As we learn more about our brains and how they work, we find that memory is not as good as we think it is, and it’s hard to get into someone’s memory in the first place. In a recent interview with developmental molecular biologist John Medina, he had a couple things to say about memory. One observation was that our memories aren’t like a recording device. The actual process for ‘fixing” things into our memory is complex and poorly understood. He also mentions “elaborative rehearsal” as one of the most effective way of producing memories. Basically, you can improve the chances of memory by reproducing the environment in which you first were exposed to the idea. For example, if you’re sad when you learn something, being sad when you try to retrieve that memory will help you remember it better.
This concept does much to explain the effectiveness of promotional products. As a tangible item that connects people to experiences, a promotional product can reinforce a message by recreating some of the original experience. Also, because they are often items we use regularly the message is reinforced by our repeated exposure as well as the fact that we experience it in the same or similar context each time.
Below is a chart I saw in an Advertising Lab post about how to optimally space media messages. The idea is that the optimal time to remind someone of something is right before they start forgetting it. Of course, if you’re paying for each exposure to the advertising message, this is a good way to minimize costs while maintaining effectiveness. For a promotional product, it may be less important because the initial purchase cost typically gets you many impressions as long as the item stays in use.
Using both principles a marketer could come up with the perfect promotional item, something that gets used in the same context repeatedly, at an interval shorter than the time they would be expected to forget the message. Bonus points for getting a product they use in the same physical or mental space they are in when making purchasing decisions.