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BW Businessworld

Market Mind Games

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When I go to the Udupi restaurant, I gladly drink the water kept before me. If I need bottled water, I have to ask. But in most fine-dining restaurants, they take it for granted you will order the overpriced bottle. No hotel can afford to serve unsafe drinking water, still we are conditioned to asking for bottled water. A new need is created. And a new industry is born. An array of people makes a living from the ever-increasing list of needs — something Vance Packard discussed in The Hidden Persuaders in 1957. His was, perhaps, the first book to break in the murky world of manipulating the human mind to plant needs. Today, many more tools are there to influence our choices. And there is continuous manipulation of minds. Firms and agencies are busy using data-mining, sociology, neuroscience, psychology and so on to push sales. In 2009, branding maven Martin Lindstrom's Buyology: How Everything We Believe About Why We Buy Is Wrong explained parts of this process. And in Brainwashed, he elaborates on Packard.

Lindstrom documents the art and science of creating customers for a brand. He is, in short, a selling agent using modern tools of data mining and behavioural sciences, and says for selling and creating an enduring brand, companies stop at nothing. They use all human emotions — fear, panic, addiction, lust, peer pressure and nostalgia to create a need for what they sell. Some start creating clients even before products are born.

Suppose someone offers you a concoction of six teaspoons of sugar, a lot of caffeine and water, will you drink it? You may not. But if you are offered a can of an ‘energy drink', you may try it. As the drink is positioned well and its ingredients are hidden from consumers. Once having tried it, you will become a fan. If someone tells you both the drinks are the same, how will you react?

Lindstrom packs anecdotes on over 100 such products or brands. The book is very American or European in its approach and is relevant to advanced countries where the per capita income is sufficiently high for the brand sellers to keep chasing the consumer and trying to convert him into an addict. For India, this is relevant to the top of the pyramid as of now. That said, marketers will be battling it out soon to plant aspirations in the consumer's mind at an early stage.

And that takes us to the privacy of data. We all talk about it. Alas, the moment you search on the Web, or swipe a credit card or buy a gadget, your personal profile is out there somewhere. All these data gatherers, including credit information bureaus, social networking sites, etc. sell data whether you like it or not. To get more bang for the buck, a company has to spend its advertising rupees on focused target groups. The funny fact is when we do not have anything, we aspire to have many things and having got them, we want to rebel against the manipulative world and society. No problem. The marketing gurus are out there to offer you nirvana through gods and godmen, who have now become brands that are competing for your soul. Lindstrom has done a brilliant job of writing about the extent to which firms go to create and retain a customer. Of course, there are many who are upset with this approach and are trying to rebel. The UK-based group Enough is one example.

Not being familiar with most brands in the market place, I thought the book was a bit too long and could have conveyed the point in less than half the pages. However, it is possible that a younger generation that is already into consumerism could identify more with these brands and names. Lindstrom's book is a must read for the Indian consumer. And it is a wake-up call to marketers as well. It will definitely set you thinking on the way you buy and what you buy.

balakrishnanr at gmail dot com

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 16-04-2012)