Brandwashed — The (Con)Artistry of Marketing
I recently read the book Brandwashed by Martin Lindstrom. It was so awesome I thought I’d turn my notes into this book review/blog post. Yes, it was that good.
First of all, I think Martin Lindstrom picked the perfect title. Reading through what I think were some pretty crazy examples of cut-throat marketing tactics, I actually felt, for the lack of a better term, vulnerable.
More than a couple of times, I had that “aww crap” moment of having fallen for the marketing tactic mentioned. Yes, I was one of those young adolescent boys who bought Axe for the first time thinking “awwwyeah… I’m a man now. Hope the girls get a whiff of THIS!” (They didn’t). In a way, I was embarrassed for being one of the mindless drones marketers had targeted over the years, but at the same time, was pretty amazed at how well-executed they were. Well played, marketers of the world… well-played.
Buy Buy Baby
“We cannot escape brands.” the book states early on. No kidding. By the age of four or five? That in itself was scary. But as soon as they started talking about sounds and words affecting us inside our mother’s wombs, that was the real shocker. I’m seriously not kidding when I say that my future kids (should I have any) will be listening to Mozart as soon as his or her tiny little ears start growing.
Kopiko was a bit of a surprise too. They made sure doctors’ offices always had Kopiko candies, not for the mother to start liking them, but to somehow affect the tastes of their soon-to-be-born kids. I’m not sure if it was on purpose, the idea behind it (if it’s true) was nothing short of genius. Marketing to someone while they’re still in the womb? Talk about a long-term investment.
I’m not too sure how I feel about brands being so ruthless as to take advantage of gullible kids. Apparently, sticking the golden arches on something (even carrots!) is enough to make them think food actually TASTES better. “Mcdonald’s has a playground so you can play there and everyone likes you.” No wonder good ol’ Ronald’s always got that smile on his face (which goes well with the dollar signs in his eyes).
A strong argument could be made on how all this marketing is potentially ruining kids’ childhoods. I can’t imagine having a 12 year-old daughter asking me for mascara (and yet the percentage of kids using it is at 18%). I can only imagine the frustration. Even worse is the example of the pole-dancing play set marketed to females under ten, meant to “unleash the sex kitten inside.” That was just crossing the line.
At the same time though, the chapter did shed some light on the idea of building early brand loyalty. “Once a boy has tried a Gillete shaver twice, there is a staggering 92% chance he will continue using the brand as an adult.” The idea of early adoption and being the first-mover comes to mind. Apple realized this early on and was smart in targeting students (who would eventually become the grown-ups running the world today). Despite the questionable tactics discussed in the chapter, this idea of planting seeds early on is a takeaway that can’t be ignored.
Peddling Panic and Paranoia and Hope in a Jar
“…The fear of failure drives consumers far more than the promise of success; the latter oddly tends to paralyze us, while the former spurs us on.” This was one of my favorite lines from the book. This concept of a “feared self” as an even greater motivator than success drew me in. Dove displayed how empowerment-via-shame can be incredibly successful and even from personal experience, I knew it was true. Nobody wants to be the guy with the pit stains.
No matter how rebellious or devil-may-cry people may consider themselves to be, the truth is, nobody likes having people poke fun at their insecurities. So much so as to even be willing to ask their tormentors for help. And it’s this “help”, wrapped in symbolics and deceptive fronts mimicking freshness and cleanliness, that gets us suckered into handing over our money.
The idea of wellness, serenity, spirituality, and purity have become expensive commodities people are more than willing to pay a premium for. As if seeking shelter from the paranoia and panic, we turn to the idea of hope and spirituality as a way of putting our fears to rest. “Alleluia!”, we say. “Ka-ching!” sounds more like it, according to the book. $28,000 for a grilled cheese sandwich with Mary’s face, $1,200 for a Dorito pope. Come on. Megachurches built like malls? I seriously doubt those places accept prayers as currency.
I Can’t Quit You
The idea of brand addiction or obsession isn’t really something new. A lot of us (and I’m sure few would deny) are obsessed with things like our phones or clothes. Unfortunately, our feeble attempt at somehow correcting this through practices such as phonestacking is no match for the unexplainable pull that our favorite things (or brands) have on us. In fact, it really is quite like gravity, you don’t always realize it, but it’s always there.
The author gave the example of the man who can’t live without his iPhone. Personally, I could relate. I hate when my phone’s out of juice. It makes me feel disconnected. The saying “I just feel naked without it” comes to mind as well. Hard to imagine that this feeling is something marketers actually strive for—having people saying they feel naked or exposed without your product. “It may not be addiction in the medical sense, but it is true love.” Is there any greater accomplishment than having people truly love what you’re trying to sell them?
