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Is your company’s brand smashable? Asks Brandwashed author Martin Lindstrom

martin linstrom brandwashed symposium singapore

Photo: Brandwashed Symposium Singapore

Branding is often labelled an art. But Martin Lindstrom, a branding guru who has consulted for clients like Microsoft, Visa, Disney, and supermodel Tyra Banks, wants to make it a science.

To do it, he is relying on findings from his research, which cuts across neuroscience and psychology and draws data from focus groups, customer surveys, fMRI scans, and social experiments. He has even lived in the homes of consumers just to get into their minds.

The result is a set of intriguing findings encapsulated in his latest book, Brandwashed. He was in Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands on 10th September to share his insights to an audience of marketing managers, brand consultants, and entrepreneurs.

Martin is as polished and genuine a speaker as they come. Yes, some critics have noted (here and here) that he tends to overstate the significance of his research findings. But I found his presentations thought-provoking, engaging, and memorable. Here, I will summarize his key points and relate them to entrepreneurship.

Appetizer: Why branding is a must for your startup

Before I launch into his key points, here are some quick notes about branding.

It is as important to a startup as product development, customer acquisition, and fundraising. Done right, branding can help you develop a loyal customer base, create compelling products, and boost company morale.

It’s also false that branding is an expensive exercise. As a Businessweek article puts it, branding is about finding the personality of your company and making sure it is consistent across all it does. It is about creating the perception of your company among customers. IKEA takes it to an extreme: Employees are expected to fill up their details on their namecards, a policy that’s coherent with the company’s DIY philosophy.

Think of your startup as a person in the courtship game. Nothing is spared in creating a good first impression. Don’t expect to snag a second date if you dress badly, smell awful, or lack social skills.

It works the same for your company: Engaging your customer’s 5 senses with a consistent brand is something Martin talks about a lot.

Once, a South American bank he consulted for possessed good customer service, yet consumers seem to be unaware of it.

So, he used subconscious signals to change their perceptions of the bank’s service. The colors of the bank’s outlets were changed. A distinctive smell was adopted, and the clock was shifted. Even special sounds were developed, and nature motifs installed. Customers who entered felt calmer, and as a result they felt more positive about the bank.

Beyond the company’s look and feel, branding touches on the realm of higher purpose, just as how individuals crave self-actualization.

Charles Revson, founder of cosmetics brand Revlon, once said: ‘In the factory we make cosmetics. In the store we sell hope’. Google’s mission, which I Googled about, is to ‘make the world’s information universally accessible and useful’. And the story goes that a cleaner at NASA, when asked by former US President Kennedy what his job was, said: ‘My job is to help to put a man on the moon.’

Such inspirational values, Martin says, can even humanize a B2B (boring-to-boring, he calls it) brands.

On to the main course: The irrationality of consumers

Brandwashed supermarket

Customers are being brandwashed in supermarkets. Photo: Noodlepie

Underlying many of Martin Linstrom’s arguments is the idea that customers are irrational most of the time. By that, he means the people are often influenced by subconscious impulses they’re not aware of and therefore not in position to control. And while they may become conscious of their behavior, consumers are often not inclined to change because their habits have become deeply ingrained.

A study he conducted showed that consumers tend to buy more if they are interrupted in their purchasing process. That’s because our brain wants to conclude things very quickly after we are disrupted from completing a task. Supermarkets have been known to capitalize on our irrational nature by adopting a counterclockwise movement flow because shoppers tend to spend more that way.

Martin’s point is that consumers are manipulated by their environments more than they realize. A website or storefront’s look and feel, the environment in which the visitor is in while surfing a website, and even peer pressure to own a product can influence purchasing decisions.

Don’t just make your brand smashing. Make it smashable.

In effect, how much sales you make is not just influenced by your smooth pitching skills, but how well your company engages your customers’ subconscious minds and their 5 senses. To do that effectively, your brand must be ‘smashable’.

Try this exercise: Take out your business card and rip off its logo (hurts, I know). If your brand is smashable, people would still be able to recognize your company even without the trademark. The same idea applies to your startup’s website and product.

Coca-Cola adheres to this concept religiously. It has even patented the shape of its bottle with the hope that if it is smashed, people will still be able to recognize the brand it belongs to. Another brand would be Intel, which trademarked sound is recognized the world over.

