Q&A with Martin Lindstrom – marketing thinker, author and consultant

We sat down with the lauded marketing thinker, author and consultant to discuss professional image, faith in brand, the wastefulness of research, covert word of mouth and why the Western world is creatively bankrupt.

In many ways, Martin Lindstrom is a PR’s darling. He stays on message, but subtly weaves it into the context of whatever anecdote answers your question – demonstrating a respect for the journalist interviewing and the story to be produced. He speaks with energy and motion. He entered his speciality at a prodigious age. (At 12, by his account, he started an agency; creating a miniature Legoland in his backyard. No guests arrived on the first day. So he persuaded a local ad agency to sponsor him. On the third day he had 131 visitors. The 130th and 131st, apparently, were Lego’s lawyers. There to sue him.) Making him aware that we’re – having been sternly told so – limited to 45 minutes, he telephonically shrugs, “Just take your time. And listen, I know you want to spend some energy on this article, so if we feel that we have too little time, then we will just extend it to another day.” We do.

In other ways he’s the bête noire of PR. Take the above example – there was no benefit to granting a second interview, only risk. His Scandinavian accented English makes him an unlikely business celebrity in the US. The motivations behind his works aren’t entirely unit sales or populist; this piece in particular does have a difficult raison d’être. The subtext to the book he’s speaking to us to promote is the lack of ethical consideration, motivation and training in marketing, advertising and, more broadly, business communities.

Before writing Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, Lindstrom engaged himself in a year-long brand detox in order to see more clearly the domination of brands in our world. The idea was that he would not allow himself to purchase any new branded products for an entire year. He would, however, allow himself to continue to wear or use branded products he already owned. As a marketer, for the purposes of this project he defined brand broadly – anything that one might identify with or use to symbolise identity. It ruled out most products – house wine, tap water, no new music, books etc. It’s unsurprising that, after this experience, he believes 50% of our conversations are about or involve brands. He made it six months before lapsing, due to an airline. My favour to Lindstrom in repayment for the second interview is to not reveal what happened. It’s in the first chapter of Brandwashed, however…

On the opposite end of this brand denial continuum, Lindstrom decided to covertly – albeit with a $3 million price tag – inseminate word of mouth into a community like never before. He installed a family, the Morgensons, into a Laguna Beach, California, community with the specific goal of promoting 10 brands to friends in the community. There were some surprising results:

  • men were more easily influenced by other men when it came to food and drink choices than women were by other women – even when it came to suggesting vodka-cranberry over beer!
  • social capital directly influenced not only brand selection, but choice of adjectives when repeating feelings about a brand, and the experiment influenced its subjects: afterwards the Morgensons continued to use six of the 10 brands they had been spruiking.

But there are some interviewees who speak best for themselves.

Marketing magazine: Your book is fairly scathing about the tactics employed by marketers, but you define yourself as one. Do you see the problem with today’s consumer capitalist society to be the marketing profession?

Martin Lindstrom: The concept of marketer needs to be rebranded, because the problem we have right now is that we are, image wise, down with used car salesmen and real estate agents. And I think the problem we have is that we’re selling out too much. We’re going too far in desperation to make sure that we make a buck. The reason I wrote this book is very simple: I’ve been in the industry since I was 12… and I think it’s very clear to me right now that we are seeing some trends where the consumer is locked in and really can’t get out anymore, for privacy’s sake and lots of other reasons. And I feel we need to – and ‘we’ is me as well – clean up our own act, and make sure we get to a stage where, really from an ethical point of view, we have made a clean cut. I do think that very soon we will see a WikiLeaks of brands appearing, a type of website, or whatever it is, which is really going to disclose things companies are doing behind the scenes.

Before that happens, I wanted to write a book that had two purposes: one was for me to work with the consumer to push companies to change their behaviour. [The other] was to work with companies behind the scenes and team up with them in order to create some new ethical guidelines they could follow, so we make sure that the change is happening before it’s too late. And that’s really the mission for this whole thing.

I do think that we have an image problem right now; the trust is simply fading away… I think though, the problem is two things:

  • I don’t think any marketer out there has ever gone to a course where they learn about ethics. I haven’t, for sure, and I don’t know anyone who has.
  • I think the second thing that is happening right now, which no-one has experience with, is the fact that the brand will no longer be owned by corporations, but by the consumer.

How do you think marketers can win back credibility?

To be honest, I think marketers need to shape up in terms of what their own ethical profile is and, if I was a marketer, I would say you need to determine what are your own ethical guidelines, and you need to plaster them on top of your website on the homepage… And it needs to be like a guarantee. Just like when you buy a Rolex, you know that there is a two-year guarantee on it. Well, the same guarantee will be the case when you team up with an advertising agency, or even an individual. And it may be that every individual marketer will have their own ethical guidelines they follow, because, as you know, ethical guidelines really vary depending on which culture you talk to. I assume if you talk to a smoker, a smoker will, in general, feel it’s OK to advertise for smoking, whereas an antismoker will have the opposite opinion.

