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Why Condom Sales Soar In A Recession, And Other Brand-Building Mysteries Explained

condomsWhat do guns, burglar alarms, and condoms have in common? Their sales all boomed in 2009, with condom sales jumping 22% over the same period in 2008. But why?

When you are told repeatedly that the world is buckling under the weight of a financial crisis, the first line of defense is to save whatever money you have. That sets a whole new train in motion. Suddenly your local retailer around the corner loses revenue from your less-frequent visits. They are forced to lay off staff, who in turn are spending less, and in fact are no longer buying your products. It becomes a cycle somewhat akin to a self-fulfilling prophecy. We're told it's a crisis. We stop spending. They stop spending. Everyone from producer to retailer suffers. And the economic meltdown keeps on melting.

As sophisticated as we have come to believe we are, we need to remind ourselves that we're not that far from our evolutionary relatives—primates who live our lives taking care of the most basic needs—food, sex, sleep, and survival. In an atmosphere of fear, we tend to revert back to our basic needs, and this may explain why we're stocking up on condoms, buying weapons, and installing burglar alarms.

A recent neuroscience study shows that fear is a far bigger driver than we would ever care to admit. Fear of losing our job, fear of not being able to make the kids' school payments, fear of ending up in the proverbial gutter. These thoughts are scary enough to bring on an instant anxiety attack. When we're operating in survival mode, fear and sex become our two main drivers.

When President Johnson ran his "Daisy" TV commercial, which threatened voters with nuclear annihilation if he wasn't elected, the voters hated it. George W. Bush tapped into a similar zeitgeist in 2004. His commercial, showing wolves crossing the border as stealthily as terrorists, he instilled the self-same dread and fear. Both TV commercials aimed to knock us square on the amygdala, the region in our brain responsible for generating fear. Voters spoke of their dislike for both commercials, yet what brain scans showed was that as a consequence of these ads, voters favored the politicians that would best "protect" them.

From the very first days of the U.S. recession, all three big car manufacturers announced unheard-of discounts to shift their stock. They continue to offer their cars at cost, and despite this, nobody's buying. The problem is not the cars, but the proposition which has failed to take the fear factor into account. People who fear for their jobs are hesitant about spending money on a big-ticket purchase. The Korean car manufacturer Hyundai took this cautious mood into account and began and offering very real assurances. They say, "Buy any new Hyundai, and if in the next year you lose your income, we'll let you return it." In just a month Hyundai increased its sales by more than 20% in the U.S. alone. You may wonder if the company's sitting with a lot of returned stock. Well, as this goes to print, supposedly only two cars have been returned.

You cannot build brands in a recession unless you are able to manage fear. It's essential that you understand how fear works, and consequently how it affects purchasing behavior. Fear is often as irrational as everything else in our lives. When a plane crashes, the airline industry allows for 10% less traffic in the weeks that follow. Yet you don't have to be a statistical genius to know that the chances of a second plane crashing shortly after are substantially lower than before. Irrational propositions become more powerful than ridiculously high discounts.

Over the past months, a flurry of new banks have opened their doors for business. They have no track record, no established history, and no known personnel. Their proposition is straightforward: We're new. We have no links to Wall Street. We're here to serve you. Consumers are finding this immensely attractive. Yet, I'm sure we'd agree that a similar proposition a couple of years ago would not have stood a chance.

So what can we learn from neuroscience to help us cater for a market reeling in the depths of a financial recession? How can we continue to build brands?

I offer three ways to do this.

First, there's always good news in bad times. A standard approach in this situation is to address consumers' problems. And people always have problems. The fact is we rarely know what we want, but we have no trouble pointing out our difficulties. For example, no one knew they wanted an airbag, but everyone agreed they wanted safer cars.

It's therefore important to ask yourself what sort of problems are consumers facing during this economic recession? There are many. People have had to cut back on travel and if they can afford to still take a holiday, well, it's much cheaper to keep it local. Which might explain why those French perfumes are still selling—they offer a whiff of Paris. And if you can no longer afford expensive dining, you can always supplement your home-cooked meal with an after-dinner Lindt chocolate. We're increasingly reluctant to invest in the share market, but we're happy to put our money in gold.

Convert problems into assets for your brand.

Second, add a practical dimension to an irrational decision. No matter how much money you may have in the bank, or how secure your employment may be, it's now fashionable to save your money and buy everything at a discount. What can a brand owner do? Particularly in light of the fact that a discounted brand typically takes seven years to recover!

The answer is simple. Add a practical dimension to the equation. One only needs to look at a hardwearing boot like Willeys to see that this manufacturer of sturdy reliable footwear is clocking up big sales. A well-designed jacket, that just happens to be reversible, could tip the balance in favor of the consumer who perceives they're getting two coats for the price of one. The fact may be that the consumer is buying the jacket because they love the design—yet in recession times, the practical dimension is the deal maker.

