Brands on the Brain: The Neurobiology of Memory and Experience

What is a “Brand”? Some intangible abstraction? The ethereal composite of vision, sound, touch, and emotion? Brands are that, but they are more. Recent research in neurobiology suggests that ideas are more than vapor. They are tangible and have physical residence in our brains. And now, scientists (and you) are actually able to see what the physical structure of an idea is.

In layman’s terms, nerves are comprised of branch-like struc­tures called den­dri­tes. Each den­drite branches in­to twig-like pro­tru­sions called den­d­rit­ic spines–up to 10,000 of them. These spines are formed by your real-life experiences, so that if one is consistently exposed to similar experiences they literally grow and take shape within our brains.For example, from the moment you were first born, you had millions of micro experiences you called “mother”: her touch, her voice, her eyes, her skin, her warmth, her spirit. . . everything good, bad, and indifferent that you have ever experienced about her resulted in a unique dendritic structure in your brain that is the repository of the idea, Mother. When you hear the word “mother”, your brain goes to that dendrite to retrieve “her”. So it is with “love”: a dendrite composed of your joys, your pain, your dreams, your disappointments . . . and, scientists postulate, all other ideas.Including brands.

Exactly how dendrites learn and memorize is still not clearly understood, but great progress is being made. Even at the relatively primitive level of our current understanding, we can apply two basic, yet profound principles to branding and marketing.

Just as we burn files onto CDs, memories are burned into our neurons. But these basic units of memory, “memes”, must be constantly recycled so that the memories remain there. Brand building and retention requires two primary components:

1. Consistent presentation of a branded experience: frequency over time.

2. A consistent experience of the brand: continuity.

Inconsistency in either component will lead to either memory decay, or cognitive dissonance: people will simply forget about your brand, or become too confused about what it means, resulting in dendritic atrophy. Essentially, use the dendrites (and use them well) or lose them.

Of all the brands with whom we’ve worked, none has ever practiced these principles more artfully, intelligently, and consistently than Coke. It is safe to assume that a significant portion of the world’s humanity has a dendrite parked in its collective brain called “Coke” whose branches represent the color red, the contour of the bottle, the burn at the back of the throat, the logo wave, and the emotion of “happiness”– sensory experiences their branding efforts have consistently recyled through our synapses over the course of our lives. I encourage you to practice this same wisdom in a way that is true and authentic to your brand.

Finally, while I’ve been writing here about branding, there is a much larger story being told. It’s the story of the mechanics of our humanity, the awareness of which must be accompanied by responsibility. As marketers and branders, our work does, in fact, truly live in the brains of its recipients. Let’s make the most of this opportunity by growing healthy and positive dendrites in the form of great ideas, imagery, sound, and experiences that feed and enrich–leading to profit for both our clients and their consumers.

p.s. Everything is everything.

Photo composite (L-R) : 1. Dendrite 2. Dendrite close-up 3. An elm tree in winter 4. A street map of San Francisco, 5. Satellite photograph of the Mississippi Delta.

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Rick Julian


  1. Madalin Matica on February 20, 2008 at 9:25 am

    Great article. I like this view 🙂
    Neurology, marketing, branding, lovemarks and ..dendrites ?

  2. admin on February 20, 2008 at 9:34 am

    Yeah, we may need to do a renaming engagement for Dendrites, doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, eh? Thanks for dropping by.

  3. […] the Uncommon Sense blog today there is an excellent post on Brands on the Brain. It touches upon the concepts of consistency and frequency of brand presentation, but could just as […]

  4. obeoman on February 20, 2008 at 9:53 am

    …w0w…I think I need a deeper bellybutton!

  5. admin on February 20, 2008 at 10:08 am

    re: deeper bellybutton

    A good quiet sick day at home was what did it for me. The ramblings of a feverish mind . . .

  6. random « alice in blunderland on February 20, 2008 at 10:27 am

    […] read this. […]

  7. Mark Earls on February 20, 2008 at 2:19 pm

    Interesting, but I’m afraid you might well have misunderstood how mental activity is related to brain activity.

    At some level you’re right that there’s going to be a physical correlate for mental experiences/activities (such as memory) and the lovely neuroimaging technology seems to show us the real stuff happening. What’s really going on, if you like…

    We’re not even at the end of the beginning of understanding the relationship between brain and mental activity(Dame Susan Greenfield)
    Neuro imaging does not show what its proponents claim it does (Steven Rose)
    Our current technology is like victorian photography – more interesting for what it fails to reveal than what it reveals…(Greenfield)

    And…”memories are not burned onto neurons”, I’m afraid or anything like it. That’s a gross misrepresentation of the neuroscience of memory, my friend.

    And wierdly, Coke is not burned anywhere on your brain (however much those nice folk in Atlanta would like it to be…)

    It’s just too early to tell much about memory yet: we don’t even know for certain and ind etail how motor function and brain activity work together or what consciousness is rooted in. This general stuff would – you imagine – come first, before the precise stuff about how brands are processed…

    Sorry to be negative but there are a number of snakeoil salesmen out there, taking advantage of this kind of misunderstanding of the science

  8. admin on February 21, 2008 at 11:24 am

    Good thoughts, Mark.

    I would venture your critique of our awareness of the relationship of brain and mental activity has even broader applicability to our awareness to the nature of our existence, eh? It’s all a bit of groping in the dark, but we all persist with a remarkable degree of confidence in our perceptions.

    None of the research I’ve uncovered is specific to branding and instead focuses on the supra-realms of memory and experience. I doubt the brain, at a fundamental level, parses commercial vs. non-commercial stimuli (e.g., watching Citizen Kane vs. Coke’s “Happiness Factory”), so the mechanics that operate in the sphere of general memory formation would be applicable to the spheres of branding and marketing as well.

    Without this devolving into neuroscientific arcania, I’ll quickly counter your references with couple of my own:

    “. . . dendritic spines are mobile, and they change their number and shape in response to the animal’s experience and in response to electrical signaling in the brain. For instance, rats raised in rich environments have more spines than those that live in unstimulating environments. Stimulation of synapses can lead to the production of new spines. Therefore dendritic spines are believed to be critical morphological structures of synapses. It is widely held that the regulation of dendritic spine number, size and shape is of central importance in the plasticity of synapses and learning and memory . . .”

    -Dr. Morgan Sheng
    RIKEN-MIT Neuroscience Research Center


    “Individual memories are “burned onto” hundreds of receptors that are constantly in motion around nerve synapses – gaps between individual nerve cells crucial for signals to travel throughout the brain.

    According to the study’s leader, Duke University Medical Center neurobiologist Michael Ehlers, M.D., Ph.D., these receptors are constantly moving around the synapse and often times they disappear or escape. Ehlers discovered that a specific set of molecules catch these elusive receptors, take them to the recycling plant where they are reprocessed and returned to the synapse intact.”



  9. admin on February 21, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    Thanks for the AdAge link, Mark.

    Joey Reiman at Brighthouse is a long-time friend, and while I remember the initial press the BrightHouse Neurological Group received, I didn’t follow the rest of the story. Will review and ponder.

  10. Drite tv | BloomDigit on March 13, 2011 at 7:33 pm

    […] Uncommon Sense | Intelligent Inspiration for Marketers » Brands onUncommon Sense | Intelligent Inspiration for Marketers – The Art of Commerce … What is a “Brand”? Some intangible abstraction? The ethereal composite of vision, sound, touch, and emotion? Brands are that, but they are more. Recent research in neurobiology suggests that ideas are more than vapor. …… […]

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