What’s the first word recognised by most kids all over the world? No it’s not Mum! Or Dad for that matter “Donald – a variation of McDonald’s is the word. In fact the word beats even the most simple (and emotional word): Mom,” says brand guru Martin Lindstrom. “True, most 18-month-old babies cannot physically articulate the word ‘McDonald’s’, but what they can do is recognise the fast-food chain’s red and yellow colours, roofline, golden arches and logo. Then they can jab their chunky little fingers at a McDonald’s from the backseat of a car,” he writes in his new bookBrandwashed – Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy. Such is the power of brands. In this interview to Vivek Kaul, Lindstrom talks about In the thorny issue of consumer manipulation and gives a full-frontal exposé of the wanton trickery employed by many conglomerates, iconic brands included, to squeeze money out of their loyal customers.
To what extent can companies go to engineer desire to get us to buy things?
There’s a fundamental difference between creating a need and activating a need – in my books I do not believe it is possible to create a need simply because it is against our instinctual behaviour – instead I believe it’s all about “activating a need” i.e. a fundamental need we all have – and thus which can be fulfilled in a new way. Our basic need is to be entertained – justifying the existence of the iPod, our fundamental need is to be stimulated – justifying the need for computer games etc.
Could you explain that in a little detail?
So when we talk about engineering needs I think it is fair to say it is more a matter of engineering new ways of fulfilling pre-existing needs. Needs can be activated in many ways. The typical tools of persuasion would be fear, guilt, aspiration, sex etc. Close to 45% of all advertising in the U.S. today either is based on fear, guilt or sex – fear of not belonging to our group, fear of losing our jobs or fear of death, deceases or theft. Guilt of being overweight, not looking good, not cooking a meal for our kids (simply because we don’t have these cooking skills any longer etc) etc. A lot of communication these days press those buttons – like fuelling the idea of you attracting some disease, or the fear of witnessing some stranger breaking into your home.
An example of fear being used to sell us something that is a hand sanitiser. Why have we welcomed the hand sanitisers into our lives as a cheap, everyday, utterly essential staple, even though they are not very useful?
After the release of SARS followed by swine-flue in 2003 and 2008 we’ve witnessed an amazing uptake of hand-sanitising products. What’s ironic is that none of those products – such as Purell actually do any better job than soap and water – however we’ve led to believe it is the case. The companies has done a extraordinary job in building their brands on the back of the fear created by those global viruses – indicating that we’ll be safe using these brands – once we’ve begun using these – this habit will stay for life. The ironic side of the story however is that the life expectancy in Japan is decreasing for the first time in history – why – because the country simply have become too clean – the Japanese have weakened their immune system as a result of overuse of hand sanitising products.
How and why has fear mongering become a favoured tactic of the marketers?
Because we’re all hardwired to be seduced by fear – fear is the number one soft button in our brain – it is a survival instinct. Fear is used by most insurance companies and even Colgate who claimed in one ad that they could remove the risk of cancer by the usage of their toothpaste. You talk about how certain websites rewiring our brains to get us hooked on the act of shopping and buying. Could you explain this in detail with an example?
Rewiring is a big word – that said some websites indeed are designed to hook us – an example would be the count-down-clock on Amazon.com – which kicks in during the Holiday Season – and begin ticking the minute you’ve landed on the site – this gives you a sense of urgency – pushes the dopamine levels in your brain and result in you acting more irrational (or emotional). In the future we’ll see more and more sites based on gaming concepts – i.e. encouraging us to participate, earn points or in some cases secure access to products before everyone else.
One of the interesting things that you write in Brandwashed is that “Our brand and product preferences are pretty firmly embedded in us by the age of seven…I’d even go so far to suggest that some of the cleverest manufacturers in the world are at work trying to manipulate our taste preferences even earlier than that. Much earlier. Even before we’re even born.” Is it really so?
Before I even was born I fell victim to this very phenomena as my mom and dad danced every evening to their favourite Bossa Nova (a well-known style of Brazilian music developed and popularised in the 1950s and 1960) song. The day I was born the record player dropped on the floor and broke in to pieces – as a result it never played again – and never played from the very day I was born. Ironically I love Bossa Nova – and have done so from the first day I was born my mom and dad, tell me.
So what is the point you are trying to make?
Based on numerous experiments we today know that what mothers eat and listen to during pregnancy affects their un-born babies – this is the principal some companies are tapping into.
Kopiko in the Philippines is a scary example of how far this can go – the manufacturer has for decades been known for its coffee candy – yet recently they entered the coffee market. Their technique to enter the market was to hand out free Kopiko coffee infused candy to pedestrians and doctors for them to give to pregnant mothers. Today Kopiko is one of the leading coffee brands – a position they’ve secured within only very few years.
