Brandwashed by Martin Lindstrom


Brandwashed by Martin Lindstrom

Book Review: Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy by Martin Lindstrom

Like a surgeon exposing the nasty underbelly of medical malpractice, Martin Lindstrom, branding expert and author of the neuromarketing book Buyology, takes a decidedly consumerist point of view in showing how brands influence and sometimes even control our lives. Lindstrom, who has spent much of his business life advising companies how to build stronger brands, is in a unique position to show readers how well the process can work.

Lindstrom makes the case that branding begins in the womb – sounds and tastes the mother experiences are shared by the growing baby and can dramatically affect preferences and behavior after birth. He describes a candy company that distributed samples to pregnant women (apparently with no nefarious plan for prenatal brandwashing) and was surprised to find that the resulting children showed a strong preference for the flavor of that candy. The branding assault commences in full once infants start experiencing the world around them. It may not be a surprise by 36 months American kids can recognize a hundred brand logos. And, of course, any American parent can attest to the power brands like McDonalds wield over children. Showing the potency of the biggest burger brand, kids even found carrots tastier when they were served with the McDonalds logo.

The Right Juice

Brandwashed is at its best when Lindstrom uses his extensive client experience and list of contacts to provide a peek into corporate branding efforts. An insight into the creation of the Calvin Klein fragrance Euphoria – starting with video clips illustrating the darkly erotic emotion Calvin Klein was striving for, the fragrance developers did their best to create the right scent (or, as industry insiders term it, the “juice”). Focus groups of women were assembled, dabbed with the fragrance, and asked to close their eyes and tell a story. One firm’s submission evoked the right mood, with every woman coming up with the sort of romantic, sexual imagery desired. The fragrance was then further refined by taking female subjects into a dark maze of rooms where they could experience variations of the scent in complete isolation. More focus group testing ensued, and Euphoria was launched with an ad campaign built around the same emotions observed in the testing process. The fragrance became a top seller.

Games Stores Play

While the Euphoria story is presented as a straightforward (if very sophisticated and complex) example of building a product around customer emotions, most of the book focuses on what Lindstrom sees as manipulation of consumer perceptions. Whole Foods, the darling of the organic/healthy eating set, comes up several times in the book. Lindstrom explains why you walk past masses of fresh flowers, a burbling water feature, and chalk-on-slate prices. All of these are freshness cues, designed to convince consumers that the store is filled with products rushed to the store from the farm. (The “chalk” prices, according to Lindstrom, aren’t scribbled daily; they are actually mass-produced and unchanging.)

Whole Foods also presents displays like fresh fish, heads and all, resting on a bed of ice. Those aren’t the fish you buy, of course – those are neatly cut up in plastic packages. Lindstrom’s most amusing discovery involving the chain was what appeared to be a tower of old-fashioned cantaloupe boxes in the produce area, apparently waiting to be unpacked. In fact, the display was one piece, manufactured to look like individual boxes!

Lindstrom thinks most elements of store design are intended to alter consumer behavior in some way. The ever-present misters over produce? They don’t keep the veggies fresh longer (and may even make them spoil more quickly) but they do convey freshness and sell more produce. Lest you think that Whole Foods is Lindstrom’s sole target, he mentions a Trader Joe’s promotion of Ghirardelli chocolate – employees packed big, irregular chunks of bulk chocolate in paper bags for customers. A closer inspection showed that the “bulk chunks” were, in fact, identical molded pieces intended to look like they had been broken off a massive block of chocolate. (Restaurants use some of the same tricks – in The Neuromarketing of Burgers, I describe how Five Guys stacks sacks of potatoes in the middle of the store, and uses a whiteboard to announce where “today’s potatoes” are from. Both techniques are very similar to those of Whole Foods.)

Pssst… Want a Hit of Fat and Sugar?

Lindstrom makes the point that many food-related companies deliberately appeal to our brains by offering foods containing substances known to be addictive: fat, sugar, caffeine, and even the flavor-enhancer MSG. Fast food chains earn the bulk of their revenue from these types of products, even though they may carry a few healthy offerings. (In fact, those salads actually sell more fries – see Dietary Decoys.) Energy drinks offer mainly addictive ingredients: high concentrations of sugar and caffeine.

Fear Factor

There’s a chapter devoted to the way marketers exploit fear, a particularly potent emotion in the human psyche. Some of the examples are indeed sketchy, such as makers of antibacterial gels ramping up advertising during the swine flu scare; flu is caused by viruses, and isn’t prevented by antibacterial agents. Lindstrom also mentions commercials that are clearly cross the line in preying on our emotions, like a life insurance company that ran an ad showing a man driving a car while he muses (in a voiceover) about what he’d like to tell his son, and what he’d do differently… just before a bus smashes into his car and kills him.

