In June, I’ll be part of a panel at the Cannes Lions festival, talking about how language and visual design can create memories.

It’s the brainchild of our friends at FITCH, and will be chaired by their Senior Strategist, Dominique Bonnafoux.

Preparing for it has been fascinating. I’m sharing the stage with Jason Bruges – creator of memorable installations like Light Masonry at York Minster – and Per Sederberg, Associate Professor of Psychology at Ohio State University.

Madness, meet method

You don’t often get a chance to test creative instincts against hard science. But everything Per has been telling us about the psychology of memory marries pleasingly with ideas of branding.

For example, he explained that memories aren’t really about the past. They’re about the present – and the future.

The ‘scaffold’ of memories each of us builds helps us process what’s going on now, and predict what’s likely to come next.

At the basic survival level, we need to remember that those berries made us sick, but those other berries didn’t. And when you think about it, that principle applies to everything.

The broad black thing with the white lines is populated by lethal chunks of fast-moving steel. Grey skies mean you’d best pack an umbrella. Tony lied about kissing Kate, so he might be lying about Annabel too.

Brands = memories

In the same way, brands are mini-networks of memories. When we think of Coke, or Tesla, or Nestlé, that brand connects with its own ‘scaffold’ of associations – and the wider network of our memories.

Those associations are different for each of us, of course. And brands have only so much control over them. Especially in these digital times, when a viral post can – rightly or wrongly – skew your whole sense of a brand. (McDonalds put what in their nuggets?)

A lot of what brands do is pretty short-term, aimed at achieving specific objectives like quarterly sales targets or social media engagements. Achieving a required spike is enough. Often, brands are pretty relaxed about violating their own guidelines to do it.

But then the spike falls away, like a sandcastle collapsing back into the beach, and everyone moves on to the next one.

What our panel is hoping to do is suggest ways we can achieve more permanent ‘landmarks’ in the memory. Not sandcastles, but rocks.

Be peculiar…

Creativity is, almost by definition, a process for creating the new and unexpected. And branding is – or should be – about differentiation.

That’s why the first is so important to the second: you can hardly differentiate yourself by being generic and predictable.

The word ‘peculiar’ became central to our conversations very quickly. It’s an ideal word, meaning both ‘strange or unusual’ and ‘specific or exclusive’. He wore very peculiar trousers. In fact that style of trousers is peculiar to him alone.

This, we decided, was the material from which to form our rocks. The peculiar. Only by creating experiences that stand out can you expect to be noticed – let alone remembered.

Just not too peculiar

But is it enough simply to be unexpected? Of course not.

There are obvious reasons why a brand shouldn’t just go as weird as it can. BMW could fill Trafalgar Square with silly putty, but it wouldn’t create many useful associations for the brand.

Per backed this instinct up too. Turns out there are sound psychological reasons for not just going ‘super-peculiar’ in the pursuit of memorability.

But I’ve let enough of our cats out of the bag for one post. Why not come along to the talk and hear more? We’re on at 1pm on June 19, at The Forum.