Buy It, Get Laid
I liked the use of a lot of scientific and medical facts to back up the points presented in the book. So rooted in our biology as humans, it’s hard to deny the fact that sex sells. The ginormous internet porn industry is testament to how weak we humans are when it comes to going against the uncontrollable flow of our own hormones.
The way marketers have been able to somehow hide this fact even in things like kids’ movies is crazy though! While reading about Toy Story, I couldn’t help but appreciate how they had managed to conceal all that sexual innuendo. Clever how it was all just a way of targeting the older age groups a.k.a. those who hold the wallets. Some may not be so subtle, like Quiznos’ “12 inches of flavor” sub using phrases like “say it sexy” and “put it in me”, but I guess it works. Check out this BK ad… classy.
It’s in this chapter that I probably had the most “aww crap” moments. Yes, at some point, I had fallen for the Axe ploy. But there was more! I’d been duped by vanity sizing, semi-fancy male grooming products, and the allure of masculinely designed packaging. Half the time, I wasn’t even aware of it, but it’s probably exactly what those brands wanted, “tapping into our most basic and primal human desire — and making a lot of money in the process.”
Oh, Sweet Memories
I suppose a shallow understanding of the phenomenon of nostalgia would be my love for toys, cartoons, and TV shows I used to watch as a kid. I think of all the times I’ve reacted with “You never watched *insert show here*?!” when I would talk about them.
The book gave Kodak’s Instamatic cameras and Ray-Bans as examples that served as reminders of past styles making comebacks. The talk of a “generation lap” was pretty cool though — that we our generation wants what we know the previous one can’t have, explaining the popularity of today’s skinny jeans as being because we know our parents can’t fit in them.
I wondered what the next generation’s kids are going to be wearing.
Under Pressure and the Marketers’ Royal Flush
“It takes a mere 5 percent of ‘informed individuals’ to influence the direction of a crowd of up to two hundred people. The other 95 percent of us trail along without being aware of it.”
Despite whatever “higher intelligence” we may display, the fact of the matter remains that as a social group, we’re “wired to display… herd behavior.” It’s in our inherent nature to follow our peers. “Humans want what other humans want.”
I’m aware that even my own decisions are heavily influenced by the people around me. There’s just something about missing out that I feel uncomfortable with. Peer pressure seems to be another variation of the fear motivation — people are afraid of not fitting in. After all, even a hipster somehow conforms to idea of being one.
Aside from peers, the pressure from authority would be just as (if not even more) important. Alongside the “feared self” is the “ideal self,” often personified by the number of idols and celebrity endorsers brands take on to sell their stuff. It’s how the book described how this is actually done that intrigued me, the idea of celebrities and experts making the choices for us.
It seems to all fit in. When we “turn our brains off” and are out of “work mode” (which would then put us in the “dream stage” mentioned earlier, yes?), is it not easier to have Kobe Bryant or Rafael Nadal make the “tough” decisions for us?
I’ll Have What Mrs. Morgenson Is Having
The book’s final chapter ended with a social experiment wherein an undercover group of
ninjas actors, playing the role of a typical American family, was planted in a usual suburban neighborhood. The experiment intended to measure how truly influential word of mouth is. Can the subtle product endorsements of a single family change the habits of an entire neighborhood? Apparently… yes, they can.
The author and “The Morgensens.”
The experiment was a pretty cool way to cap things off. It highlighted, by using “real” people and real situations over a 4-week period, a lot of concepts that the previous chapters had already discussed. The most prominent of course, being the power of WOM and peer influence.
Sure the idea of ninja marketers posing as my next door neighbors freaked me out a bit, but I liked how the author didn’t leave me with a sense of dread by ending the book with the following paragraph:
As consumers, we may think that brands own us—but in reality it’s the other way around. So the good news I want to leave you with is this: In our hyperconnected world of Twitter and Youtube and Wikileaks—a world in which a single trick or deception or secret can be immediately broadcast to the world with a click of the mouse—the consumer is more empowered than ever. As a result, brands of the future simply must be transparent and live up to their promises. Trust me, any brand that doesn’t will be instantly and painfully exposed and reviled. That, in the end, is what this book is all about.
So we’re not all that powerless after all. Despite the constant brandwashing, as consumers, it’s good to know that it’s still us who call the shots. As marketers, it’s our job to take learn from all the tricks mentioned in the book. I guess it’s like being a good magician, taking the good tricks from those before you and improving on them, while leaving the cheap parlor tricks to the amateurs.