Why 'Idol' Works for Coke -- but Not for Ford

Neuromarketing Study Suggests Carmaker Made a $26M Mistake by Failing to Establish a Purpose for Its Presence

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Martin Lindstrom
Martin Lindstrom
Coca-Cola's sponsorship of the 2008 Olympics was considered a surefire success. For years the Atlanta-based marketing team, in partnership with Chinese colleagues, had been preparing one of the company's largest sponsorship efforts to help the brand expand in China. Everything from the exhibition space to the stadium would be plastered with the Coca-Cola logo. Topping it off would be an intensive stream of TV commercials as the first Chinese Olympics was beamed to the world.

The Coca-Cola message was never noticed by consumers. But 60% of Chinese consumers thought the official sponsor of the games was Pepsi, according to the China Market Research Group -- a multimillion-dollar blow to Coca-Cola.*

Companies throughout history have succumbed to similar fates. Weeks after Adidas' official sponsorship of the 2000 World Cup, the company discovered the public thought Nike was the official sponsor.

Brand equity on 'American Idol'
Yet every year billions are spent on sponsorships and product placement. With the increasing success of DVRs, falling TV ratings and a steady stream of new interactive media, sponsorship and product placement seem to be among the few mass-marketing tools still available to advertisers.

These days, we're pelted by a constant stream of product placement. The result: snow blindness, or something similar. Did you see "Casino Royale," the 2006 James Bond movie starring Daniel Craig? Do you remember any brands that were featured in the film? FedEx? Vaio? Louis Vuitton? Ford?

Believe it or not, they all made uncredited walk-ons. Ford, in fact, manufactures every car in "Casino Royale," including Land Rover, Jaguar, Lincoln and Bond's signature Aston Martin. And Sony showcased not just its Vaio computer but its Ericsson phones, Blu-ray players and LCD TVs. But if you're like me, the only product you remember from "Casino Royale" is the Aston Martin, and that's probably due more to a well-known association with James Bond, cemented over the years, than to a memory from the movie.

In 2005, I had become sick of arguing with clients about the true value of sponsorships. There were as many statistics showing it had no effect as there was evidence showing it worked (typically from studies funded by those selling sponsorships). Who was right? Another quantitative- or qualitative-based study wouldn't settle anything. But with steady advancements in neuromarketing -- combining science with marketing, and thus gaining a sneak peek into our subconscious -- the answer likely was just around the corner.

The biggest TV success in history, "American Idol," seemed an obvious place to begin. Season after season, three brands -- Coca-Cola, Ford and AT&T (formerly Cingular) -- have been the proud sponsors of a show that continues to boast high ratings. The reported $26 million-a-pop sponsorships are arguably some of the most valuable in North America, which explains why the sponsors have been just as loyal as the audience.

But when Simon Cowell sips out of his Coca-Cola cup, Randy Jackson comments on the latest Ford and Paula Abdul encourages everyone to cast a vote using AT&T, does it work? Quantitative and qualitative statistics say it does, but does a couch shaped like a Coke bottle really make people consume more cola? We were able to find the answer in only one way: by understanding what really goes on in our subconscious.

Studying the sponsorships
I know there are a lot of skeptics when it comes to neuromarketing -- believe me, I was one of them. How on earth can you look into the brain and conclude anything? Perhaps even more relevant, how can anyone conclude anything based on only a handful of respondents? Some of the largest neuromarketing studies had involved some 65 respondents.

Martin Lindstrom is author of five books, including the recent best-seller "Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy What We Buy," based on a three-year, $7 million neuromarketing study.
I used a sample size of 2,000 people and involved some of the most respected scientists in this field, professors Gemma Calvert and Richard Silberstein. My aim was to create a study that with strong evidence could shed light on an industry that for years had struggled to show its worth -- or lack of it.

We decided to use a method based on EEG, which measures the highly sensitive brain waves that indicate our emotional engagement with our surroundings. Using this method, we would be able to measure how interested consumers were in what they were watching. We could find out what penetrated their long-term memories and what attracted or repelled them.

We presented our brain-scan subjects with a sequence of 20 product logos; each appeared for a single second. Some were for brands that aired 30-second commercials during "American Idol," including Coke, Ford and Cingular. We called those "branded logos." We also showed our volunteers logos from companies that had no connection to the show, everything from Fanta to Target to eBay. We referred to those as "unbranded logos." Then we showed our viewers a 20-minute special edition of "American Idol," as well as an episode of a different show that would serve as a benchmark to statistically validate our results. When our subjects had finished watching the two shows, we rescreened the same sequence of logos three times.

Our goal was to find out whether viewers would remember which logos they had seen during the show and which ones they hadn't. Over the years, neuromarketing research has found that consumers' memories of products are the most relevant, reliable measures of the effectiveness of an ad.

Deleted from the brain
Not surprisingly, Coca-Cola did well; the brand had clearly increased its equity during "American Idol." The couch, the red room -- the entire setup seemed to fit with the program and thus had a very positive effect on the brand. Cingular (now AT&T) did well too. Its results weren't as impressive as Coca-Cola's, yet the fact that the network provider was an integrated part of the show that allowed people to cast their votes seemed to do the job: The brand increased its equity through the sponsorship.
Coca-Cola cups: Fit right in with 'American Idol' judges (from l.) Randy Jackson, Kara DioGuardi, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell.
Coca-Cola cups: Fit right in with 'American Idol' judges (from l.) Randy Jackson, Kara DioGuardi, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell. Credit: Michael Becker

With Ford, however, something unusual happened. Unlike Coca-Cola and Cingular, the brand decreased its equity. In fact, the brand equity Ford had before the study fell consistently throughout the show and ended up negative after the show. In layman's terms, the brand was deleted from the brain. We were all stunned to discover that. Was it really true that a brand could erase itself if placed in the wrong context?

Whereas Coca-Cola and Cingular had created reasons for their existence, Ford had struggled to find a solid and justifiable role. What we learned was that if a brand is part of a story line, our brains will accept the role of the brand and remember its presence. However, if a brand and its role don't support the story line, the opposite will happen: Our brains will simply erase it. That's the way we survive and keep from ending up like zombies, considering the average of 2,000 brand messages we are exposed to every day.

So what should Ford do, skip the sponsorship? As a wise person once said to me: If you have the best real estate in town and you're still not making money, keep the real estate, but change the concept. And that's probably the answer. Ford has, since the test was conducted, adjusted its presence. Only time will tell if that will be enough to justify its $26 million sponsorship.

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Editor's Note: The research cited above was conducted months before the games, so it didn't take into account the full extent of Coca-Cola's sponsorship. Subsequent research by R3 and CSM Media Research and by Nielsen Co. showed much higher consumer awareness of Coke as an Olympic sponsor.
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