Brandwashed

“By understanding just how today’s newest hidden persuaders are conspiring to brandwash us, we as consumers can battle back. The purpose of this book is to educate and empower you to make smarter, sounder, more informed decisions about what we’re buying and why.” – Martin Lindstrom

To read a marketer’s telltale version of his own business makes for a delicious proposition for everyone. Martin Lindstrom, fed up with the scheming tactics of his fellow marketers, dons a different hat with ‘Brandwashed’. He engages into an astonishing exposition of marketing skulduggery. And, in order to test his resolve as a newfangled brand cynic, Lindstrom even puts himself through a self-imposed brand moratorium whereby he vowed not to use any noted ‘brand’ for one year – time period he aptly labels as ‘brand detox’ in the book. In his own words,”I was determined to prove that it was possible to resist all temptations, our consumer culture throws at us.” While his anti-brand-evangelism petered out a lot earlier than he expected, Lindstrom emerged a lot more enlightened to the menacing ways of his own profession.

Catch’em young!

According to Lindstrom, kids are the new piñata dolls for marketing honchos worldwide. But you can’t entirely blame the marketers either. As per one estimate, the global market for kids’ wear is expected to leapfrog to $173.6 billion by the year 20171. Another estimate (the one quoted by Lindstrom himself in the book) puts the market size for the age group of under 3 at $20 billion. Marketers, cognizant of these trends, are wittingly cultivating this demographic’s sensibilities as they are formed. Lindstrom claims are based around the assertion that brands that we are exposed to early on in our lives profoundly shape our future preferences.

Tools of persuasion

Marketers worldwide deploy the most trusted tools in their arsenal – scaremongering, guilt & envy – to arm-twist and nudge customers into buying their products. Identifying customers’ deeply-held insecurities and inducing a strong sense of guilt, followed by slipping in a ray of hope makes for an invincible marketing pitch, according to Lindstrom.

Fear, according to Lindstrom, is a complex yet not an altogether unpleasant emotion. Not only does fear exhibit a tendency to unite against a common enemy, its ability to spread at an epidemic rate brings phenomenal gains to those that only seek to profit from it. For instance, any airborne contagion means booming business for surgical mask suppliers. Similarly, a viral outbreak could send hand-sanitizers’ sales through the roof. Insurance companies and beauty products companies trump everyone else when it comes to exaggerating fears.

While fear, envy, guilt are some of the dominant tools that marketers use. There is one other weapon that’s as handy as it comes. Sex. Advertisers and marketers spend fortunes to figure out how to insinuate sex into the ads so as to persuade people to buy. In a tongue-in-cheek titled chapter ‘Buy it, Get laid’, Lindstrom goes all guns blazing on companies that propagate their products as efficient-equivalents of aphrodisiacs – projecting them as shortcuts to having sex repeatedly, with different women. Yes, sex sells!  And, no other brand stands a more robust testimony to this than Axe. Spurred by innuendos and half-truths in its envelope-pushing ads, Axe has managed to gain half of the $12 billion global antiperspirants and deodorants market (see the graph). So much for the message of getting laid.

Axe ads work not just because they are titillating, they work because they deploy a heady Axeconcoction of two marketing tools – one is, of course, sex and the other is peer pressure. We humans always covet what others have. This congenital tendency to matching up to our peers is at the heart of the most marketing plans. So when you see a guy spraying his way to sexual conquests, you can’t help but mimic him. Lindstrom underlines how peer pressure holds center-stage in several of our buying decisions. This susceptibility to fall in with the peers is the highest in teenage group and it’s no wonder that peer pressure drives most marketing programs targeting teens and tweens groups.

Dopamine and that periodic fix

It’s an acknowledged fact that marketers and advertisers possess several tricks and contraptions to coax people into buying. However, a few would know that more often than not, it’s the shoppers’ own brain that is responsible for emptying their wallets not the advertisers’. Lindstrom delves into consumer psychology – a field he has explored intensively in his previous bestseller ‘Buyology: Truth and lies about why we buy’ – and reveals that at the center of it all is a brain chemical called dopamine.

Dopamine is a feel-good neurotransmitter that controls the reward function of the brain. Every time we buy something, our brain releases a shot of dopamine, making us feel good about our latest purchase. The catch, however, is that this relief lasts temporarily and when it wears off, we feel the urge to start all over. On balance, shopaholics are nothing but dopamine-craving junkies. Something similar happens when we check out the ‘likes’ on our latest Facebook post, or when we check the status of our stocks during a market rally, or even when we hear the tone of an incoming mail on our phone. And, it’s a gratification so subtle that we may not even notice it. But marketers have a handle on what dopamine can do. They know well that just like a junkie, a consumer craves for his periodic fix, too.

Hope in a jar

Selling health or more correctly, the perception of health is a thriving business these days. Lindstrom is right on the button when he mentions that we don’t only buy the product, we also buy the idea embedded in it. Retail stores’ shelves nowadays teem with green, organic, natural products. Since words like ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ are unregulated in most countries, and anyone can use them for anything, marketers use this subtle semantic manipulation to manufacture a perceived aura of wellness. While picking up a goji berry juice or an organic green tea off the store shelf, we subconsciously feel blessed and satisfied by having made a healthy choice for ourselves and our family. This sense of gratification enhances further as we buy products that marketers have astutely positioned as environmentally-conscious and socially responsible.

Competitive Altruism

Lindstrom cites the example of Prius and how Toyota benefited from the Prius’ positioning of an environment-friendly vehicle. All the song and dance about Prius’ eco-friendliness and greenness pushed its exorbitant price tag in the background and made the product a blockbuster. So while we may have to pay through the nose for these eco-friendly or green products, we don’t mind buying them if they multiply our social currency. Psychologists call this kind of behavior ‘Competitive Altruism’. It says that people are more likely to behave altruistically when their actions are public than when they’ll go unnoticed. Customers who buy Prius are, thus, more likely to show off how socially-responsible they are.

Post-Privacy Society

They are everywhere, camouflaged in the guise of bits and bytes. The data-mining companies are snooping into our personal records so much that reality could actually scare us. Lindstrom, in a no-holds-barred end chapter, launches into the companies that waylay naive and unsuspecting consumers online. We often, quite unwittingly, ‘agree’ to the EULA (end user license agreements) and ‘accept’ the ‘terms of service’ while downloading software, games and apps. Our inability to decipher the finely crafted legalese in the EULAs leads us to prostituting our data to 3rd parties, albeit unintentionally. Facebook, Google, Foursquare, etc., all have us in their cross-hairs. Everything that we do online from something as regular as checking emails to paying electricity bills to buying the latest gadget – everything about our online consumption patterns and the personal information are getting stored somewhere. Marketers drool over this data to lure us into buying more – all in the name of customer-centric marketing.

Finally, ‘Brandwashed’ is an important book, not because it tries to sell you an idea, but because it strips bare the machinations that lie behind so many sinister marketing ideas. Read this book, for it will enhance your critical perspective and entertain you as well.

¹http://www.companiesandmarkets.com/Market/Textiles-and-Clothing/Market-Research/Children-s-Wear-A-Global-Strategic-Business-Report/RPT926202