Like a surgeon exposing the nasty underbelly of medical malpractice, Martin Lindstrom, branding expert and author of the neuromarketing book Buyology, takes a decidedly consumerist point of view in showing how brands influence and sometimes even control our lives. Lindstrom, who has spent much of his business life advising companies how to build stronger brands, is in a unique position to show readers how well the process can work.
Lindstrom makes the case that branding begins in the womb – sounds and tastes the mother experiences are shared by the growing baby and can dramatically affect preferences and behavior after birth. He describes a candy company that distributed samples to pregnant women (apparently with no nefarious plan for prenatal brandwashing) and was surprised to find that the resulting children showed a strong preference for the flavor of that candy. The branding assault commences in full once infants start experiencing the world around them. It may not be a surprise by 36 months American kids can recognize a hundred brand logos. And, of course, any American parent can attest to the power brands like McDonalds wield over children. Showing the potency of the biggest burger brand, kids even found carrots tastier when they were served with the McDonalds logo.
Most of the book focuses on what Lindstrom sees as manipulation of consumer perceptions. Whole Foods, the darling of the organic/healthy eating set, comes up several times in the book. Lindstrom explains why you walk past masses of fresh flowers, a burbling water feature, and chalk-on-slate prices. All of these are freshness cues, designed to convince consumers that the store is filled with products rushed to the store from the farm. (The “chalk” prices, according to Lindstrom, aren’t scribbled daily; they are actually mass-produced and unchanging.)
Whole Foods also presents displays like fresh fish, heads and all, resting on a bed of ice. Those aren’t the fish you buy, of course – those are neatly cut up in plastic packages. Lindstrom’s most amusing discovery involving the chain was what appeared to be a tower of old-fashioned cantaloupe boxes in the produce area, apparently waiting to be unpacked. In fact, the display was one piece, manufactured to look like individual boxes!
Lindstrom thinks most elements of store design are intended to alter consumer behavior in some way. The ever-present misters over produce? They don’t keep the veggies fresh longer (and may even make them spoil more quickly) but they do convey freshness and sell more produce. Lest you think that Whole Foods is Lindstrom’s sole target, he mentions a Trader Joe’s promotion of Ghirardelli chocolate – employees packed big, irregular chunks of bulk chocolate in paper bags for customers. A closer inspection showed that the “bulk chunks” were, in fact, identical molded pieces intended to look like they had been broken off a massive block of chocolate. (Restaurants use some of the same tricks.
Pssst… Want a Hit of Fat and Sugar?
Lindstrom makes the point that many food-related companies deliberately appeal to our brains by offering foods containing substances known to be addictive: fat, sugar, caffeine, and even the flavor-enhancer MSG. Fast food chains earn the bulk of their revenue from these types of products, even though they may carry a few healthy offerings. (In fact, those salads actually sell more fries – see Dietary Decoys.) Energy drinks offer mainly addictive ingredients: high concentrations of sugar and caffeine.
There’s a chapter devoted to the way marketers exploit fear, a particularly potent emotion in the human psyche. Some of the examples are indeed sketchy, such as makers of antibacterial gels ramping up advertising during the swine flu scare; flu is caused by viruses, and isn’t prevented by antibacterial agents. Lindstrom also mentions commercials that are clearly cross the line in preying on our emotions, like a life insurance company that ran an ad showing a man driving a car while he muses (in a voiceover) about what he’d like to tell his son, and what he’d do differently… just before a bus smashes into his car and kills him.
But is it wrong for a burglar alarm company to picture a home break-in in their commercials, or for stores to stock up on emergency supplies and prominently display them in advance of a possible major storm? Readers may agree with Lindstrom on some points and disagree on others. Nevertheless, all of the examples are illustrative of fear-based marketing.
Are Companies Manipulating or Meeting Demand?
If you have a negative opinion of corporations in general and advertising in particular, Brandwashed will definitely feed your paranoia. And, of course, some branding efforts and advertising may be unfairly manipulative. But, I think, sometimes products are simply created to meet consumer demand. Lindstrom takes video and computer game designers to task for creating products that push our brain’s buttons to make us keep playing. Isn’t that what we pay for, though? If I played a video game for twenty minutes and said, “Whew, that’s enough… I’m bored,” it would be an abysmal failure. You WANT to play games that are difficult to tear yourself away from, even after hours of play.
Of course, other companies are exploiting our game-playing instincts with “gamification” – creating game-like elements that encourage people to stay engaged and keep using the product. Think about the mobile app Foursquare, for example – people earn badges, become mayors of locations, and so on, all of which can lead to a near-addictive obsession with using the product. Still, I think many marketers and other business people will read this book and interpret some of the data points in a different way. Companies try to develop products that consumers want. Long before neuromarketing, they used product tests, focus groups, and many other conventional market research techniques to try to create products that consumers really liked, and would keep buying. They developed ad campaigns, using the same kinds of tools, to craft messages that people would pay attention to. Is this manipulation, or giving consumers what they want?
Brandwashed by Martin Lindstrom