Brandwashed by Martin Lindstrom: A Book Review

March 13th, 2012   •   no comments   

Martin Lindstrom Brandwashed

Wonder why you are perpetually tethered to your smartphone, refusing to put it down even when your kids are yelling at you?

Or started eating that tub of delicious Haagen Dazs ice cream, and couldn’t stop until it’s all gone.

Perhaps you’ve got a 10 year old boy who nagged you incessantly about getting him that latest Play Station Portable (PSP) which all his friends in school have.

Guess what? You have been brandwashed!

Well, at least according to renowned neuro-marketing expert turned consumer lobbyist Martin Lindstrom.

Tricks Used By Marketers To Manipulate

Apparently, companies are finding insidiously clever ways to worm their brands into your lives. From cradle to grave, at the workplace or at home, in your daily commute or in the palm of your hands.

Their ultimate goal?

To get you to buy, buy, buy of course. And perhaps tell a friend (or 100) about it.

Pushing the frontiers of consumer psychology with state-of-the-art fMRI brain scans and neuromarketing, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy is witty, well researched and illuminating.

Touting himself to be a marketing consultant turned consumer advocate, Lindstrom revealed in chapter after chapter the startling strategies which companies use to entice, enchant and ensnare us into opening our wallets.

Are you ready for the ride into the dark side? Let’s go!

It Begins from the Womb

In the book, the key components of this grand scheme of psychological “manipulation” is broken down into various themes.

The first examined how companies start marketing to us literally from the womb!

According to various research studies, the influence of marketers on mothers and their unborn kids was quite alarming. They showed the huge and pervasive influence of media, and how tween girls were increasingly pushed towards precocious sexualisation.

Of course, everybody knows that Apple’s iPhone (or Samsung’s Galaxy smartphone) is now “the most effective tool in human history to mollify a fussy toddler”.

The Marketing of Fear

In an increasingly uncertain world, fear has become a major theme in marketing.

Lots of companies have used fear as a major trigger to spur buying behaviours. They include pharmaceutical companies capitalising on epidemics and pandemics like H1N1 and SARS to insurance companies producing tear jerking commercials (like this one by Thai Life Insurace).

And interestingly, fear does give us a kick by activating our adrenaline and epinephrine hormones. Thus, it is a rich mining field for marketers seeking to drive purchases.

Smartphone Dopamine Addiction

As I’ve highlighted above, smartphones, tablets and other digital devices are extremely addictive. In fact, studies have shown that they can be as habit forming as crack!

Do you know that we get a shot of dopamine (a feel good hormone in our brain) each time we receive a new email/Facebook notification/Twitter response on our smartphones? The same applies to the games which uncountable teenage boys, girls and adults play on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis.

In fact, gamification is so prevalent that companies proffering e-coupons like Groupon arose from this phenomenon.

Beyond digital addiction, Lindstrom further claimed that lots of the food which we eat – from potato chips to ice cream to candy bars – are laced with habit forming chemicals. No wonder its difficult to lose that 20 pounds!

Sex Still Sells

Sex still sells, and don’t companies know it.

Other than the overtly sexual advertising that penetrates our public and private spaces, marketing psychologists have also done complex psycho-behavioural segmentation for Axe clients. They have also deployed homoerotic ads (those famous Abercrombie and Fitch ones) to target both males and females.

Pernicious Power of Peers

Guess who is the more influential person in your kids life?

In a chapter covering the power of peers, Lindstrom highlighted that kids, tweens and teens are especially vulnerable to the influence of peer influencers.

By triggering social contagion, Cepia managed to make its Zhu Zhu pets a huge hit globally. Meanwhile, retail websites from to Apple’s iTune shop use the power of their Top 10 lists, recommendations (What others are reading), and “New and Noteworthy” to engineer collective consumption.

Nice Nostalgia and Awesome Authenticity

As an 80s teen myself, I couldn’t help listening to songs which transport me to that golden era. I guess that’s the power of nostalgia.

According to the book, oldies and middle-agers (like me) are not spared. Many companies adopt a huge push towards nostalgia and authenticity as a marketing tool.

Retro-iconic brands like Heinz (“Beans Meanz Heinz”), Hershey’s, and Coca-Cola deploy 70s or 80s tunes in their advertising. Sometimes, they even resurrect favourite commercials to tap onto this market. Meanwhile, Whole Foods makes it a point todeck their entire store in an “authentic” looking natural decor, down to “imperfect” fruits that look au naturel.

Celebrities are in the Act Too

Celebrities are in on the act too. Many enjoy huge multi-billion dollar endorsements of everything under the sun – from shampoos, cars, iPods, clothes to drinks.

Product placements featuring Hollywood stars, politicians, sportsmen and even preachers have influenced our decisions to buy as we pretend to assume their alter-ego when using these products.

Oh, and do check out Morgan Spurlock’s movie “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” to learn more about this too.

Hope and Spiritual Marketing

Spirituality, healing and health also comes to the fore.

Lindstrom regales how marketers sell us “anti-cancer” goji (wolfberry) juice purportedly harvested from the Himalayas (when in actual fact, they were farmed in the US), P&G’s well conceived “Loads of Hope” campaign, and how religions are even getting in on the act with Megachurches and the sale of holy relics.

Somebody’s Watching Me

Perhaps the most scary chapter is the one on data mining. There, we learn how every single move we make – from doing a search on Google, downloading an App on our smartphones, to making a purchase with our loyalty cards at the supermarket – can be traced and tracked.

(Fans of remarketing and retargeting like me knows how this work.)

Armed with a complex consumer intelligence system that rivals the CIA, companies can determine one’s likes, dislikes and demographic details so precisely that we’re perhaps now living in a “post privacy society”. Of course, Facebook plays a huge part in that.

A US$3 Million Social Experiment

Lindstrom ends the book by describing an US$3 million social experiment which he conducted by implanting a real family called the Morgenson’s in an upscale California neighbourhood and getting them to subtly push brands over a period of a month (see trailer below).

The outcomes of the research (with fancy brain scans and all) show that we (ie consumers) are the greatest brandwashers of all.

Invaluable Lessons in Modern Day Marketing

As a marketer of brands and a consumer myself, I found Brandwashed rather educational.

Although Lindstrom’s chief intent was to help consumers make better choices for themselves, the book held many lessons for marketers too.

While we cannot avoid deploying some of these “tricks” to reach our targeted customers, what we can do is perhaps to be more transparent and honest rather than covert with our marketing strategies and tactics. And perhaps we could draw the line when it comes to outright deception and subterfuge.

Truth be told, however, this may be more easily said than done.

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