But is it wrong for a burglar alarm company to picture a home break-in in their commercials, or for stores to stock up on emergency supplies and prominently display them in advance of a possible major storm? Readers may agree with Lindstrom on some points and disagree on others. Nevertheless, all of the examples are illustrative of fear-based marketing.

Are Companies Manipulating or Meeting Demand?

If you have a negative opinion of corporations in general and advertising in particular, Brandwashed will definitely feed your paranoia. And, of course, some branding efforts and advertising may be unfairly manipulative. But, I think, sometimes products are simply created to meet consumer demand. Lindstrom takes video and computer game designers to task for creating products that push our brain’s buttons to make us keep playing. Isn’t that what we pay for, though? If I played a video game for twenty minutes and said, “Whew, that’s enough… I’m bored,” it would be an abysmal failure. You WANT to play games that are difficult to tear yourself away from, even after hours of play.

Of course, other companies are exploiting our game-playing instincts with “gamification” – creating game-like elements that encourage people to stay engaged and keep using the product. Think about the mobile app Foursquare, for example – people earn badges, become mayors of locations, and so on, all of which can lead to a near-addictive obsession with using the product. Still, I think many marketers and other business people will read this book and interpret some of the data points in a different way. Companies try to develop products that consumers want. Long before neuromarketing, they used product tests, focus groups, and many other conventional market research techniques to try to create products that consumers really liked, and would keep buying. They developed ad campaigns, using the same kinds of tools, to craft messages that people would pay attention to. Is this manipulation, or giving consumers what they want?

In the coming days, I’ll pass along a few fascinating nuggets from Brandwashed. One thing I really like about the book is that for just about all of the points he makes, Lindstrom provides references to relevant research or additional reading. Readers who may question the conclusions he draws the data can always go back to the source and see if they agree. Lindstrom is a smart guy, and I think in most cases people who dig deeper will find merit in his analysis.

Brandwashed is a must read not just for marketers, but for all readers who want to understand how they can be manipulated by clever marketing. And even consumers who don’t fall into the “tinfoil hat” category will be entertained by Lindstrom’s wealth of real-world examples. Marketing enthusiasts will find the book impossible to put down, and, whether the author intends it or not, will find new ways to improve the effectiveness of their efforts. Like the marketers he describes, Lindstrom has created a book that will grab your brain and keep you hooked until you finish it.

Amazon Hardcover: Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy
Kindle Version: Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy
Audiobook on CD: Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy

  1. nalts says

    Ugh- why do I react so negatively to this topic? Meh- like the smell of burning hair or rubber. Ick.

  2. Roger Dooley says

    I’m sure some brain scan work could figure that out, nalts! 😉


  3. Page Schorer says

    Another book to read. Just in time since i’m almost through with Brain Bugs and have already passed Incognito on to another interested party. I hope you are getting a little cut of the action.


    1. Roger Dooley says

      My action comes when Brainfluence goes on sale, Page. Be sure to clear your reading shelf to make room for that one! 😉


  4. Page Schorer says

    I’ll be sure to read it, but all my book shelves are full and the piles are getting to high. Time to do some clearing out.


  5. I read his last book Buyology and thought it was awesome – my favorite chapter was how ritual shapes our lives. I can’t wait to read this one either. Thanks for reviewing it – I didn’t even know it was out until I read your review.

  6. Kees van Duyn says

    Without having read the book it is very difficult to say something meaningful about it. Yet Lindstrom – the self-proclaimed ‘brandguru’ – has a track record of publishing books that are not worth the paper they are written on. At least not to anyone who is professionally involved with brands and who is genuinely interested in what brands ‘do’ to people at a neurological level. Unless Lindstrom has lifted his game I’d say don’t waste your time and money, there are far better books on the topic than his superficial scribblings!

    1. Roger Dooley says

      >>not worth the paper they are written on
      Soon to be replaced by, “not worth the bandwidth to download,” perhaps?

      I think both consumers and marketers will find interesting insights in Brandwashed, Kees. I might take issue with the implication that emotional and subconscious-oriented marketing is wrong, but there’s food for thought in the book. Suggest you borrow a copy (if you begrudge Lindstrom a dollar or two in royalties) and see what you think.

      Which books in the space have you found most useful, Kees? Thanks for stopping by.


  7. Kees van Duyn says

    Hi Roger, you have a point: people who don’t work with brands may find his books interesting.But those who have a professional interest in ‘brands and brains’ better read something more insightful, substantial and balanced. One book in particular springs to mind: The Mental World of Brands by Giep Franzen and Margot Bouwman (an oldie by now but still highly relevant). Another good book that deal with the issue of how our brains respond to brand communications would be The Advertised Mind by Eric dePlessis, and of course Antonio Damasio has things to say about the topic too.

    I have read two book by Lindstrom – BrandSense and another one that I can’t even remember – and found them distinctly superficial and therefore not worthy of reading for brand professionals.

