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Brandwash: A Strategy Brands Use to Influence Consumer Behavior

Marketers go to great lengths to try and manipulate us into buying things. They do this with sneaky techniques like using visual tricks, playing on emotions and even tinkering with our thoughts. This is the reason why people often feel manipulated by ads. These ads often end up making us buy things we don't want or need.


Until two decades back, it was enough for them to bombard us with ads on billboards, TV, radio, or the internet. However, today they want to sneak in their messages earlier and more often. This is how they're able to grab our attention before we're even conscious of it happening - through clever tactics like brand-washing.


Martin Lindstrom is the author of the international bestsellers Brandwashed and Buyology. He is an internationally renowned marketing expert, speaker, and consultant with over 20 years of experience helping companies of all shapes and sizes improve their marketing performance. In his book Brandwashed, Martin sets out to give us a clear understanding of how marketing works in order to empower us as a consumer. He explains the many common (and not-so-common) tricks of contemporary marketing, and he provides a handy guide of what to look for in order to make rational buying decisions.


What is Brand-Washing?

Brand-washing is a marketing strategy that aims to make a company's products and services more appealing to consumers by adopting techniques that make them seem more connected to the customer.


For example, the smacking sound when we unscrew some jars and containers was created and patented. It conveys the impression that what’s inside is fresh and clean.


To understand brandwash better, we need first understand brand addiction.


What is brand addiction?

The concept of addiction can be defined as a psychological and physiological dependence on a substance or behavior that results in negative consequences. Similarly, brand addiction is the state of being attached to a certain brand. Moreover, brand addiction can also be a result of marketing tactics that use people's emotions as weapons against them, such as fear tactics.


Research shows that the millennial generation has shown to have a higher tendency towards being addicted to brands because they have grown up in an age of mass customization and hyper-connectivity enabled by technology.


There are two stages of brand addiction:

  • The first stage is the 'routine stage,' when certain brands or products become part of a consumer's daily habits, such as shaving with a Gillette razor or using Pantene shampoo.

  • The second stage is the 'dream stage,' where consumers do not buy products based solely on their practicalities, but because the brand or product makes them feel good, and they long for it.


In his book Brandwashed, Martin Lindstrom describes how everyday brands try to convince us to buy their goods. As a result, we can also see how advertisers design their advertising to exploit our psychological weak spots so that before we are conscious of it, we are actually being guided towards certain products.


“Brand Addiction” is a subset of “Shopping Addiction.” - Martin Lindstrom

In his book, Martin argues:

  • How bestseller lists work to activate behavior in people,

  • How fear influences buying decisions,

  • Reasons lip-gloss is so addictive, and

  • How some of your product choices as adults are formed in the womb.


When do we become brand-washed?

Marketers have been known for their use of branding strategies to influence consumers. They use these strategies to make brands attractive and convince consumers that the products they sell are the best. According to a report, "Studies show that a brand can increase its odds of a sale by as much as 400% simply by changing its name but with the same packaging."


Branded products are often portrayed as being more high-quality, exclusive, and desirable than non-branded products. With this in mind, it’s no wonder why marketing tactics such as brandwashing have been used in recent times.


The fact is that marketing starts as soon as we're born and we're bombarded with commercialism before we even know what our likes and dislikes are.


How could this be possible? Didn't we then just exist as a mass of cells?


Researchers have found that embryos develop sensory and tactile functions in Week 10. Around Week 20, it starts responding to sounds. In Week 30, a fetus' auditory, gustatory, olfactory, and visual systems are fully functional, and it can hear the heartbeat of the mother and external sounds. At this point, the pregnant woman's eating habits will have a profound effect on her unborn child. Additionally, it will have an effect on a baby's later habits.

As a result, brand marketing begins even before we're born. For instance, when a pregnant woman listens to a particular singer's music, the rhythms may last in the baby's memory for years. Childhood experiences can affect a person's adult life in significant ways. It is likely that many brands will seize this opportunity to create the next generation of consumers.


Consider the example of Kopiko coffee candy.


