It’s not often you get to share a stage with a French strategist, a British artist and a neuroscientist from Ohio.

But I was lucky enough to do just that last week, at the Cannes Lions festivalThe artist was Jason Bruges, of Jason Bruges Studio. The neuroscientist was Professor Per Sederberg of Ohio State University. And the strategist was Dominique Bonnafoux of FITCH – the agency behind our talk.

Along with FITCH’s Global Marketing Director, Maeve O’Sullivan, Dom had brought us together to talk about memories – and how to create memorable ideas and experiences.

 Thanks to Creativepool, who interviewed us after the talk.

The science bit  

Conversations about creativity tend, almost inevitably, tend to be fairly fuzzy and intuitive. But having Professor Per Sederberg on board made this one much more grounded.

That old chestnut about cutting through the noise is so over-used it’s become pretty much white noise itself. And it’s also only half the story – if that.

You can always ‘cut through’ by doing something sufficiently weird, or big, or weird and big. But what impressions will you leave people with? And how long will they last?

I won’t rehash the whole talk here, but one of the main things I came away with was the notion that peculiarity is good – but too peculiar is bad.

Mike or River?

If you fit smoothly into the everyday, the mind will simply tune you out. So you need to be unexpected to get noticed.

But if you also want people to remember you, then you can’t just be weird for the sake of it. You need to link up with a whole network of associations.

To steal Per’s metaphor, a truly incongruous experience is like something plonked in the middle of a desert. There’s no way for you to get back to it: no roads, no signposts, no paths. You’re actually more likely to forget it than remember it.

For something to be memorable, it needs to sit within a rich ‘map’ of other memories and associations, so your brain has lots of ways to find it again.

Think of people’s names. Extremely common names – like mine – often slip the mind. (I get a lot of, ‘Mark, was it?’) But a name unlike any you’ve heard before can be even harder to recall. (‘It was… it began with a T, I think… Or a Z?’)

The most memorable names are those unusual enough to snag the mind’s attention, but with enough reference points to let your brain retrieve them quickly.

My son recently met a boy called River. He’d never met a River before – or imagined it might be someone’s name. So it stuck out to him. But he also has a huge web of associations linking to river. Which means he’s unlikely to have trouble remembering it.

Remembering forward

This is what Per means when he says memory is about the future, not the past. Our memories prepare us for what’s ahead. They’re a prediction mechanism.

Seen in this light, brands are nothing but memories. If you hear ‘Coca-Cola’ or see an ad for Virgin Trains, it activates a great web of remembered associations. (So does everything, of course: madeleines, the Empire State Building, a photo of your dad.)

Many of these associations are beyond brands’ control. I saw a Virgin Trains ad yesterday. They wanted to tell me how easy they make travel. But the first thing I thought of was a story I’d seen the day before – about a guy who worked out he could fly from Newcastle to London via Menorca (and have a cocktail on the beach) for £40 less than the Virgin Trains fare. Ah.

So what?

So we need to make things ‘peculiar’ enough to get the mind’s attention, but which also connect to a web of remembered associations.

Your control over those associations is limited. But if you’re doing branding well, everything you say and do strengthens the positive ones (and adds more).

You’re building up a rock that will endure – rather than continually recreating sandcastles that look great, but get swept away in every tide. (Hence our hashtag: #PeculiarRocks.)

Being part of this peculiar team has been a pleasure. And we’re already planning our next collaboration. Don’t forget to watch out for that.