Three years ago, Danish marketing guru Martin Lindstrom embarked on a $7 million (Dh25.7m) brain scan study of more than 2,000 people worldwide to discover the logic – and illogic – behind our purchasing patterns. In this interview, he reveals what it all comes down to. Forget surveys, focus groups, and all those other methods you've been using to market your products. Instead, you should start neuromarketing – "an intriguing marriage of marketing and science" – to uncover the subconscious thoughts, feelings and desires that really drive our decisions, says Lindstrom. From Veracruz, where he is currently at work re-branding the country of Mexico, Lindstrom, 38, a staunch anti-smoking advocate, spoke to The Conference Board Review's senior editor Vadim Liberman about the role – particularly in the tobacco industry of subliminal advertising.
What percentage of marketing is effective?
Only about 20 per cent, and that 20 per cent works because it appeals to the 20 per cent of our minds that makes rational decisions. But we know from biology studies that about 80 per cent of decisions you and I make every second are in the subconscious mind, and marketers aren't addressing this. Instead, they are doing the same old stuff: quantitative research, which involves surveying lots and lots of volunteers about an idea, a concept, a product, or even a kind of packaging followed by qualitative research, which turns a more intense spotlight on smaller focus groups. What we know now is that what people say on surveys and in focus groups does not reliably affect how they behave – far from it. That's why I look at what is going on in the subconscious brain.
In your book Buyology, you write a lot about subliminal marketing by the tobacco industry.
Yes, and it's scary. Thanks to worldwide bans on tobacco advertising on television, in magazines and just about everywhere else, cigarette companies funnel a huge percentage of their marketing budget into subliminal brand exposure.
I also just received amazing photos from Formula One in Europe, which is similar to Nascar in the United States. The European Union has banned tobacco companies from advertising at Formula One, but these new photos I have show red and white stripes on the back of a racing Ferrari, and there are also the same stripes painted on the actual roadway. Now, let's be frank. You've seen race cars. They are plastered with logos, right? So it is kind of strange to see a car with no logos on it, with only those red and white stripes that remind people of one single logo. It seems that the company has a whole programme in place to bypass regulations.
Will people respond to such advertising as well as they would if they actually saw brand names and logos?
They'll respond even better. Research has shown that when smokers were exposed to non-explicit images – like a red Ferrari from Formula One – over a period of less than five seconds, there was an almost immediate activity in the craving regions of their brains, in the exact same regions that responded to the explicit images of the packs and logos. More fascinating, there was even more activity in the reward and craving centres when subjects viewed the subliminal images than when they viewed the overt images. In other words, the logo-free images associated with cigarettes, like the Ferrari, triggered more cravings among smokers.
One reason is that the smokers weren't consciously aware that they were viewing an advertising message, and as a result they let their guard down. As a smoker, you know that smoking is bad for your health, not to mention expensive, so you consciously construct a wall between yourself and the message. But once the logo vanishes, your brain is no longer on high alert, and it responds subconsciously to the message. Another explanation lies in the carefully manufactured associations that the tobacco industry has established over the past few decades. Their efforts to link images like the American West or sports cars with smoking in our subconscious minds have paid off big time.
So just how important are logos?
Let me first ask you: Do you own an iPod?
Can you find the logo on the front of it? Your answer will be no, because it doesn't need to be there. That's because Apple owns what I call "smashable components", where even if it were smashed into a hundred pieces, you'd still be able to recognise the brand, so you don't need to see the actual logo.
Of course, you first have to establish a profile for your company before you can migrate away from using a logo, but that shouldn't take a company more than about two years to do. After that time, a company won't need the logo. It should be able to tell the story with a smell or a colour. That kind of marketing is substantially more effective.
So when the governments ban certain advertising, thereby encouraging such subliminal marketing, is it actually helping that industry?
Let's move on to controversial advertising involving the human body? Does it sell?
The problem is that when you overemphasise one aspect, you don't remember the brand. That gets you nowhere. In Europe, there was a huge billboard on a main street that showed a Pamela Anderson-like looking girl. I walked by and asked people if they noticed the ad. They noticed, but they didn't remember the brand. Unless you explicitly tie the human body to your brand, like Calvin Klein or Victoria's Secret, it won't pay off. But if I'm selling a vacuum cleaner, then people just remember the girl, not the product.
If classic selling devices like celebs and product placement don't always work, why are they so prevalent in advertising?
Because marketers are so desperate to use tools that they think are working, and we've had no evidence that they haven't worked until now.
PROFILE: Martin Lindstrom Marketing guru
Lindstrom is the best-selling author of Buyology – Truth and Lies About Why We Buy and CEO and Chairman of the Lindstrom Company and the Chairman of Buyology Inc New York and Brand Sense Agency London.
As one of the world's most respected marketing gurus, he advises top executives at companies including the McDonald's Corporation, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, The Walt Disney Company, Unilever and GlaxoSmithKline. Lindstrom speaks to a global audience of close to a million people every year. Martin began his career by opening his own ad agency which he sold in 1988. He then attended the Academy of Advertising before joining BBDO. In 1994, he went on to form BBDO Interactive Europe. Three years later he founded BBDO Interactive Asia. By 30, Lindstrom had been appointed global COO of British Telecom/Looksmart.