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[Review] Buyology – Truth And Lies About Why We Buy


Imagine if you’re a smoker. You pick up a pack of cigarettes. On the front are gory images – a hemorrhaged brain, blackened lungs, deformed baby, ugly cancerous growth – coupled with stern admonitions like “SMOKING KILLS”.

How would you react to these gruesome warnings?

According to renowned marketer Martin Lindstrom in his bestselling book Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy“, the “craving spot” of your brain would actually be stimulated by those visceral warnings.

In other words, you’ll feel like smoking more – not less.

Scary isn’t it?

Written in an engaging narrative, “Buyology” provides a fascinating glimpse into the world of neuromarketing, fusing the disparate disciplines of neurological science with marketing and consumer behavior. Poo poo-ing the value of market research, the author claims that what “we say we feel about a product can never truly predict how we behave”.

Lindstrom’s assertions are based on the results of a US$7 million 3 year neuromarketing study of 2,000 people from the developed world. Using state-of-the-art technology like Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Steady-State Typography (SST), Lindstrom and his associates conducted numerous experiments peering into the human brain.

So what worked and what didn’t?

Let’s begin with visual advertising. Most ads are so overwrought that our brains literally shut down and block these images. Apparently, only 2.21 ads are remembered by anybody in the year 2007 (the book was published in 2008)!

What about product placements? Here, we take a leaf from the experience of Coca Cola, Cingular, and Ford Motors, each of which invested millions in sponsoringAmerican Idol.

Through immersive placements – for example, contours of the studio sofas resembling a Coke bottle, or glasses of Coke provided to the judges – the beverage brand achieved the best recall. This was followed by Cingular, which was mentioned each time viewers called in to vote for their favourite contestant. Unfortunately, Ford’s advertisements during the break actually led to poorer recall than before.

Subliminal messaging is another trait that works better than overt advertising. Studies have shown that the millisecond exposure of positive or negative stimuli in a video reel could lead to differences in how humans feel and behave.

On the contrary, logos are actively resisted by consumers, causing their minds to build mental barriers which block them.

To counter this, brands like Marlboro cleverly deploy colour schemes (its trademark red) and styles to give the appearance of a brand advertisement or environment sans logo. These visual reminders are powerful enough for us to associate them with the brands, eliciting a desired action.

Strong brands are also ardent creators of rituals and superstitions.  Examples include squeezing a lime into a Corona beer bottle, dipping Oreo’s cookies into milk, and pouring a Guinness stout in a certain manner.

Taken a step further, leading brands (like Apple and Nike) are almost like religions, triggering the same spots in a brain akin to worshipping at a church, temple or mosque! Like major beliefs, these vanguard brands embrace the 10 pillars of religions – sense of belonging, clear vision, power over enemies, sensory appeal, storytelling, grandeur, evangelism, symbols, mystery and rituals.

Riding on ideas from his earlier book “Brand Sense: Sensory Secrets Behind the Stuff We Buy“, Lindstrom continues to espouse the virtues of using multiple senses to improve a product’s “sensory brand”. While sight is the most commonly deployed sense in marketing, scents and sounds can be far more effective in reaching our hearts – particularly when paired with visual elements. Colors are also powerful in triggering brand associations.

What about sex, the most potent force in advertising?

Contrary to popular belief, sex in itself may actually lead to lower recall of brands – unless it is controversial enough to raise a ruckuss (positive or negative) that makes the brand a talking point.

Similarly, beautiful celebrities may be overrated as brand ambassadors. The only thing these larger-than-life babes and hunks end up endorsing are themselves, rather than the brands they are paid millions to appear with. This is why campaigns like Dove’s “Real Beauty” work better in promoting recall and response than myriad other beauty brands.

On the scientific front, we’re educated on how somatic markers and mirror neurons lead to our consumption behaviors.

In the world of marketing, somatic markers are dramatic events that exert a permanent and memorable association – a veritable book mark to the brain. Examples of somatic markers include the 9/11 World Trade Centre disaster, Blendtec’s unforgettable “Will it blend?” videos on YouTube, and Energizer Bunny’s relentless marching and beating on a drum.

Mirror neurons, on the other hand, are nerve connections that make us want to “mirror” somebody else. This “monkey-see-monkey-do” effect is the reason we feel sad when watching a tear jerker on TV, or outraged when reading about violent crimes. When our mirror neurons are triggered, we also receive a shot of dopamine– the feel good hormone which leads us to purchase more products or services.

The conclusion is that we are irrational creatures when it comes to shopping (as if we don’t already know). Emotions triggered in the subconscious mind make up 90% of our “buy” decisions compared to the 10% associated with our conscious rational brain. Thus, we often can’t explain why we prefer a particular brand of handbag, running shoe, or electronic device, beyond stating its obvious attributes.

In summary, “Buyology” offers a compelling look – or relook rather – at what truly makes us buy. By marrying medical science with marketing, it provides a fresh twist to our understanding of consumer behaviour. Fans of Martin Lindstrom who love his other books like “Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy“, “BrandChild: Remarkable Insights into the Minds of Today’s Global Kids and Their Relationship with Brands” and “Brand Sense” will find this volume a compelling addition to their bookshelves.