You write that “in general women tend to more easily persuaded by ads that are more romantic than sexual… Men, on the other hand, respond to sexual innuendo and women in bikini.” Can you explain this in some detail through examples?
Women prefer to be able to continue the storyline – men prefer to see the end of the storyline – sex can play a major role in both scenarios – yet the role of sex would have to change in order to stimulate us accordingly.
What is the ultimate male fantasy? How did Unilever use it to make the Axe brand?
A man sitting in a hot-top-spa with two naked ladies on each side – popping a bottle of Champagne. Unilever, the manufacturer of AXE discovered this very observation based on thousands of interviews and observations of men worldwide – realizing that this very fantasy indeed seems global – and today explaining why AXE uses this very imagination as the foundation for all their ads.
You talk about the migration of the male consumer into a traditional female arena is overturning the rules of marketing and advertising. Can you explain that through examples?
Cosmetics is a great example – until recently men wouldn’t dare even thinking about buying a moisturiser. Today it’s different. This is far from a coincidence – the world’s leading cosmetics companies has for years pushed this trend, by educating men to activate the need for beauty and cleanness. Unilever educated the man to liquid soap (due to cost saving reasons) in the shower in the U.S. something men avoided as they couldn’t cope with the idea of touching their own body in the shower – something they felt was too feminine. The way to justify this change – the introduction of a washing device which would separate the guys hand from the body. And P&G separated the aisles of cosmetics – so that men would have one section far away from the women – ensuring that they wouldn’t be shy buying a cream.
You point out that people get addicted onto brands in two stages, the routine stage and the dream stage. Could you discuss this in detail?
Routine – means daily duties – i.e. using the iTunes service on our iPod, while watching movies on our iPod streamed from our iTV is easy, because we don’t have to think – we just plug and play – it’s a routine. The dream stage is when a brand allows us to dream – or disappear into a dream. Let’s say that you went to Ibiza in Spain for the holiday – you had great fun, drank a lot of Red Bull’s and then return back to the grey-everyday-life. Once you see the Red Bull brand again – in your everyday life you feel the brand helps you to escape back to this dream world – the life you had for just 1 week but which “kind of” can be extended by drinking a Red Bull.
How do companies activate our cravings to get us to buy food products?
In many ways – by among other adding bubbles (or sweat as they call it) onto the cans and bottles – the more bubbles the more craving. Or by playing the sound of a cola being poured into a glass with ice (the worlds 5th most craving generating sound) or by adding many chips on the front of a snack package – the more chips the more we believe there’s in the bag – the more craving we generate.
“Peer pressure delivers a windfall for brands and companies,” you write. Could you explain that in detail through some examples?
The entire social media space is heaven for brands as it allows to fuel peer pressure – and do it fast. Numerous studies show that this is incredible powerful including the $3 million study I did for my latest book Brandwashed where we realised that it only takes 5 people to convince 195 people to do the same. Pear pressure is everywhere from the recent release of iPhone 5 (I feel embarrassed running around with a iPhone 4) to fashion (you simply can’t wear that tie from two years ago – it is too old-fashioned) to cigarette smoking.
What is a perceived justification symbol?
It’s a way to convert intangible stuff into tangible stuff – to make the invisible benefit become visible. Let’s take the dishwashing tablet – it has a white, blue level and a red dot – indicating the powerful magical clean button. The reality is that it’s all the same but we get a sense of that something “black box” stuff is happening – cleaning our plates. Another example is Duracell’s power meter – which helps us to measure how much battery power there’s left in the battery. Why is this a genius idea? Because consumers fundamentally believe that batteries hanging in the store looses power – and thus by installing such device – a PJS we’ll be convinced otherwise.
Why does nostalgia marketing work well in uncertain economic times?
It gives us certainty, comfort and creates a framework of safety around us. Studies show that we indeed recall past memories in a more positive light that present memories – this phenomena is called Rosy Memories and is used by many brands including Pepsi’s recent Throwback – a replicate of the old Pepsi recipe and pack design to Coke’s re-play of “I want to teach the world to sing”.
Can a famous face really have that much of an impact on how we spend our money? Are we human beings that naïve?
We all need leaders around us – in today’s world where fewer countries have royal families as leaders, where politicians are failing – celebrities becomes our leaders of our time. We’re hardwired to be seduced by such leaders even though we know they might not be real – kind of like some people knock-on-wood for good luck – despite the fact that they very well know it has no effect.
(The article originally appeared in the Daily News and Analysis on September 24, 2012. http://www.dnaindia.com/money/interview_romantic-ads-seduce-women-men-fall-for-sexual-innuendo_1744404)
(Interviewer Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])