Marketing: Threat … or Menace?

A shocking confession: I once popped $3 at Blockbuster to rent a particular movie because … a friend had recommended it. Even more startling: I bought a bottle of wine a neighbor three doors down had raved about—and when I found I didn’t like it, I never bought that wine again!

Let me remove tongue from cheek to explain. Trivial as they are, these memories came vividly to mind last week while I was listening to a radio interview of Martin Lindstrom, veteran of the ad industry and self-described “Friend of the Consumer.” Lindstrom was on air to promote the release of his new book, Brandwashed.

Disclaimer: I haven’t yet read Brandwashed. But the publisher’s press release notes that Lindstrom’s chronicle “exposes the lengths to which marketers will go to exploit guilt, desire, fear, insecurity, nostalgia and more to move us to buy.” Among the revelations, apparently, is that Whole Foods places fresh flowers in the front of its stores to lure shoppers into, well, shopping. Beverage companies infuse their TV and radio spots with enticing sounds of liquids pouring and ice cubes clinking. Ah, the mind reels!

Then at the heart of it all is Lindstrom’s recent experiment with word-of-mouth marketing. A family in Laguna Beach, Calif., was enlisted to talk up 10 brands whenever friends or neighbors were over, but in a seemingly natural, unforced manner. The brands included Clos du Val wines, Kiss My Face skincare products, and other brands appropriate to the demographic sampling. Lindstrom claims to have been shocked by the results, noting that a full nine out of 10 recipients of the faux endorsements subsequently bought at least one of the 10 brands. OMG!

Lindstrom’s apparent astonishment at the long-proven effectiveness of both shopper marketing and word-of-mouth referrals seems curious. After all, as a social species, we are generally prone to act on an enthusiastic recommendation from someone we know—at least if it’s relevant to our needs or desires; I dare say that most of us prefer to shop where the shopping experience is pleasant, whether enhanced by fresh flowers, free chips and dip, or anything else. More interesting than all this, though, is the intense reaction in the scores of comments posted online by listeners after Lindstrom’s radio interview aired.

“Marketers as Master Machiavellians” would be a simple way to characterize the dominant theme. How could we allow ourselves to be duped into opening our wallets further by a colorful display of fresh flowers?! How could our high schoolers assent to serving as walking billboards for shoe and sweatshirt manufacturers?! No doubt our prolonged economic doldrums have done nothing to alleviate such sentiments among those who hold them.

Lindstrom’s remedy calls for marketers to “choose the open, honest approach” in communicating with consumers. This is good advice—just as it’s always been (and arguably even more so in the age of social media). But it’s always been human nature to share with others our insights and experiences—including those provided by brands. In difficult times, we clearly face the challenge of delivering an increasingly better brand experience to our customers every day. Where we succeed, word-of-mouth and customer recommendations will continue to follow—in genuine form, and not as a stealthy and disingenuous experiment.

by Pete Healy
Vice President – Account Planning

Follow Pete on Twitter @PeteHealy