continuous processing of communications stimuli in the external media environment leads to the creation of semantic memory networks (engrams) that provide a context for the processing of POP stimuli. Much of this processing may be automatic, preconscious and not available to explicit memory—hence consumers’ belief that the processing of new external material is solely responsible for their decision-making at POP.

This article is based on the premise that brand meaning is represented in semantic memory networks, and that these are continuously created, by both conscious, elaborative processing2 and preconscious, automatic processing of brand stimuli.3–5 Secondly, it is stressed that these networks, or engrams2,6, are triggered in-store by key elements of brand-related stimuli, and it is this integrated processing that drives decision-making. These concepts are discussed to build a fairly detailed picture of consumer decision-making under conditions of low attention and low involvement, a scenario that is prevalent throughout fast-moving consumer goods categories.7

The Need for an Integrated Approach

The main implication of this scenario is that organizations and brand owners need to take a holistic view of how marketing communications can shape consumer decision-making. In particular, brand owners and marketing and sales directors are faced with two questions that, taken together, may be seen to drive purchase decisions:

  1. How do we create, change and reinforce brand engrams through continuous exposure in the media environment?
  2. How do we ensure these engrams are triggered by stimuli at POP?

In turn, this gives rise to two key problems for market researchers to address:

  1. How do we identify and understand the engrams that currently exist for the brand?
  2. How do we identify the elements of the brand stimuli that most effectively trigger these engrams at POP?

Within marketing research literature, it is evident that a number of methodological approaches have been developed to address these questions. For example, traditional qualitative methods and questioning techniques have historically been used in brand image research. More detailed and rigorous attempts to elicit brand meaning, perceptions and attitudes are often characterized by the use of projective techniques, such as word association, sentence completion, scene description and third-party observation, and the psychological research technique known as priming.8 Discussed in some detail here, the authors come to the conclusion that the state of methodological development with regard to identifying, developing and activating brand engrams is relatively advanced.

However, one of the notable themes throughout the development of market research in this area is the tendency to focus on one element of the communication and decision-making process. For example, many studies focus on the effects of advertising or the effectiveness of packaging, often using qualitative techniques supported by quantitative data. To the authors’ knowledge, there have been few, if any, attempts to develop methodologies that are specifically designed to identify the extent to which brand-related stimuli are effective throughout the integrated communication and decision-making process; i.e., the extent to which these stimulus effects might be seen to cut through ATL and BTL communications.

It is suggested this may be a result of the way in which marketing research has historically been commissioned and utilized by communications practitioners. In this sense, research has primarily been used to evaluate the effectiveness of separate elements in the chain of communication from consumer awareness to shopper purchasing decisions—e.g., ATL, PR, packaging, promotion, BTL—evaluated separately within one brand’s marketing mix. This is often because one executive is dealing with different specialists and sees their particular contribution to the marketing mix as an individual discipline that needs to be measured separately.

In addition, responsibility for the different channels is usually split between management departments within an organization, such as marketing and sales, marketing and category management, and so on. Thus, current brand research tends to be silo-managed with different objectives, and the way in which market research is commissioned and used tends to:

  • separate the functions of communication into ATL and BTL, and evaluate them individually because of historical procurement protocols;
  • solely research consumer opinion by assuming consumers and shoppers have the same psychological state while consuming and shopping. In this respect, research indicates the retail environment subverts shopping intentions and generates unplanned purchasing behaviors; and
  • predict likely success based only on the conscious recall and perceptions of respondents. In this respect, research indicates shopping, and especially fast-moving consumer goods shopping, is more likely to be based rather on consumers’ shopping schema and subsequently their script or experiential behavior. This tends to involve shoppers’ implicit semantic memory and is not predicted or measured by conventional research.

Although it is true that planners within communication agencies will often construct a brand world, the authors are not aware of any research process that actively seeks to identify the elements of brand visual equity that will cut through from ATL to the shop floor. Addressing this issue, the authors also present a methodological approach that will enable market researchers to investigate the extent to which brand-related stimuli are effective throughout the communications process, both ATL and BTL.

In this sense, it is proposed that, should market researchers be able to distill these critical elements from the overall brand stimuli, this will allow for greater creativity in the design of marketing communications while reducing the risk of core brand mnemonics being lost in this process.

Identifying Key Mnemonics to Activate Brand Meaning

“All cues are not created equal [when] obtaining attitude persistence under low-involvement conditions.”9

Inherent in this quote is a recognition that some mnemonics are stronger than others at activating brand memories and meaning. Here, the authors seek to identify the core visual mnemonics (CVM) that trigger semantic memory networks and predict the likely reaction to exposure among the consumers passing a category display in a store. In the experience of the authors, it would appear very few brand owners identify their brand’s CVM and its relative strength on-shelf. As a result, brands may lose their CVM through redesign, resulting in a decrease in sales.

