You May Love the Logo, but It's a Dying Breed

More-Subtle Images Pack Bigger Punch, Says Neuromarketing Study

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Martin Lindstrom
Martin Lindstrom
"Make it bigger!" an executive screamed as I desperately sought a sign-off on an ad for a major fashion brand. It wasn't the first time this situation had come up. In fact, it seemed like every meeting ended up in discussions about the placement and size of the logo. It was as if, over time, the logo had become the holy grail of branding; the rest was more or less an add-on. Don't believe we live in a logo-obsessed world? Just pay a quick visit to Times Square.

As we are exposed to millions of messages in our lifetimes, does the logo retain its magic? Or are we caught up in a format that once worked but is out of date?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 20% of all adults in the U.S. -- about 45 million people -- smoke cigarettes. That's despite the fact that we all know it's unhealthful and that in many places it's almost impossible to light up indoors. Most cigarette advertising was banned decades ago in many countries. Yet Marlboro, for one, is high on Interbrand's 2008 list of the best global brands.
Red Ferrari: Nonexplicit images like this one generated more activity in the craving centers of smokers' brains than did a picture of a clearly marked pack of Marlboros.
Red Ferrari: Nonexplicit images like this one generated more activity in the craving centers of smokers' brains than did a picture of a clearly marked pack of Marlboros. Credit: Gamma

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Faced with limited media in which they can brandish their logos, tobacco companies still have managed to craft clever brand strategies. Marlboro's solid sponsorship of Europe's Formula One racing has made the brand's red Ferrari cars iconic. Could it be that cigarette cravings can be triggered by images, such as those red Ferraris, that are tied to a brand of cigarette but not explicitly linked to smoking? Does a smoker need to read the word Marlboro to feel compelled to tear open a pack?

The answer can be found in a small region in the brain called the nucleus accumbens -- the craving spot, which controls our pleasures and addictions. It is a lie detector. You may claim to be unaffected by tobacco ads, but your nucleus accumbens will reveal the truth.

One of Britain's leading scientists, Oxford's Gemma Calvert, and I set out to find out what really goes on in the subconscious mind when it is exposed to cigarette-advertising imagery. The subjects of our neuromarketing study were smokers, former smokers and people considering smoking. All were asked to refrain from smoking for two hours before the test, to ensure that their nicotine levels would be equal.

First they were shown subliminal images that had no overt connection to cigarette brands -- a red Ferrari, a cowboy on horseback, a camel in the desert. Next, they were shown explicit images such as the Marlboro Man and Joe Camel, the Marlboro and Camel logos, and branded packs of cigarettes. In both cases, we used MRI to look for activity in the nucleus accumbens. We wanted to find out if the subliminal images would generate cravings similar to those generated by the logos and the clearly marked Marlboro and Camel packs.

The results
To no one's surprise, the MRI scans revealed pronounced responses in the craving region of volunteers' brains when they viewed the cigarette packs. But when the smokers were exposed to the nonexplicit images -- Western-style scenery, etc. -- there was almost immediate activity in the exact same region. In fact, the only consistent difference was that the subliminal images prompted more activity in the subjects' primary visual cortexes -- as might be expected, given the more complex task of processing those images. There was a similar response among former smokers (but no response among people who had never smoked before).
Martin Lindstrom is author of five books, including the recent bestseller "Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy," based on a three-year, $7 million neuromarketing study.

More fascinating still, when Dr. Calvert compared the responses to the two different types of images, she found even more activity in the reward and craving center when subjects viewed the subliminal images than when they viewed the overt images. In other words, the logo-free images associated with cigarettes triggered more cravings among smokers than the logos themselves or the images of cigarette packs, a result that was consistent for both Camel and Marlboro smokers.

What does this mean in practical terms? When the contour Coca-Cola bottle was invented, in 1915, the original brief was to develop a bottle so distinct that if you dropped it on the floor and it smashed into dozens of pieces of glass, you'd still be able to recognize the brand. Move on from the logo and begin to develop "smashable" components -- color, shape, sound, smell -- indirect signals that tell a story about the brand without the logo. Such components engage the consumer in figuring out who's behind the message and, most importantly, speak to the subconscious mind. You won't find a logo on the front of an iPod, yet its iconic look is enough for you to know what brand it is. The same is true for a McDonald's roof, a blue Tiffany box and a Marlboro cowboy. The logo isn't dead yet, but I would bet its days are numbered.
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