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Mind over matter

How can marketers begin to understand latent needs and consumer behaviours of which customers themselves are not aware?

STR Team 

How can marketers begin to understand latent needs and consumer behaviours of which customers themselves are not aware? A new book has some answers

Have you ever asked yourself why is the biggest and most successful soft drink in the world? Probably not, unless you are unlucky enough to work on the business of one of its competitors. Well, ask yourself now.

The unique taste of Coke is one of the greatest pleasures we recall from our childhood, and often one of the nicest rewards we can give ourselves even today. But here’s a thing. If you put the two leading brands of cola — Coke and — side by side in identical glasses, and ask people to taste them, which do you think they choose? The answer, as anyone who has seen the challenge ads of the 1980s will know, is Cola’s flavor is preferred by most people in blind taste testing, and that’s a fact.

This was what sparked one of the greatest marketing catastrophes of all time: New Coke. Coke’s marketing manager in the 1980s, Serge Zyman, decided that since Pepsi’s flavor was preferred by most people he would relaunch Coke with a flavor that was similar to Pepsi, and call it New Coke. Except Coke drinkers didn’t like that one bit. They clamored for Coke to bring back the original, and eventually that’s what happened. Yes, folks, people actually wanted to have back the product they liked less!

Now to anyone like me who has studied marketing for 40 years this behavior isn’t actually that much of a surprise. By way of a brief diversion let me tell you about a research study conducted by in 1999. Braun created samples of orange juice of varying quality by taking good quality juice and adding contaminants. She then gave the range of juices to people to taste, claiming it was a trial for a new brand. Following a distraction task, half the subjects were then exposed to advertising for the brand. It was found that the advertising confounded the subject’s ability to accurately judge the quality of the juice, leading to substandard product being highly rated. She concluded that “advertising received after a direct product experience altered consumers’ recollection of both objective sensory and affective components of that experience” (Braun 1999: 332).

If you think that’s a one-off, consider the story of Stella Artois, the UK’s most successful beer brand. In 1990 the brand owners, Interbrew, planned to introduce a major TV campaign to replace the highly successful print ads that had been running. Before they did this they had to overcome a serious problem pretty similar to the one that Coke thought it had: was very bitter, and when tasted blind (that is, without any packaging) many people didn’t like its taste compared with other beers. So a number of preferred recipes were developed and tested. But what they found was that although the new recipes were preferred by four out of five people, once they were put into the Stella Bottle the old recipe was preferred by four out of five people. In other word, Stella drinkers preferred to drink a product they actually didn’t like much (Heath 1993).

So let’s get back to Coke and ask ourselves the question that all this invites: if Coke’s taste isn’t actually the best there is, how come it sells more than and all the other brands of Cola put together. What is it that makes it so successful?

Many people will answer that it is the advertising that is the key to Coke’s success. But aside from the ad that apparently gave us our modern interpretation of Santa Claus, and the famous “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony” campaign of 1971, how many famous Coke ads can you remember? I’ll bet the answer is not many, because aside from the famous Diet Coke campaign, I’d say there haven’t really been any. The thing about Coke is that they don’t care that much about media advertising. Oh, they spend loads of money on it, because they have loads of money to spend, but deep inside the marketing department in Headquarters in Atlanta they know perfectly well that advertising isn’t what makes them the success they are. They are much more concerned with another very different idea: ubiquity.

Ubiquity is about being everywhere. It is said that the marketing objective is that you shouldn’t be able to walk more than 100 yards in any city in the world without seeing either a Coke can or a Coke bottle or the Coke name or the Coke logo. And why is ubiquity so important? Because the more you see something, the more you assume people must be buying it, the more popular you assume it must be, and the more you feel you can rely on it being good.

But the insidious thing about this “ubiquity” strategy is that after a time none of us really notices Coke any more. It’s just there. It’s part of the wallpaper of our modern world. We take it for granted. All of which means that practically every exposure we have to Coke as we go about our busy lives is an exposure to our subconscious. And our subconscious has no moral judgment capability, because that function is taken care of by our conscious mind.

The author speaks

Author Robert Heath tells Ankita Rai how marketers are probing the unconscious mind of the consumer

The book says successful ad campaigns are more subtle than we think. Does it mean that advertising may work without hard sell?
Definitely. Indeed I would go so far as to say that in the area of major branded goods in mature markets the use of SOFT sell is often the only way to use advertising to distinguish your brand from others. Why? Firstly because most reputable brands satisfy needs in pretty much the same way, so there is little if anything that can be used to ‘hard sell’ a brand. Secondly, the more you hard sell, the more people pay attention to and counter-argue what you are trying to hard-sell them. With soft-sell, the low levels of attention paid mean advertising often doesn’t get counter-argued at all.

For the rational buyer, which is a bigger driving force: experience with the company, brand attributes, review or persuasive advertising?
The difficulty here is that there is no such thing as a rational buyer. We all buy using both rational and emotional criteria, and in most cases, although we don’t realise it, it is the emotional criteria that exert the greatest influence. Amongst emotional influences it is certainly the case that word-of-mouth is highly effective. Attributes, for the reason above, often count for little, as does persuasive advertising. And, curiously, product experience often counts for little either, as it is rare that you can judge a product on one or two uses. So the top two influences in my opinion are word-of-mouth and emotionally seductive advertising.

Amid all the hard sell, how do you justify subtle persuasion? Your book confounds conventional wisdom...
The thing is that this bombardment with messages — often rather irrelevant messages — from every direction just tends to annoy people after a while. Subtle advertising (not necessarily persuasive advertising) can be watched or heard over and over again without causing irritation, so over time it can condition you to feel really well-disposed towards a brand.

Now there are two exceptions to this. One is in immature markets where products are changing rapidly and often have genuine performance differences. The other is in countries or areas where the population is not very used to seeing or hearing advertising and so all advertising gets paid a lot of attention. India may well have areas that correspond to these anomalies. But over time most markets become mature, and most people become used to and very uninterested in and cynical about advertising. That is when ‘subconscious seduction’ really comes to the fore.

Robert Heath
PUBLISHER: John Wiley and Sons, Inc
PRICE: $32.95

Excerpted with permission from the publisher. Copy-right John Wiley and Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.

First Published: Mon, September 17 2012. 00:27 IST