In a future where brand is owned by the consumer, will a marketer’s role become one of new product development and product management?

If you take a look at it from a marketing perspective, what is happening right now is that some of the cleverer brands are engaging the consumer much, much earlier than they did previously. They are working with a teething period of typically nine to 12 months before the product is even released. What we’ve learned is that if a product is released, let’s say, a year before, and the consumer is involved in the research and development process, giving feedback, giving and sharing their concerns, and they’re also involved in word of mouth, and if this involvement is happening a year before the product’s release, the product is more than 300% more likely to become successful…

And I think the good news here, from a consumer point of view, is that the consumer, in many ways now, will start to have a bigger say in what’s going on, and that means that they can stop [problematic] things much earlier. That’s also the good news for [brands], because companies will detect errors in product, in marketing, whatever, much, much earlier… It’s a win/ win situation. But it also means that marketers need to be much better involving themselves in the R&D process. And I think that’s one of the biggest weaknesses today, in particular for advertising agencies, but also for marketing departments, that neither of those two functions involve themselves [regularly] in the whole R&D process…

And let me just elaborate on that: what I see happening is that advertising agencies in general assume what the consumer looks like, they go out and do a vox pop or two, perhaps buy some statistics from some company, but they very rarely spend time in the consumers’ homes.

There is growing public interest in the tactics advertisers use. There are your books, there is Morgan Spurlock’s film – The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, The Gruen Transfer, Mad Men. Why do you think the mainstream have become so fascinated by this world?

It’s not that we are fascinated by it; we are just fascinated by our irrational behaviour and how our brains work. I think we are fascinated by manipulation and cheating and subliminal messages – all those different topics, things which are not spoken about. It just happens to be that the concentration of those different topics is in the world of advertising, and because it still has that sexy image – which I think appeals to a lot of people. The reality is that this will continue for a long period of time, but I also do think that a lot of consumers, unfortunately, are strangely enough not going to learn a lot. I certainly have seen that.

Whenever I give advice to consumers about how to change shopping behaviour, [they] say, “Wow, that’s fascinating. I love it. I’m going to change my behaviour.” And then when I observe them two days later out in the supermarket, they haven’t learned a thing. Because the way we interact in our lives today has been ingrained from when we were very young, and it’s almost like learning how to speak a whole new language; it’s not just something you do. To change your shopping behaviour is almost like going on a diet; it really takes a long time and is very hard. I think even though all those different programs are running on the screen right now, I don’t think that will have a lot of effect. The only thing they will do is to make it even more appealing.

You say one of the main aims in the book is to educate people towards the tricks that marketers use. Does reading about them and learning about them actually make people immune, or is there a risk that it could have the opposite effect and fill consumers with a false confidence?

I do think that the reality today is that most of us feel we are immune to all this advertising out there, and we do know that as soon as you feel you’re immune, your guard goes down, and as the guard goes down, you’re more susceptible to advertising. So, of course there is that risk that people read about it and then they believe they’re immune to everything. However, I would say one thing: all the many, many people I’ve talked to who’ve read the book, consistently say they have changed their entire way of buying stuff forever, and they are much more cautiously buying stuff in the supermarket. They’re much more critical towards things, they’re much more critical towards how they share information about themselves.

The Morgenson family was a large part of your book, in which you insinuated them into a community to spread word of mouth promotion about particular products. You make the prediction that marketers will actually adopt this tactic. Which brands do you think would go this far?

Well, I think there will be different levels of it, but I think most companies actually will. One thing that we realised with the Morgenson project, is that if the consumer is told that they are involved in a persuasion process where the people surrounding them have one mission, that is, to persuade them to use a certain brand, if they are aware of that, they actually are even more susceptible to changing their mind. It’s really, really surprising. We learned that people were – I can’t remember – between four and six% more likely to follow the advice if they knew that person was being paid for it. It was really surprising data. But the reason is because people somehow both get a respect that people are pretty honest about it and, secondly, they are thinking, ‘Hey, that person really must know a lot about this product, since that person is receiving money from the company to talk about it and promote it.’

How do you see brands remunerating families and individuals that do enter into some sort of program like this?

I think there will be two or three remuneration [models]. I think the first will be an expanded Tupperware model, where there are parties, cocktail parties, dinner parties and barbecues going on, and where they get some sort of pay-off if people are buying the products, because they are giving them the ability to buy at a cheaper price. I think the second level will be where you will notice some sort of online activity where

they will systematically spread the word of mouth to friends, and the more they get their friends to befriend [brands], the more bonus points they’ll receive. And I think the third category will be where they get a flat fee – and the flat fee [will be] partly free products and partly payment.

I want to come back to your brand detox that you open the book with. You do talk about the effects it had on you, and how it did create this kind of pregnant desire for brands, but what were the professional impacts it had on you? And also, what personal impacts did it have on you long-term?

