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Alex Genov

User Research and Innovation, SOFTWARE INDUSTRY

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The power of a brand to turn us into puppets.

I am a staunch individualist! I have never been one to follow trends, the crowd, or allow myself to be brainwashed by advertising. At least that’s how I see myself. This makes the following story all that more interesting.

One morning in the recent past, I was to meet a friend for coffee early at Pete’s Coffee. I got there a bit before my friend and was eager to get some strong coffee in me. We have a toddler and an infant at home and the lack of sleep has turned my wife and I into zombies who function on strong coffee. I approached the counter and ordered a tall latte with an extra shot of espresso. The barista looked funny at me and repeated my order back to me – “a medium latte with extra shot.” I repeated back to him – “yes … a tall latte” He corrected me again, “you mean MEDIUM.”

At this point my mind cleared up a bit and I realized, much to my amazement, that I was not at Starbucks but at Pete’s. It must have felt insulting to the Pete’s barista that I was confusing their establishment with the competition. I was slightly embarrassed and motivated to figure out what had just gone on.

The Psychologist in me figured things out. You see, extensive research in Behavioral Science has shown that many times we move around the world on auto pilot, driven by habit. For example, have you ever headed for place A, fell deep in thought about something, and ended up at place B, just because place B is the one you usually go to? A recent study reported by David Rock, shows that “humans are on autopilot nearly half of the time.”

What had happened to me was that during one of my (sleep deprived) autopilot mode episodes, I was under the influence of a powerful brand – Starbucks. I had used the Starbucks lingo at Pete’s Coffee! Moreover, this was the lingo that I had stubbornly refused to use during my first visits to Starbucks!

To me, that is an excellent example of how effective brands get under our skin – they pull he strings while we are asleep at the wheel … Scary?


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  • Oct 31 2012: Brands, and even whole industries, have been onto this for some time. A few things to note:
    -The "clean laundry" smell that most detergents have as an additive actually isn't what clean laundry smells like - there really is no smell to clean laundry. Its used to evoke a psychological response in us.
    -Humans tend to overvalue things they create - that's why when you buy a build it yourself piece of furniture from IKEA you tend to not want to get rid of it, or will try to sell it for more than its worth. Some companies can cut manufacturing/packaging costs by exploiting this.
    -We also have positive (or negative) reactions to brand names themselves. Studies by Dan Ariely have shown that people react differently to the same object if they're told it comes from a different manufacturer. For instance, buying and wearing a counterfeit accessory is going to make you less honest in general, assuming you think its a counterfeit.
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      Nov 1 2012: Lol - so true!
      Makers of instant coffee also inject coffee-smell into the container so that when you open the seal you get a coffee-smell hit - I think they call it "grab-gas".

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