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Brandwashed: How marketers get people to buy |

Brandwashed: How marketers get people to buy

Martin Lindstrom has spent his working life as a highly sought-out brand consultant and expert in the field of neuromarketing. Nevertheless, he was not afraid to pillory brands for practices such as targeting infants in utero and using subliminal signals to tap into the cravings centres of our brains in his latest book, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy.

Mr. Lindstrom previously studied consumers’ brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) and EEG scans while they watched commercials and ruminated about brands for his 2008 book, Buylogy; Truth and Lies About Why We Buy.

In Toronto recently to promote Brandwashed, he mentioned the Black Friday phenomenon (the Friday of the U.S. Thanksgiving weekend and the biggest shopping day of the year) as a key example of how marketers play on shoppers’ base emotions.

Sales and the perceived scarcity associated with the limited-time sale items drive a sense of urgency and “shopping panic” among consumers, he said. Such sales, fuelled by consumer anxiety, can actually make us buy and spend more.

“[On Black Friday], people will have the big drawing card of the product getting to half price,” Mr. Lindstrom explained.

“Everyone rushes in to secure that product and you come in to the store and two people in front of you snapped up the last ones. So what do you do? You go out and buy something else at a higher price point, in fact, at a normal price. You come home, and you lie, and say it was actually on sale for a great price.

This is the way stores recover those sales.”

Brandwashed is a further look at what companies do to grip people’s emotions and why we are so susceptible to their efforts. Just how deeply people’s emotions can get in the process of brand messaging and buying became clear to Mr. Lindstrom with an audacious experiment he conducted for the book over eight weeks in Laguna Beach, Calif., to determine why word of mouth – the oldest form of marketing – is so powerful.

Multiple recent studies have confirmed that people overwhelmingly remember and trust recommendations from friends over all other forms of brand messaging, and are much more likely to purchase goods and services recommended by friends and family. What he discovered led him to believe that one day soon regular families will be secretly paid by companies to shill brands.

The experiment was inspired by the 2009 Hollywood movie The Joneses, about a fake family of stealth marketers who move into an uppermiddle-class community and begin to market brands to their neighbours covertly and successfully.

Putting the word-of-mouth thesis to the test, he hired casting directors to select a “family” of actors to play fictional Eric and Gina Morgenson and their three sons. They moved into a Laguna Beach enclave whose residents thus became “unwitting participants in a massive, $3-million social experiment.”

‘The Morgensons’ had brands aplenty around their house: a Toro lawnmower, KitchenAid appliances and vehicles from Ford, BMW and Nissan in their three-car garage. The upstairs playroom was filled with Lego that the children of friends played with while they dined at the house. A fleet of hidden cameras recorded their every move.

In one part of the experiment, Mr. Lindstrom recounts Gina’s recruitment of her new friends to come with her to DSW, a large retail shoe chain she had been working into conversations for weeks. She ended up convincing five friends to buy multiple pairs.

Three of the women later visited the DSW website, ‘liked’ the chain on Facebook, and bought more shoes online.

Gina also told her new friends about replacing all of her makeup with natural products from the skin care brand Kiss My Face, which numerous friends then bought online.

The results vastly outstripped Mr. Lindstrom’s expectations. “The Morgenson family had 129 different friends over a period of three months,” he said. “Over half a year, those 129 people were in contact with 15,000 different people [through various real and virtual social networks]. In a half a year, out of those people, 12,142 purchased at least one out of those 10 brands we were planting into the family.”

When he assessed the impact of various brand mentions, the brand that got the most traction was DSW, followed by Lego and Kiss My Face. There was a 1,000% increase in the sales of one cosmetic product among the control group, he said.

“We also measured how much people talked about brands. We learned that 51% of everything we talk about at the dinner table is a commercial brand or service.”

Mr. Lindstrom and his team later conducted an in-depth FMRI study about word of mouth.

Unlike the case with conventional TV or magazine advertising, he found that when friends absorb brand messaging from other friends the executive regions of the brain shut down and the sensory regions are stimulated – those associated with biological cravings. That helps explain why word-of-mouth information lingers in our memories for weeks compared to the longevity of traditional advertising.

When we pass on that positive brand messaging further, Mr. Lindstrom found, our reward centres are triggered with a shot of dopamine, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter.

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