In a self-selection fast-moving consumer goods retail environment, key mnemonics are usually visual, although memory networks can be triggered by aroma, music and more. These mnemonics prompt recall, which in turn trigger a schema or a script reaction. These concepts may be seen to mirror that of the brand engram: “Cognitive structures termed schema represent the total, integrated network of information, feelings and associated ideas consumers have about products, brands, services, stores etc.”10

“A special type of schema, called a script, is a stereotypical event sequence, describing what a consumer should do in a particular consumption situation.”11

A script reaction to a brand mnemonic can be a physical or a mental process and is largely dependent upon two factors:

  1. a consumer’s disposition toward a brand; and
  2. a consumer’s shopping mission or motivation.

For example, in the case of a Guinness brand loyalist who had intended to buy Guinness before entering a store, recognition of a brand mnemonic would prompt a selection schema. To an occasional consumer of Guinness who wants to buy from the beer category, recognition of a brand mnemonic might prompt a consideration schema in which Guinness is one of several brands he may choose. To a rejecter of Guinness, recognition would prompt a deselection schema.

Schemas or engrams can be visualized as a three-dimensional web of feelings, associations, experiences and imagery associated with a brand. Recall of the brand can be accessed using many routes. By understanding consumers’ disposition toward a brand and their motivations for considering or purchasing it, it is possible to link a strong brand association with a motivation to purchase. Schema can therefore be prompted by a number of associations or themes. As such, brands may be seen to have a palette of imagery, associations and themes that can activate the brand schema or engram and essentially cut through from ATL to BTL. This palette may be described as brand visual equity.

Schema research methodology deconstructs the media associated with a category—such as packaging, magazine ads and TV ads—to which consumers are exposed. Groups of consumers with differing dispositions toward the sponsoring brands are taken through a range of exercises in relation to the media. These exercises are designed to identify:

  • the brand mnemonics that drive recognition and recall;
  • the strength of the CVM in relation to market competitors;
  • typical shopping missions and motivations;
  • the decision-making process and related visual cues;
  • typical consumption patterns; and
  • the brand visual equity, i.e., the palette of imagery, associations and themes around the brand.

This article concludes by stressing the importance of such methodological development in this field. In particular, the authors note that once brand managers clearly understand the specific visual language required to trigger explicit and implicit semantic memory networks, the visual presence of brands on the shop floor can be strategically managed to generate effective cut-through from ATL to BTL.

However, the development of effective methodologies in this area must take into account of the fact that, in fast-moving consumer goods categories characterized by very low levels of attention and involvement, consumers largely adopt automatic purchasing modes. As such, it is perhaps inappropriate to expect cognitive research models with a focus on conscious, explicit memory traces to predict through-the-line efficacy of marketing.

A process that avoids verbal overshadowing and reveals a window to the adaptive unconscious may prove to be of real value in advancing research methodology in this field.


  1. Pira International, The future of point-of-purchase research in the UK and Ireland: Executive summary, Pira International Ltd. (2003)
  2. DL Schacter, Illusory memories: A cognitive neuroscience analysis. PNAS, 93(24), 13527–13534 (1996)
  3. HS Krishnan and S Shapiro, Comparing Implicit and Explicit Memory for Brand Names from Advertisements, J Expl Psych: App, 147–163 (June 2, 1996)
  4. S Shapiro, When an ad’s influence is beyond our conscious control: Perceptual and conceptual fluency effects caused by incidental exposure, J Cons Res, 26(1), (1999)
  5. JR Rossiter and RB Silberstein, Brain-Imaging Detection of Visual Scene Encoding in Long-term Memory for TV Commercials, J Ad Res, 41(2), 13–22, (2001)
  6. R Heath, Low involvement processing—a new model of brand communication, J of Mark Comm, 7, 27–33 (2001)
  7. H Skinner and P Stephens, Speaking the same language: the relevance of neuro-linguistic programming to effective marketing communications, J Mark Comm, 9, 177–192 (2003)
  8. A Hill, Non-conscious processes and semantic image profiling, J Mark Res Soc, 35(1), 315–323 (1993)
  9. J Sengputa, RC Goodstein and DS Boniger, J of Cons Res, 23 (1997)
  10. JG Lynch and TK Srull, J of Cons Res, 9, 18–37 (1982)
  11. GR Foxall, RE Goldsmith and S Brown, Consumer Psychology for Marketing, Cengage Learning EMEA, Andover, Hampshire, UK (1998)


Anthony Grimes is a lecturer of marketing at the University of Manchester’s Manchester School of Business.

Rob Barker is the director of Shopper Insights Ltd., an Oxford, U.K.-based business that works with clients and partners who see a commercial advantage in understanding how communication and design influence attitudes and behaviors.

A graduate of London University, David Elliott gained postgraduate qualifications in export marketing. After 13 years in U.K. and international marketing roles, he moved to Singapore and then Indonesia in increasingly senior positions. After returning to the U.K. in 1993 he gained an MBA and runs a successful U.K. and international consultancy. Clients have included Seven Seas, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, Reckitt Benckiser, Boots and more. Throughout his career he has had a keen interest in the way consumers respond to brands, which has led to cooperation with research practitioners and academics in areas such as low involvement theory and the role of brand engrams.


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