Martin Lindstrom is an expert on branding and culture. TIME Magazine named him one of the “World’s 100 Most Influential People” and Thinkers50 considers him one of the world’s top 20 business thinkers. The Danish author of bestsellers like Buyology, Brand Sense, and Brandwashed is also founder and chairman of Lindstrom Company, a branding and culture transformation firm that operates across five continents and in more than 30 countries.
Martin Lindstrom’s latest book, The Ministry of Common Sense: How to Eliminate Bureaucratic Red Tape, Bad Excuses, and Corporate BS, is described as “a humorous yet practical five-step guide to ridding ourselves—and our companies—of the bureaucratic bottlenecks and red tape that plague every office.”
I jumped at the opportunity to ask Martin about his new book, as well as some of his past bestsellers. At the same time, I wanted to ask this world-renowned branding expert a few questions about how he thinks about brands and branding. Scroll down for the full Q&A with Martin Lindstrom.
The Ministry of Common Sense
You’ve written a new book, The Ministry of Common Sense. In a nutshell, what’s it about?
Companies are increasingly so haunted by bureaucracy and red tape that nearly 45% of all the time employees spend at work is defined as unproductive. With Zoom and Microsoft Teams entering the stage, productivity is now more defined by the number of calls you can cramp into a day and how many slides you can produce than actual … change. All this happens while the companies slowly are drifting away from the customer—creating a gap both alienating the customer but also destroying the company culture.
What inspired the book?
Watching my clients—a large portion of the Fortune 100 companies—struggling with this very issue, causing loss of marketshare, loss of people, and loss of focus. You could say this is a corporate virus of a sorts…
I suppose we know it when we see it, but how exactly do you define “bureaucratic red tape”?
A disconnect between the customer and the company due to an obsessive internal focus typically helping the individual to elevate their powers rather than caring about who in reality are paying their salary (the customer!).
What’s one thing we can all do today to infuse more common sense into our lives and work?
Change your perspective. See the world from another point of view and feel what that person is feeling/experiencing. This is also called empathy—the ability to place yourself in another person’s shoes and feel what that person is feeling.
As a brand strategist, I’m well aware that a lot of the thinking and terminology used in branding is frequently referred to as “corporate bullshit.” Are there elements of modern brand strategy that you feel lack common sense?
The obsession with data—and with that big data for sure. Big data is all about correlation—small data is all about causation. Big data often can be found concluding “the more umbrellas you sell the more it rains.” Here’s the issue—you need small data in order to tap into the power of big data. Yet companies time after time build their entire strategies around big data insights only. Once his type of data penetrates the work routines, the organization loses sight of what matters (the customer) and begins focusing on optimizing pie charts and Excel spreadsheets often far removed from reality.
Other books, writing in general
You’ve written several other bestselling books related to branding, including Buyology and Brand Sense. How do you come up with the ideas for your books (or decide which topics to write about)?
When I swim and when I interact with consumers. Over the years, I’ve spent time in more than 3,000 consumer homes… this is my true source of inspiration.
Buyology is based on your ongoing neuromarketing research program (a $7 million study involving more than 2,000 respondents across six countries). Do you have any updates on that research since you wrote the book? What are the latest results/findings?
Every year we’re updating the study. Yes—I have one fascinating insight. If you’re a proud mom or dad, I’m sure there came a moment, way back when expecting your newborn, that a whole range of products that you’d never noticed before—baby strollers, diapers, pacifiers, toys, and cribs—were suddenly everywhere you looked. It was like a magic wand had made the invisible visible, opening your eyes and your mind to an entirely new world.
In marketing speak, we call it a Point of Market Entry. That’s a universal point where a customer segment becomes receptive to a whole new category of products and services. Studies throughout marketing history identify seven standard point of market entries:
- Arrival of newborn
- First day in school
- Going off to college
- First job
- Moving away from home
- Getting married
Numerous companies, from P&G to IKEA, have built an entire strategy around them. IKEA, especially, intentionally locks you into that nightmarish maze of sofas, tables, bathrooms, and beds … all while dragging your kids along, because those meatballs are so great. You lurched from entry point to entry point, only to watch your kids do exactly the same, with their own newborns, 20 years later.
But what no one had ever anticipated is that, as a consequence of COVID-19, there’s a new kid in town, an eighth entry point. This behavioral change is so profound that one can talk about a global synchronization of human behavior establishing a completely new, universal change of consumer patterns.
