Have you ever been talking with a group of friends and the subject of marketing comes up? Inevitably, at least one person will make the claim that marketing “doesn’t work” on him. I suppose this claim goes along with having a great sense of humor and impeccable taste as the most common delusions of the human species. I’ve just never understood why people make it a point of pride to claim that they are impervious to marketing efforts, as if that makes a person smarter than the general population. I’m not talking about feeling superior to people who fall for any outrageous claim, like you can lose weight by calling this phone number within the next fifteen minutes, paying $19.99, and then wishing really hard. You are definitely smarter than those people. What I’m talking about is marketing strategy that exploits the way our brains are naturally hard-wired to work.
In Contagious, Jonah Berger explores these strategies. Take the example of the Mars company. I can’t remember the last time I had a Mars bar or for that matter, saw a friend eat a Mars bar. My point is I don’t think it’s even in the top 10 most popular candy bars in the U.S. (total research time spent on that claim, 12 seconds). Anyway, even the Mars company was surprised in 1997 when they noticed a sudden uptick in sales. They hadn’t changed their marketing or spent any additional money towards advertising. What did they do right? Nothing. It just happened that NASA was launching the Pathfinder mission to Mars and the planet was all over the news. Just by mentioning the planet Mars–in no way referencing the candy bar, mind you–news stations were helping the Mars company by providing a “trigger.” Just the mention of the word made people think about Mars candy bars often enough that it resulted in a noticeable increase in sales for the company. People were probably not even aware that this was happening. They went to the store in search of a candy bar and Mars was on the brain. Boom. Free marketing.
Hershey launched an actual marketing campaign to promote Kit Kat (sadly for them, there were no NASA missions to Planet Kit Kat). Kit Kat already had a successful brand, with an annoyingly sticky jingle, but there’s always a way to sell more. So Hersey launched a campaign linking Kit Kats with coffee breaks. Why coffee? Hot chocolate must go better with that sweet and crunchy snack, no? Maybe, but people drink a lot more coffee than they do hot chocolate. By linking something people already consume with their product, Hersey triggered people to think about Kit Kats every time they had a cup of coffee. Note, that doesn’t mean people were actually having those Kit Kats on their coffee breaks; it just means they were programmed to think about the snack at a particular time.
Triggers are just one of the components of successful marketing that Berger discusses. I must admit, as someone who works in marketing, I sometimes felt like I had taken work home by reading this book, but it is a pretty easy read and is filled with interesting case studies of good and bad marketing. To me, the over-arching theme is that our brains are shopaholics and will look for any excuse to accept a reasonable marketing claim. When our brains prompt us to buy Mars bars just because of a space mission, what hope do we have against actual, clever marketing people determined to separate us from our money? But maybe you, like Homer Simpson, think that’s a load of rich creamery butter.