Third, you have to systematically remove fear. Hyundai did it. And a stream of new banks are doing it. Both have succeeded in identifying why consumers are reluctant to spend. Once this is understood, then you can harness it and build a better product by addressing the fear and finding a way to eliminate it. You sales may be down. But do you know why? People are certainly buying less, and explanations like, "Well, there's a recession going on out there," are not helpful. What's important is to understand the fundamental role of fear, and then turn it around to strengthen your brand. Some of the world's most enduring grocery brands were built on the back of the Great Depression. Each one turned the threat into an opportunity.

Martin Lindstrom is a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine’s "World's 100 Most Influential People" and author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Doubleday, New York), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best–seller. His latest book, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, will be released in September. A frequent advisor to heads of numerous Fortune 100 companies, Lindstrom has also authored 5 best sellers translated into 30 languages. More at

Read more by Martin Lindstrom: The 10 Most Addictive Sounds in the World

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  • willy sanchez

    Why the condom go up , simple people need money, the best way make money is oral sex, sex and sex in the street

  • Chris Reich

    Speaking of banks, my bank, Wells Fargo, called me last night. They were selling "discount health care".

    Banks should be banks and only banks! Banks are not insurance companies, credit card issuers, stock brokerages or sandwich shops. This is part of what got us into trouble in the first place---banks not being banks.

    Banks are where we store our money. The bank pays interest for the use of our money. The bank makes loans---for homes, cars and businesses.

    That's IT. When banks are selling stocks or life insurance, beware.

    The regulators need to fix this horrible exposure in our economic system. Repeat after me. Banks should be banks and only banks.

    Sorry for the rant but the line about "new" banks triggered that. Where are the old banks?! WAMU? Great service? Ha! Adios.

    Chris Reich

  • Arun Vemuri

    Unless the attitude changes fundamentally, all the behavioral changes we see are temporary. The points summarised in conclusion are tactical at best and not strategic. One factor that is not considered is that memory of things bad has a very short half-life. Once the situation improves, we tend to forget most of the things we picked up or behavior we altered.
    Unless the memory of the event that caused the fear is kept alive in a sustained manner; it is most likely that one goes back to a state that one is most comfortable with - behave irrationally most of the times and rationalise post-facto.

  • nicole

    70 million are afflicted with STD in the U.S. alone and an estimated over 400 million worldwide. There is an exclusive community HerpesFinder--com for singles and friends with STD. If you just need to find someone to talk to or need help or advice, this is the best place.

  • Isobel Kramen

    A well-written article that relies on reasonable thinking. We have been forced to endure a plethora of economic, financial, man-made and natural disasters and see no end in sight. Instead of loosening our purse strings we are storing the best quality bulk foods we can afford. Even "old money", always thrifty, has begun to try to save--- for what? Is there a light around the next bend of this hairpin road? I think not.

    Watch as I perform my final adieu en pointe on a stage of quicksand.

  • norrene godfrey

    If the most basic needs are food, sex, sleep, and survival. . .how does this explain Apple and it's continual year after year sales growth even in this recession? Would Apple fall in the survival category, as consumers can not survive with out being linked in or would it fall in the small indulgence category?

    Just wondering.

  • Micah Choquette

    I would venture that Apple is an extraordinary exception to the rule. In the Great Depression, you know what industry suffered the least, even not at all? The Film Industry. It was a great escape from the day to day stress that Americans faced while going through this tough time. The same way, I seem to think that Apple gadgets (as well as other things, I'm sure) serve as our "reward" for tightening the belt, spending less. I could be way off, but it's my opinion.

  • Keith Hughes

    What do you call what we're in today? We're not technically in a recession, yet the fear mentality is never far away. Do you think there's a difference between female and male consumers in this regard?

  • Humbert Humbert

    "You don't have to be a statistical genius to know that the chances of a second plane crashing shortly after are substantially lower than before." Really? Since the two incidents would presumably be independent, the risk of a crash on the day following a crash would be exactly the same as if the first crash had not occurred, assuming the same volume of flights etc. If I roll a six, the odds that I'll roll a six the next time are still one in six. . .

  • Boing!

    That is a gross simplification of probabilities. Statistically the article is correct that the odds of a second plane crash right after the first is very, very low.

  • Stanley bray

    The article was quite stimulating. I will use the branding ideas in the non-profit arena. I must manage fear to build a successful brand. Thanks for the eye-opener.

  • dave lathrop

    fcondoms... fear reaction for sure... but also a need for cheap entertainment perhaps... as well as that need to snuggle in with someone and feel safe...