Years ago, Antonio Damasio, a professor of neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy, discovered that profound events can burn their way into our permanent memory to such an extent that they can actually be spotted on fMRI scans. He invented the term somatic marker for it, by which he meant a shortcut to an action. For example, if you run into a lion on the savanna, you don’t pause to consider whether to pet it; rather, without an instant’s thought, you run. Somatic markers like this are intrinsic to all of us, but a somatic marker can also be learned through a dramatic event. If you place your fingers on the stove as a six-year old, you’ll never forget it for the rest of your life. A somatic marker makes you see the world differently and alters all your future interactions with hot stoves.
COVID-19 has created a negative somatic marker for all of us, opened an eighth point of market entry, and brought with it profound behavioral changes.
The signs—or “small data,” as I call them, seemingly insignificant behavior changes pointing toward unmet needs—are everywhere. Over the past month, I’ve noticed strangers approaching dog owners to pet their dogs (and pet sales have tripled). Here’s another example: in the same way we can’t help grabbing our phones and checking messages that haven’t actually arrived (something I’ve dubbed “the phantom vibration syndrome”), today we obsessively and routinely disinfect our hands … and disinfect them again, ten minutes later … even if we haven’t stepped outside our home.
In 1988, Grant McCracken coined the term “The Diderot Effect.” His theory was that one behavioral change leads to another. I buy a new carpet, its color isn’t quite right with my bookshelves, so I buy a new bookshelf … only to realize that my walls really need a paint job. Or, in these COVID-19 days, I buy a new dog, and suddenly I need to fence my garden, buy a dog house, acquire dog bowls, a leash, and a doggie jacket, purchase a new vacuum to pick up dog hair, and … well, you get the idea.
COVID-19 has brought long buried, never-before-recognized desires to life. People with no intention of adopting dogs, yet experiencing an emotional void, an absence of touch and loneliness, find themselves walking into a pet store or the Humane Society. We find ourselves placing Skype calls to friends and family we haven’t thought of for years. We’re taking up baking, painting, and yoga. All sorts of emotional triggers are driving us into unfamiliar actions. Nor will these new behaviors vanish with the end of the pandemic. A whole new synchronized wave of businesses will pop up.
Eight entry points are practically unheard-of. In fact, I would claim we only experience it once in a generation. But once we do, we’re universally steered toward completely new behaviors and completely new needs—and as businesspeople and entrepreneurs, our eyes should be opened to completely new business opportunities. Needless to say, GE, GM, IBM, Disney, HP, Hyatt, Heinz, and FedEx were all founded in the aftermath of a recession. Perhaps unknowingly, they rode a wave of an eighth entry point.
Which brings me back to you. You and I are part of the same world, but your vision—your ability to see the subtle, meaningful shifts in your corner of this world—is unique. Make the most of that opportunity.
How you think about brands and branding
You write (on your website) that “brands have now got locked into departments.” What does this mean and why is it a problem?
The marketing role cannot and should not function on its own—but has to be totally integrated with Culture, HR, Comms, and Sustainability. Those departments combined create true CX.
What’s unique about your approach to brand building at Lindstrom Company?
We’re the only company in the world (to my knowledge) who both are able to run deep dives into consumers’ lives via ethnographics and neuroscience, redesign the brand purpose and customer journey, innovate new concepts, and change the culture at once. We’re a one-stop shop operating across all disciplines.
What’s the relationship between a company’s culture and its brand?
Good question—brand offers a guiding direction for the culture—the culture is living the brand.
What’s the relationship between innovation and branding?
Innovation is to see and experience the world from a consumer or customer’s point of view. Then develop a solution representing the gap between the customer being in balance and out of balance. Branding is to own that gap.
Do you have a take on the importance (or lack thereof) of differentiation (versus distinctiveness) in building strong brands? It’s not featured prominently on your website. Partly based on Byron Sharp’s research and book (How Brands Grow), many in branding are questioning this historical tenet of brand strategy. What are your thoughts?
I always advocate for differentiation when creating new brands—then cement this competitive advantage by branding it—resulting in distinctiveness. You may no longer (from a rational point of view) own a true point of differentiation—however, emotionally it still is well alive in the consumer’s head.
Rob Meyerson is a brand consultant, namer, and author of the upcoming book, Brand Naming: The Complete Guide to Creating a Name for Your Company, Product, or Service. He also runs Heirloom, an independent brand strategy and identity firm, and hosts the podcast How Brands Are Built.