Marketing whistleblower exposed as double agent

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A new book claiming to reveal the secrets of brand marketing uses the same commonsense techniques to shift a few extra copies.

There is nothing like biting the hand that feeds you. This was my first thought on seeing that business consultant Martin Lindstrom had written a book Brandwashed that “exposes the lengths marketers will go to exploit guilt, sex, insecurity, nostalgia and more to prey upon our fears and desires”.

Lindstrom is, of course, a career marketer himself. And far from being some sort of whistleblower, striking out to clean up the industry, he is one of the consultants taking money from large brands to help them create marketing. His biography claims he started his own advertising agency at the tender age of 12 and has long been fed his business by the same people he now seeks to “expose”.

Brandwashed, which is out this month, claims to reveal the “secret” techniques that marketers are using to sell things to consumers. But to anyone in the marketing industry, these techniques are either common sense or well known. The only thing this book really does is market the services of one Martin Lindstrom.

Let’s start with the assertion that “companies secretly mine our digital footprints for the most intimate details of our private lives in order to target us with ads perfectly tailored to our psychological profiles”.

Wow! Sounds like corporate spies are creeping inside our laptops and feeding the information back to the evil overlords. Except that this is just called “targeting”. There is no secret about it at all. Companies are quite open about doing it you can read them talking about it every single week in the pages of Marketing Week. It makes sense for companies to try to offer you something you actually want to buy.

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Next, Lindstrom reveals and I use that term loosely how “retailers capitalise on panic over viruses, weather events and food contamination scares”. I am not sure this comes as a surprise to anyone, but nor is this response actually totally unwanted.

We expect retailers to respond to events in the news or weather. If it’s hot, we want the BBQ section to be on special offer. This is called trying to appeal to what your customers want and is in no way sneaky or sinister.

Next, Lindstrom warns us that babies can “hear and remember ad jingles from the womb”. Well, there has certainly been a study by Dr Alexandra Lamont suggesting that babies prefer music they have been exposed to in the womb for a year after birth. Does this really have marketing implications though?

I would suggest not. My one-year-old son shows absolutely no interest in striking out and purchasing a holiday to Malaysia on my credit card because that Malaysia, Simply Asia jingle was on the TV every morning of my pregnancy.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t necessarily like brands targeting my child or me very much and I hear about these techniques every day. But even someone as paranoid as I am is not about to start panicking about Lindstrom’s findings.

As for Lindstrom’s methodology, he has already made headlines with a section of the book about how babies react to mobile phones. Apparently, babies get bored quickly with the non-touchscreen BlackBerry and “have already been converted to the Apple brand” so “a whole new generation is being primed in their formative years to think Apple”.

Really? I would argue that babies get bored with anything that doesn’t react when they touch it. My baby likes my phone because it does something when he slides his grubby finger across it. He also likes the TV remote control for its flashing light. This does not mean he started crying when he heard that Steve Jobs had moved upstairs at Apple last month.

Lindstrom also embarked on an “extreme” experiment as part of the book research. His publisher says: “He went on a brand detox and committed to not buying a single new brand for a year until he couldn’t stand it any longer.” What the publisher then has to admit is that Lindstrom failed to last the year.

I am not sure what that stunt proves apart from that human beings need a certain number of key items to exist. And this no-labels gimmick has been done before in Neil Boorman’s book Bonfire of the Brands.

My issue with Lindstrom is that while someone like Boorman was motivated by his beliefs to try and live without labels, Lindstrom admits to being a consummate marketer through and through. “Yes, I’ve been part of it. No, I’m not proud of it,” he says.

But you can’t expect people to see you as some sort of whistleblower while you simultaneously profit from the same things you “expose”. Lindstrom might say marketing has gone too far, but he is not beyond using emotionally leading ads for Brandwashed featuring a cute baby and a QR code.

As someone who would like to see marketing treated as a strategic business discipline, rather than a bag of dubious magic tricks, Brandwashed depresses me. But hold on, the book’s website reveals “rave reviews” for the Lindstrom’s latest work from such great minds as, er, actor William Shatner. Perhaps I should stop worrying after all.

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