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September 10, 2007

Awaken Your Brand’s Cognitive Itch

The term ‘cognitive itch’ was first used by James Kellaris of the University of California to describe the experience of music that gets stuck in your head and you just can’t get rid of it. This same phenomenon can result from watching commercials, Web-videos and even full-featured multimedia websites.

According to Kellaris cognitive itch comes from the creative
implementation of

  1. Simplicity
  2. Incongruity
  3. Repetition

The creation of cognitive itch is important because it is the underlying marketing goal of all serious advertising: advertising that aims at positioning a company’s identity and brand in the mind of the audience, as opposed to schlock sales promotions and used car sales gimmicks that have limited long term benefits. In essence cognitive itch is at the heart of what Web-marketers call stickiness: the elements of your website that get visitors to hang around long enough to absorb the full impact of your marketing message.

Cognitive Itch and Stickiness

In the battle to be noticed in a marketplace that is flooded with overwhelming content and competitive options, the ability to be noticed and remembered is becoming increasing difficult.

But if you develop your marketing strategies, websites, and advertising campaigns based on creating cognitive itch and stickiness then you will have increased your chances of making an impact.

Stickiness is of course the quality of your media to retain your audience long enough to receive your message. Attracting large numbers of visitors or viewers who instantly opt-out because they were mislead to your website or who find nothing relevant to their needs does not advance your marketing objectives.

Chip and Dan Heath in their book “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” cite six principles of stickiness that overlap Kellaris’ elements of cognitive itch:

  1. Simplicity
  2. Unexpected
  3. Concrete
  4. Credibility
  5. Emotion
  6. Stories

The Cognitive Itch Approach to Presentation

Sometimes a simple change in approach can make all the difference in the world: instead of thinking of your website as a brochure, or an exercise in search engine optimization or database management; instead of thinking of your next advertising campaign as exercise in hyping your latest feature upgrade; start thinking of your website as a presentation, your opportunity to communicate ‘mano a mano’ with your audience.

Our approach to the problem of creating memorable material that gets stuck in a prospect’s mind demanding that they stick around long enough to get the message, and remember it long enough to act upon it, and perhaps pass it on to friends and colleagues combines the elements of cognitive itch with the principles of stickiness.

The Elements of Sticky Cognitive Itch

Stories: Putting Information In Context

Stories are the glue that provides people with the ability to retain information because that information is placed inside some meaningful context.

Politicians are the quintessential salesmen; they understand that the average voter is not going to follow a fact-filled justification for program initiatives, so instead they tell stories: health care policies are explained by illustrating how little Johnny, from Springfield, MA is going to be able to get his new heart, and that his mother will not have to work in the all-night laundry in horrendous heat and humidity to pay for the operation, all because of this politician’s new bill.

Stories are patterns of information constructed with a beginning, middle, and an end; and a good story, well delivered, provides the emotional satisfaction that fires the endorphins that make that message memorable.

Simplicity: Focus On A Single Message

Mixed and confusing messages are the death knell of any advertising whether it’s a Web-video or print ad campaign. No matter how much you want to cram every idea, concept, feature, or benefit into a presentation, resist.

The difference between being memorable and forgettable is your ability to discipline yourself to focus attention on the one thing that will capture people’s imagination.

Incongruity: Give Your Presentation A Twist

A rabbi, minister, and priest walk into a bar. They approach the bartender who looks at the three and says, “What is this, a joke?” – Place rim shot here.

The story above, based on Daniel H. Pink’s comments in the book ‘A Whole New Mind,’ is like any good story, it contains a twist, set-up by a familiar and seemingly obvious scenario.

All effective presentations, commercials, and Web-videos need a punch-line: some kind clever turn of events, something to excite the brain and force the old ‘noggin’ to do some work and unravel the twist, even if it’s purpose is as mundane as which laundry detergent or Web-hosting supplier to choose.

Sensory: Appeal to Sights and Sounds

Whether you are writing copy for your website or a script for your Web-audio or video, your prose need to deliver the sights and sounds that trigger memories. It is those recalled experiences that will be associated with your presentation and make it memorable.

Even the joke in the preceding section brings to mind the dress and manner of the priest, minister, and rabbi, as well as the ambiance of our favorite watering hole. No matter what method you use to deliver your message, copy, audio, or video, it must deliver the sights and sounds that make for a memorable encounter.

Rhyme, Rhythm and Repetition: A Pattern of Pleasure

Whether it’s the recipe for a Big Mac or the script for the haunting Lexus ‘Moments’ voice-over, the influence of rhyme, rhythm, and repetition cannot be underestimated.

The creation of an aural sensory experience that follows the psychological precepts of gestalt theorists, as much as any other communication mechanism, provides the cognitive itch all professional advertisers aim to achieve.

As much as we are emotional creatures we crave pattern, organization, order, and mnemonic reference in order to make sense out of our experiences.

The original ‘Moments’ commercial written by Glen Hunt turned a single word into an effective campaign, based on the creative use of rhyme, rhythm and repetition.

Moments: A Lexus Commercial written by Glen Hunt

A Moment If You Please
Moments Can Be Short
Moments Can Be Long

There Are Moments Of Joy
Moments Of Sorrow
Moments Of Passion

Moments You’ll Never Forget
Moments You’ve Already Forgotten
Moments You Didn’t Get

There Are Awkward Moments
Senior Moments
Moments Of Truth
And Momentary Lapses In Judgment

People Who Ask For A Moment
Share A Moment
I Need A Moment
You Got A Moment?

Wait A Moment
You Can Take A Moment
Make A Moment
Spoil A Moment

And If All The Stars Line In The Right Moment,
That Moment Can Be Perfect

Moments Can Define You
Moments Can Delight You
And Moments Can Change Your Life

Here’s To The Moment
And Squeezing All You Can
Out Of Every Last Single One Of Them”

Credibility: Keep It Real, Be Believable

As much as American Idol’s Randy Jackson irritates me with his pandering, pseudo-hip street-speak, he does offer contestants one good piece of advice that all marketers should follow, “Keep It Real!”

If there is one thing that every Web-company needs to establish it’s credibility. No matter how much traffic you generate, with false promises, contrived promotions, or outlandish claims, it will all lead to naught, if you’ve failed to build trust and believability.

We spend a lot of time and effort in providing our audience with interesting material, most of which asks for nothing in return. We always provide a phone and contact name for any advertising, promotion, or website that we develop. We always answer emails and attempt to be helpful to inquiries even when we know nothing in the way of business will come of it.

Our philosophy is simple, we offer our audience marketing advise and creative services based on our experience, our unique point-of-view, and an unusual set of skills and expertise. It’s our way of creating credibility. Can you say the same?

Emotion: Elicit An Emotional Experience

Emotion has always got a bad rap when it comes to business. The nation’s business schools have perpetuated the myth of business as science with charts, spreadsheets, and statistical analysis.

The technical aspect of the Web has continued this fairy tale, but the fact is business, or at least the sales and marketing function, is all about eliciting emotional response through the implementation of psychological strategies in creative presentation.

The entertainment business is a prime example of how bean counters can destroy any business. No body really knows why some movies and some songs are hits and others are failures. There is no tried and true formula that producers can follow to guarantee a success; that is unless they can tap into the emotional needs of the audience. Find the emotional need in your audience and build a Web-marketing campaign around that need.

Author:  Jerry Bader is Senior Partner at MRPwebmedia, a website design firm that specializes in Web-audio and Web-video. Visit,, and Contact at or telephone (905) 764-1246.