    Apologies if I have insulted anyone but life is too short and time to precious to waste on rubbish!

    Best, Kees

  8. James says

    Interesting takedown of Lindstroms work

    I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of probably the best psych blog on the web

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Wow, that MindHacks post doesn’t pull any punches, does it?

      I guess the NYTimes has a soft spot for neuromarketing. A few years ago there was a controversy over another piece about fMRI and political marketing.

      One thing this controversy underscores is the need for some good published research on neuromarketing techniques. As long as we have most of the work being done by private companies that supply anecdotes but no hard data, we’re going to be arguing about this stuff. With at least a couple of neuromarketing labs opening up (Iowa State and U of Akron), not to mention the neuroeconomics work being done at Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, and other research centers, I think we’ll start seeing better data.

      As a direct marketing guy with a penchant for real-world tests, I’d be happy to see some A/B tests that showed a company could reliably pick winning ads (or products, etc.). You don’t have to tell me WHY it works, just that it DOES work, consistently and reliably. That’s not rocket science, and could even be back-tested on offer variations, ads, etc. for which statistics already exist. Significantly, perhaps, I haven’t had any publishable takers on my Neuromarketing Challenge. (I do have one interesting entry but the firm says it’s client hasn’t granted permission to share the data, so I can hardly count it.)

      Some hard data would go a long way to erasing the whiff of pseudoscience that seems to attach itself to neuromarketing studies.


  9. kees says

    Fantastic piece James. In reading Lindstrom’s books you do indeed notice the metaphorical bad smell of someone who is not interested in the ‘truth’ (with a small t) but only wants to sell as many books as possible. I personally see Lindstrom as just another snake-oil salesman with little regard for the complexity of both neuroscience and branding

  10. James says

    Vaughan has seemed a bit crotchety on Mindhacks the last couple of weeks, he’s usually much more ….. British, and I think the central metaphor in that post is a bit strange.

    I think his frustration is the same one you mention, that Lindstrom is not afraid to make bold claims but is afraid to publish his work. It also comes at a tough time for the neuroscience community in general. As this post outlines

  11. Roger Dooley says

    Thanks for that link, James. Sounds like even legitimate neuroscientists are being taken to task for being too quick to publish startling findings that might not hold up under rigorous statistical analysis. Perhaps that’s one factor behind eagerness to attack neuromarketing research that, not being academic in nature and not intended for journal publication, has even weaker methodology.


  12. James says

    It’s a newish science, i think it is still finding its feet. If you look back over the history of psychology you’ll see similar things. I saw Elizabeth Loftus give a lecture recently and the vitriol and bitterness and outright horror of the memory wars in the ’80s makes this look pretty tame.

  13. amy swanson says

    I’m currently reading this book and cannot put it down! I’ve always found consumer behavior and psychology classes in college fascinating, so I was ecstatic to pick this gem up. I haven’t read his previous book, but after finishing this one I will be!

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Glad you like it, Amy!


  14. Mark@MakeThemClick says

    I’m with Kees James on this one.
    I thought Buyology was one of the worst books on branding I’d ever read.
    There are much better authors and books on Neuromarketing to read than than to bother wasting time with Lindstrom’s self promoting drivel.

  15. Jackson Perry says

    I am writing a research paper on Neuromarketing, and throughout my research it’s amazing how much I’ve learned. I’m using a few of your articles in my Work Cited page in fact. Brilliant website you have here Roger.

  16. Nate Davis says

    Hi Roger,
    thanks for a thoughtful review of the book, which was also good enough to stir up a lively debate. Also, a tip of the cap for prompt, respectful responses to comments–something many bloggers don’t have the discipline to do. Will I buy the book? I’m not sure. But I will encourage my pregnant wife to eat her vegetables!

  17. Roger Dooley says

    Thanks, Nate, one of the fun things about the blog format is the give & take with readers! I learn a lot that way!


  18. Mark Smits says

    I’d be a lot more impressed with Brandwashed if Lindstrom hadn’t “revealed” all the “tricks” that are taught in virtually every university course on marketing, advertising and consumer behavior. If you want to find out what is done and why it is done without all the breathless prose, attend a few classes.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I’ll disagree a bit, Mark. At least when I was in B-school, the marketing classes I took were less practical and more theoretical. And, in any case, most folks don’t get to attend those classes. By illustrating even well-known techniques for influence and persuasion with current, real-world examples and putting the content into a highly readable biz book, Lindstrom brings the knowledge to a much broader audience than the typical consumer behavior prof will ever reach. In most areas of business endeavor, there’s not much truly new knowledge (though neuromarketing studies are providing a few new insights) – it’s still necessary to communicate the knowledge in a way that’s relevant and actionable.

      If you want a book that pushes the limits a bit farther in terms of theory, Mark, try The Branded Mind by Erik du Plessis – not a breezy read, but it will get you thinking!

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