Brandwashed google

Recognize this?

Yahoo!’s purple font, Toblerone’s triangular shape, and Apple’s clean product design are just more examples of smashable elements that make a brand sparkle.

In fMRI scans that Martin has conducted, he realized that when smashable elements are presented to a person, the pattern recognition region of the brain lights up. As such, these seemingly disparate articles that form part of a coherent brand message can combine to form deep-seated brand associations with consumers.

There are many possibilities in creating smashable elements. They can incorporate include color, layout, numbers, rituals, touch, navigation, picture, shapes, name, language, and sound.

Maximize word-of-mouth marketing by reaching out to aspirational consumers

Many products have spread organically without much ad spend: Think Gmail, Tamagochi, and Angry Birds. The reason why they’ve proliferated so rapidly, according to Martin, is because of word-of-mouth marketing.

This sort of marketing taps on our subconscious need for peer approval. We seek to be cooler and more authoritative than everyone else, and being seen with the right products is the gateway to achieving that status.

So, to use word-of-mouth marketing correctly, brands must make a distinction between aspirational consumers, which companies must prioritize, and everyone else. They are the trendsetters who dictate everyone else’s tastes. This group usually possess 6 characteristics:

1) They serve an active role in their community or tribe.

2) They are great networkers.

3) They possess strong communication skills.

4) They are able to build great rapport with others.

5) They’re successful in what they do.

6) They are good-looking.

Branding for this group and reaching out to them can bring about a multiplier effect. While there is much talk about the rise of social media, Martin asserts that face-to-face interactions still form the majority, or 77%, of brand communication. Social media is only 6%.

People love brands that remind them of their childhood

brandwashed nolstalgia marketing

We pine for the good old days and look upon them with rose-tinted glasses. Photo: atomicjeep

It’s no secret that many of our habits form when we were children. The same applies to brand association. Martin cites a study showing that babies from 46 pregnant women were primed with carrots while in their mothers’ wombs. The end result is that they end up preferring carrot-made food.

He has also found out that he can predict the sort of Cola brands people go for by figuring out what their parents prefer. This induction into the Coca-Cola or Pepsi family typically begins between 5 to 8 years old, when parents hand their children their first can of Coke.

That’s the age range where children are extremely susceptible to brand messages and have the highest sensorial sensitivity in their lives. Which is why, according to Martin, 65% of our brand choices are decided by our parents.

While childhood is a good entry point for brands, it is by no means the only one. Other peaks include the ages of 14 to 16, 20 to 22, 26 to 28, 28 to 30, 40 to 42, and 64 to 66. These are transitional periods where an individual ventures into becoming a teenager, enters into serious relationships, gets married and have kids, settles into the middle ages, and retires.

The scary implications of brandwashing

Many of the practices talked about here have unfathomable implications. The race to capture consumers at a young age could lead companies to include ingredients into baby food that prime toddlers to their products. Word-of-mouth marketing, if carried out irresponsibly, could backfire if the target group starts to feel manipulated.

That’s not all. Technology is bringing us to a future where contextual and iterative branding will become the norm. But in the midst of capturing customer data that makes these possible, will consumers feel that their privacy is being violated?

Throughout his presentation, Martin emphasized time and again the need for companies to decide where to draw the line. He has suggested a list of ethical principles, created with a survey of 2,000 consumers, that marketers can get inspiration from.

Here’s one I’ll highlight: “Align perception with reality. Your talents might very well lie in brilliantly creating convincing perceptions, but how do they stack up against the reality? If there’s a mismatch, either one must be adjusted in order for them to be in sync.”

This is interesting because it relates to product development. What it is essentially saying is this: If your product sucks, but your branding excels, you must elevate your product to the level of your branding. The reverse is true too: If your branding efforts are letting your product down, it’s time to work on your brand messages.

Failure to do so would result either in disappointed consumers or under-performing sales.

But if I were to pick between either situations, a good product with bad branding might be more forgiving. Because while it is easy to polish a good apple and make it shine, a bad apple will stay rotten. Brandwashing only goes so far, so the rotten apple must be disposed of.

Similarly, it is much easier to redo your company image than to realize that your startup needs to start from scratch because you held the wrong assumptions and that your product wasn’t addressing a need and doesn’t have a market.

As they always say: It’s the product, stupid.



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