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Understanding Behavioural Science - Von Restorff Effect

Understanding Behavioural Science - Von Restorff Effect

Written by

Abbie Dawson


October 20, 2023



Let’s look at the importance of being different as a brand if you want to be remembered.

Being distinctive makes brands memorable. This may sound obvious, but it is so often ignored. Creating a unique in-store experience is often the Holy Grail for brands. Imagine someone is placed in one of your sites, but wasn't told where they were - beyond the sign on the front, would they know it was you instantly? What is your distinctive brand atmosphere?

That’s where the Von Restorff effect comes in. 

The following is an excerpt from our new book, Atmospheres That Sell - Using Behavioural Science To Create Branded Atmospheres in Retail & Hospitality.


This bias is one of my personal favourites, not least because it’s named after one of the few female scientists in this area. The Von Restorff Effect, or sometimes referred to as ‘distinctiveness’ or the ‘isolation effect’, is a simple and yet highly powerful tool to remember. It dictates that the chances of something being (1) remembered and (2) recalled are increased the more distinct they are from their peers. It is a bias in favour of remembering the unusual. 

Let’s go back to the experiment that gave the effect its name. In 1933, as part of her study on memorability, Hedwig von Restorff gave participants a long list of text, consisting of random strings of three letters, interrupted by one set of three digits. For example:

jrm, tws, als, huk, bnm, 153, fdy1

The participants were then asked, after a brief period, to remember the items. The result was that the 3-digit item was the most recalled. When this study was replicated by Richard Shotton, author of The Choice Factory, he determined that respondents were 30 times more likely to recall the distinctive number (in this case, the one that was blue amongst a set of black numbers).

So here’s the question - how much would you be willing to pay for your brand to be 30 times more memorable? I imagine quite significant amounts. But the real joy of this bias is that it may well not even cost a lot of money. What it does require is imagination and creativity - the untapped resource in most brands.

There is a poster that is often used to exemplify this bias, and it’s so often used that it is starting to ‘double-down’ in proving the power of this bias. It’s a music festival poster that simply displays all of the bands that are playing during the event. Take a look and see how long it takes you to single one out… (for full effect, you can see a colour version in the middle section of the book).search “Party Cannon poster” online to see the full effect of the colour version).


The band Party Cannon so clearly stands out against the other bands, all of which look essentially the same. This poster is so often used to prove the power of distinctiveness that outside of this event (and the value they likely got from being more distinctive) the band continue to have their brand shared on this poster. That’s earnt media that most companies would kill for.

It’s all too easy to think, ‘yeah, I get it, we are distinctive’. But it is so often not the case. Close your eyes and think of all your sites against your competitors. If you were suddenly placed inside an unknown site, how long would it take for you to figure out which brand you were experiencing? Brand managers (and I can say this because I am one) so often think their brands are brilliant, distinctive and working hard for you. But take a look at car or perfume adverts, or answer this - which colour should I use for a corporate brand? You said blue right? The truth is that we are pattern recognisers and so often our brand work slips into mimicry. Though it’s unintentional, it offers no true value to you when it comes to distinctiveness.

Be more bee

One of the most efficient ways to ensure that your branded atmosphere is distinctive is to look outside of your industry, outside of your competitors and outside of your acquired business logic. Sure, blue is the corporate colour in the west, so why not go orange and have something distinctive to own. Who says restaurants can’t have long tables where guests sit together (Wagamama)? Who says you can’t learn a language in the toilet (Frankie and Benny's)? Who says you can’t turn the lights down low (Abercrombie & Fitch)? These brands have all done something different and therefore created a much more memorable experience. How do you get there? Be more bee.

Bees are well-known to be a very ordered and hierarchical species, with each bee having a specifically defined job to complete. However, it has been noted in some species that there is a small portion of bees that break ranks and fly off in random directions. You might assume that this is a bad thing, but in truth, it supports the success and longevity of the hive. In most cases, they find nothing, but sometimes they find more food, a better place to live or something critical to their survival that they didn’t yet know they needed. The result is that they live longer, grow quicker and have a better chance of success. Taking this learning to the current discussion, if brands circle the acquired industry norms, they are risking the loss of all of the potential gifts that a random stray may discover.

To build the best and most distinctive retail or hospitality experience I’d advocate borrowing ideas from outside the industry and seeing if they offer interesting ways to do things. If you’re building a cafe concept, for example, imagine borrowing ideas from theme parks, or building a retail concept by borrowing ideas from luxury spas. Striving to be distinctive sounds like an obvious point, but I’d wager that it’s something that we brand managers so rarely remember. Instead, we all too often (unconsciously) favour mimicry and industry norms.

The second learning from bees would be to test counterintuitive ideas. It would seem like a bad idea to stray from the rules on a quest to see what you might discover, but it could be the difference between success and failure. And if you’re only operating within the realms of logic and industry norms the chances are that you’re never going to create something truly distinctive. As Rory Sutherland often says, if there was a logical way to achieve your goals all of the brands will already be doing it. 

Want to know how to start implementing the Von Restorff Effect? Check out the world’s first behavioural science book specific to retail and hospitality, head here.

Understanding Behavioural Science - Von Restorff Effect

Abbie Dawson

Marketing Manager at Startle. I'm in charge of our marketing activity, making sure to spread the word of Startle to as many brands as possible. When I'm not working, you'll find me vinyl shopping to add to my collection or working out at the gym (usually making enemies with a punching bag).

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