If you haven't heard of it, associative learning is the basis upon which people mentally connect things together.
In the business world, we might want our customers to associate our company with a certain value or to associate our products with a certain offer, so there are plenty of desirable mental connections we might want to encourage. Associative learning is the reason, for example, why you know that a McDonald’s restaurant is nearby when you see two golden arches on a red background. It is also the reason why you suddenly feel hungry when you see them.
A key part of our psychology, associative learning helps us link things together – and without it there can be no memory or language. When we engage in any form of branding and marketing we want people to form connections between things, remember them and talk about them. Often, we want a certain set of values to become linked to a particular brand. Associative learning is therefore a valuable tool for businesses to use and brings powerful connections to a brand across different platforms, including social media, television and newspapers/magazines, and is crucial for marketing planning.
But sometimes people do not associate things together. And at other times, people seem to connect stuff almost without effort. Why? Behavioural psychologists have studied associative learning for decades now and have identified when it works and when it does not. Four things can maximise the chances of a mental connection spanning events in our world: Surprise, Pairing, Attention and Novelty (SPAN).
These provide important guidance for businesses – small and large – in their marketing.
Surprise is the presence of a difference between what you expect to happen and what actually does happen. When people are surprised by an event they are particularly likely to associate it with something else. Correspondingly, expected events are not particularly surprising, and therefore not learned about.
For example, marketing a chocolate bar as creamy, sweet and brown is unlikely to be a successful selling point as it entirely fulfils people’s expectation about what a chocolate bar should be. In contrast, marketing a chocolate bar as something that is going to help you with your work, rest and ability to play if you eat it every day, is much more surprising. Whoever would have thought a mere chocolate bar could be so life-changing?
If you want your brand, or product to be associated with something, then present the two together close together in time – pair them. Doing this more than once will help – and if you present your brand first, even better.
Experiments conducted at the University of South Carolina in the late 1980s showed this in a study of advertising and classical conditioning. In these experiments, people acquired positive evaluations, and also an intention to purchase a brand of toothpaste when a picture of the toothpaste was shown to them just before a picture of a positive scene, such as a mountain waterfall or a sunset over the ocean.
This effect worked really quickly – after only one pairing of the brand of toothpaste with the positive scene, but was numerically even more substantial if there were more pairings of the two together. Furthermore, pairing the brand with the scenes worked best when the brand was seen just before the picture of the positive scene.
Associative learning and attention go hand in hand. If our attention is captured by something then we will learn about it much easier. Correspondingly, if an ordinarily boring stimulus is associated with something of value then that stimulus itself can come to attract our attention.
Take, for example, the notification icon on Facebook – which is the relatively dull shape of a bell. However, when it turns red it indicates something of value to people, a social engagement of some kind, such as a "like". Under these circumstances attention is drawn, quite automatically, to that part of the screen.
Is it any accident that Facebook’s sponsored content and adverts sit just below the notifications – just waiting for your gaze to move in that direction?
People are more likely to associate things together if they are relatively novel to us. Let us go back to the experiments conducted at the University of South Carolina. They showed that people’s evaluations and intentions to buy a brand of toothpaste were enhanced when it was pairing with positive scenes.
In these experiments, it was also shown that the associative learning worked best when the brand of toothpaste was new to people; however, when the toothpaste was made familiar to people, just by exposing it to them, then these pairings were less successful.
It is therefore important to consider people’s experience of a brand when attempting to associate it with something. Novelty is tied, however, to the context in which something is experienced: something may be familiar in one context (toothpaste in the bathroom) but novel in another (toothpaste in the shed). Marketing a mature brand in a new context will aid its association with any desired values.
Mark Haselgrove is Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Nottingham
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