I think the professional impact it had on me was that a lot of the tricks I fell for during the detox were tricks developed by me. And I think I realised the responsibility I had, as a marketing guy, or a branding guy, to really value very carefully what I teach my clients to do, and what tricks I’m using in order to persuade people to buy. So, it made me become much more aware of the ethical responsibility I have, because if I fall for my own tricks, then I would say most people would fall for the tricks, right? That’s the first thing. I think the long-term impact it had on me is that this is a strange world we’re living in right now where consumption has become so integrated into our happiness level that really, if we remove this whole thing from the world, we would look very empty for a long time.

I realised when we did the experiment with the Morgensons – which is the last chapter, and that was really following the heels of this experiment – that we have nothing to talk about, that 51% of everything we talk about with each other at a dinner table in the US is about brands, which I find incredibly scary. That means if I removed the topic of brands, we wouldn’t have anything to talk to each other about.

So, I realised how we are influencing each other, and how brands have such a big role in our lives, that this is almost our next cultural heritage. So, that was a really interesting wake-up call. And I think, at the end of the day, I also realised that it’s fine for us to have relations with brands, and be dependent on them; it’s kind of a treat, and it’s fine. And I think it’s just hard for us in our society as it is right now, to get around it. I think most people would struggle, and I think most people would not even be able to survive half a year, as I did, because it’s just everywhere. And it’s just very nice, as a marketer, to realise that and get a sense for that, rather than looking at the consumer and believing it’s ‘us and them’ we’re talking about.

You’re obviously a brand guy. We’ve noticed, among Australian marketers, the idea of brand is taking a bit of a beating after the global financial crisis. Most activity is really judged on a very short-term ROI. What is your reaction to this trend?

I think the most important thing to say is that courage is disappearing from corporations today, and I think we need to see courage coming back. I spend so much time behind the scene working with [company] politics. I would probably estimate that around 75 to 80% of my time is managing politics, because people are afraid of losing their jobs. Because of that, they are also afraid of making bold and courageous decisions. People are slow, because they are afraid that they’re not ticking all the right boxes and, therefore,

if they’re slow, they miss a lot of opportunities. And I think a lot of people are incredibly conventional in their thinking, and that means because it’s safer, they don’t dare to use unusual media formats, or use their media formats in unusual ways.

So, my advice is, number one, get the courage back into the organisation. And courage for me is where you use your weakness and turn it into a strength. Let’s say you are a very small start-up company. The biggest strength you have when you’re small is that you’re fast and, because you’re fast, you can do bold moves very quickly, and quite often you’ll get a lot of attention around them. And I think a lot of small start-ups, are blinded by the fact that they don’t have enough money, but their strength is that they are incredibly fast.

If something happens in the news today, they would in reality be able to turn around and tomorrow have [a related] ad up and running or do something online, or produce a new product or whatever. And I think that strength is totally forgotten in this country. I think it just becomes so corporate and so boring that it’s not working anymore, it’s just showing the logo in different sizes, and that’s what people define as branding.

For the bigger corporations, I think there has to be a huge turnaround. The people sitting in the [big] jobs right now have absolutely no courage, and I tell you I have fights with them every day to make them wake up and realise that they need to break the conventional thinking, because it’s much cheaper…

I think the reality is we need to learn we cannot be friends with everyone, particularly in a world where everything is so connected; you will always be exposed for bad stuff, but so be it. I think that’s my advice. I do think that branding is going down the drain at the moment. I do think that companies are just totally forgetting about what the purpose is with branding. Branding for me is to create such a strong emotional tie to a product that you really don’t care about the price at the end of the day, because you love the product or the brand.

Absolutely. Do you find that there is a correlation between countries that still have that creativity and corporate courage?

Yes, I do think there is a correlation with it…

The good news here is that I think the Australian market is better than the US in terms of courage and all that stuff, but the bad news is the US is pretty bad at the moment, it’s really bad. There is so little courage over there. And the bad news is the third world countries, more and more, are going to be the epicentre of where new brands are being born.



  • This article mentions the model of word of mouth marketing and how consumers might be ‘remunerated’ for their involvement in such programs. We run Australia’s largest word of mouth marketing agency in Australia and i wanted to give our perspective on this matter. In our experience any sort of incentive (financial or points based) that serves to benefit the recommender is short lived. The best remuneration is actually involving them in something that has social capital or allows them to pay something forward. The social capital side of the equation revolves around giving them the inside track (something exclusive, something scarce) and involving them in something the brand is doing (helping with a decision, giving feedback that makes a difference). The pay it forward simply means giving them something of value to pass on (not of value to themselves) which could take the shape of samples to share, a discount, an exclusive offer. we find influencers in our word of mouth campaigns will share over 80% of what they receive. Word of mouth marketing clearly works as demonstrated by Martin but for it to continue working marketers need to remember to create real value to spread the word not rely on short term incentives.