The Wall Street Journal cites a study conducted by Baylor University, where subjects were presented with two glasses of soda – one labeled Coke and the other unnamed – and asked to state their preference. They overwhelmingly chose the labeled drink, even though both were Coke. In another study, a subject who had been shown sunny ads for a new juice called “Orange Grove” reacted surprisingly favorably to the vinegar-laced “Orange Grove” concoction he was actually served: “It tasted real sweet. It quenched my thirst. Refreshing.” Despite these two examples, other recent media reports indicate that people are growing increasingly immune to traditional marketing and thus becoming “brand-proof.” The concept of being brand-proof says that consumers are now empowered and essentially “above” many of the practices of advertising that made successful brands in the past. New York Times writer and author Robert Walker thinks differently.
In his recent book Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, Walker argues that traditional marketing strategies still work signaling that consumers are hardly indifferent to brands today. The confusion results from the blurring of marketing into what he refers to as “Murketing.”
According to Walker, “It’s about the murkiness we see now between what is branding, and what is everything else. What’s happening as the result of TiVo and some of these other emerging technologies is the lessening impact of the 30-second television commercial. But marketing people saw this coming, and unleashed quite a bit of creativity in terms of where marketing could be in our lives. That could take the form of television shows that are essentially a spin-off of a creative brief of a brand, as happened with [male grooming product] Axe and its show Game Killers—you can’t really TiVo the ads out; it’s the show.”
On the flip side, word-of-mouth agencies came along and didn’t hire an actor to go out and pretend to like a product in public. It was more of a volunteer basis, where they’d say, “Hey, sign up, you average consumer, and maybe you’ll get some free products and tell your friends about it, and then tell us about that.” You would think intuitively that given what we say in polls about hating commercials, no one would do that, but in fact tens of thousands have signed up.
In an interesting example of brand-power, Walker describes the phenomenon of Ramones T-shirts exponentially outselling Ramones albums. Walker notes that, “the Ramones logo means something that’s so instantly translatable. It’s different to different people, but it serves as shorthand for ‘maverick spirit’ and ‘independent music.’ It’s not conspicuous consumption, where you’re trying to show off to other people; it’s more a self-signaling situation where you have a story of yourself in your head and what’s consistent with it, and what isn’t. For a lot of people being independent and bucking the trends is a very accessible thing. As an idea, it’s probably more accessible than the music itself for a lot of people.”
Wall Street Journal reviewer, David Billet writes, “The beginning of marketing wisdom, according to Mr. Walker, is that mere usefulness does not a successful product make. How much more useful is Apple’s iPod than Dell’s less expensive digital music player? Nor is “status theory” – the idea that consumers snatch up objects just to keep up with the Joneses – all you need to know. For example, status isn’t the reason consumers spend nearly $100 million annually on Method’s neatly packaged cleaning products.
The most powerful sales campaigns, Mr. Walker says, get their hooks into the consumer’s “interpreter,” a term he borrows from psychologists to describe the rationalizing corner of the brain. And the stimuli to which 21st-century interpreters respond, it seems, are those that signal authenticity, identity and community.
Thus Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, a dwindling, century-old Milwaukee brand, was revived in the 1990s when it started to be associated – Mr. Walker traces the claim to some bars in Portland, OR – with the blue-collar American heartland. Skateboarding companies have made millions by selling an outsider lifestyle, one that requires a lot of merchandise to join. The iPod’s tirelessly marketed white ear-buds added up to a ‘sense of implied togetherness’ among iPod users.”
With an increasingly segmented society, however, it has become difficult to break through using a single top-down message. The key is to identify the segments or sub-segments for which your brand has or could have relevance and then tap in to their “interpreter” to show your authenticity, identity, and create a community of those who matter.