Example of Brandwash: Kopiko coffee in the UAE

Source: Carrefour UAE


Kopiko was preparing to launch their new product, coffee in the form of candy-flavored coffee. Several obstetricians, gynecologists, and pediatricians received the coffee-flavored candies from the distributors. Interestingly enough, the moment candy-flavored Kopiko coffee hit the shelves, its popularity was phenomenal, especially among children. Kids, who usually wouldn't go near that stuff, turned out to love the flavor of Kopiko coffee. This happened because the obstetricians, gynecologists, and pediatricians would give a screaming infant/toddler a dose of Kopiko coffee and it would instantly, and magically, calm these babies down.


What are the strategies that companies use to brandwash us?

By taking advantage of consumer's psychological cues, brand marketers use three sets of strategies:


1) Brandwash strategy: fear-mongering marketing.

Fear sells. That's why marketers are constantly playing on consumer's fears to make them buy their products. Sometimes it can be as simple as a few words in an ad, like "If you don't buy our product, your loved ones will die." Various scientific studies have found that fear can also be contagious. You will eventually feel similarly if you see another person who is worried about something, and more and more people seem to be worried about the same thing.

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Companies use a combination of fear and guilt to make advertisements more effective. This is because when people feel guilty and afraid, they're more likely to act on their fears. In addition, firms play on people's fears of becoming something they don't want to be. For example, individuals suffering from obesity, constantly seek ways to overcome it. Consequently, companies advertise products that make problems appear worse. Another example is of hotels, placing a paper lid on the rim of the glasses, or a seal is placed on the toilet seat. This trick creates an illusion that the toilet, or glass, has never been used or drank from by anyone else.


Example of fear marketing using Lisa Ray

Source: HDFC Life

2) Brandwash strategy: nostalgia marketing.

As we age, our longing for the good old days becomes more intense. It has been found that our brains are wired to keep and amplify positive memories. A lousy experience, however, is usually wiped out. In using this method of information processing, we are able to recall an experience in a far more gratifying way than when we were in that very moment. As a result, we tend to look back fondly on our past.

Example of Nostalgia marketing

Photo by Dmitry Demidov from Pexels


Nostalgia marketing is a strategy to attract consumers who are looking for nostalgic memories. It can also be used as an effective way to reconnect with your customers. It generates emotional triggers that make people remember the good old days or why they liked your product or service in the first place.

This link will take you to an article I wrote about nostalgia marketing.

3) Brandwash strategy: sex in advertising.

Have you ever wondered why a lot of high-end car manufacturers design their cars with smooth lines and long curves? They are meant to create a seductive, sensual appearance. In fact, according to Martin, they even incorporated them into the car's steering wheel, gearstick, and door handles. Many brands that have long catered to and been associated with women are now targeting the appearance and beauty-conscious male market. Obviously, brands will focus on finding the perfect balance between masculinity and femininity.


Who are the people who brandwash us?

The effect of others on our shopping is both obvious and important. Almost every person has experienced the power of their peers to shape their opinions, but there are other types of people that have a significant impact on our choices.


Besides our own psyche, who influences us when we shop?

Martin points out in his book that we are heavily influenced by others when making shopping decisions. This phenomenon is known as peer pressure. For instance, most of us check online customer reviews before deciding whether to purchase something. Bestseller lists also prove that other people's preference and purchase influences our decisions. As an online bookseller, Amazon actually emails its customers to inform them that other shoppers bought items they might also enjoy.


However, our family and friends are the most persuasive persuaders, especially those we trust and admire. Having what they have and living like them are things we all long for. In this case, word-of-mouth marketing is more effective than any advertisement. In addition, celebrities also influence our shopping habits. Many of us aspire to be like celebrities because they represent many desirable attributes. It could be in the form of beauty, charisma, musicianship, or athleticism. Marketers won't simply slap the faces of celebs on a package when advertising. Through the products they endorse, they strategically project their attributes. Through a process so seamless, we subconsciously perceive that we are buying a celebrity's image when we purchase a product.


Some celebrities stand for professionalism, like experts or professionals. Most of the time, we trust what the doctors prescribe, such as what to eat, what to use, and what to watch for. That is why the beauty industry is filled with medical professionals. Consumers are involuntarily reassured of the safety of using products that have stamps that say "Doctor-Recommended" and "Dermatologist-Approved".


Concluding thoughts on brandwash

This blog article is not intended to make you distrust brands or stop buying them. But if we understand just how today's newest hidden persuaders are influencing our consumer behavior, we should be more logical when we shop. With this information, we will have the capability to make more informed, sensible, and smarter purchases in the future.