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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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    Nov 4 2012: Thanks, that helps. If you would permit a follow up question or two?

    Is all of language an extrinsic association between the words and the objects to which they refer?

    Does not the brand serve the useful function of helping set the customer's expectations regarding the products? For example, are the words "tall" or "vente" as redefined by Starbucks useful for precisely describing the size of coffee, as opposed to the relative words "medium" and "large" which do not provide such specificity? Does that not make these brand words useful and turn these from extrinsic to intrinsic.?

    I think that's the part I'm confused about.
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      Nov 4 2012: I do not think brands invent their own labels to make things more clear for the consumer. They do it to be different and to stand out and to create a following. Marty Neumeier's book Zag explains that strategy very well. [http://www.amazon.com/Zag-Number-Strategy-High-Performance-Brands/dp/0321426770]

      If you want to go for clarity, small, medium, large gives a pretty good sense of what is what, especially when they are listed side by side. Using a mixture of English (tall) and Italian (grande and vente) to describe size does not help me much, it confuses me. But it sounds very exotic and worth $5 for a cup of coffee :)

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