Word-Of-Mouth Marketing: We All Want To Keep Up With The Joneses

Inspired by the 2010 Hollywood movie The Joneses, about a family of stealth marketers who move into an upper-middle-class neighborhood to peddle their wares to their unsuspecting neighbors, Martin Lindstrom spent eight weeks filming a "real" family in unscripted situations, from barbecues to shopping expeditions and documented how their circle of friends responded to specific brands and products.

It was close to midnight, Pacific Standard Time, as one truck after another crept down a quiet, gated village road in the heart of Laguna Beach, one of the most beautiful oceanside communities in Southern California (as well as one of the most affluent and most expensive). Most of the ornate, sprawling stucco houses were in shadows, their owners asleep--with the exception of the very last house on the block. Considering the time of night, it was unusual to see one, let alone several, vehicles on the road. Yet five or six trucks stood silhouetted in the driveway and along the front curb, as workers silently unloaded camera equipment and cardboard boxes, then carried them inside the house.

What was about to take place over the next eight weeks was among the most risky and unconventional operations my team and I had ever concocted. Inspired by the 2010 Hollywood movie The Joneses, about a family of stealth marketers who move into an upper-middle-class neighborhood to peddle their wares to their unsuspecting neighbors, my scheme was both simple and ambitious: to test the power of word-of-mouth marketing.

By filming a "real" family in spontaneous, unscripted situations and scenarios, from barbecues to champagne brunches to shopping expeditions, we would document how the Morgensons's circle of friends responded to specific brands and products the Morgensons brought into their lives. When put face-to-face with another family's "enviable" lifestyle--and the brands and products that sustain it--would they want all the things that family has? And more important, would this influence be so powerful as to make them actually go out and buy those things?

With the help of 35 video cameras (17 hidden from view) and 25 microphones tucked away inside the furniture and fixtures, the results of this clandestine operation would ultimately reveal something shocking: that the most powerful hidden persuader of them all isn't in your television set or on the shelves of your supermarket or even lurking in your smartphone. It's a far more pervasive influence that's around you virtually every waking moment: your very own friends and neighbors.

After watching the hundreds of hours of footage, I could come to only one conclusion: There's nothing quite so persuasive as observing someone we respect or admire using a brand or product. At the end of the experience, when asked to rate how influenced they were by the Morgensons's recommendations on a scale of one to ten, Eric and Gina's friends unanimously answered, "Ten out of ten."

Our analysis also found that the brands the Morgensons advocated had another effect, as well: They went viral faster, carrying a "halo effect" by which roughly one third of the Morgensons's friends began promoting and even flaunting these same brands to their friends and acquaintances.

Perhaps not surprisingly, we also found that the brands the Morgensons's peers were most likely to go out and buy at the Morgensons's subtle suggestion were the bigger and better-known ones. Which confirmed my theory that conventional marketing and the more covert variety work best together, that the most persuasive of advertising strategies become that much more so when amplified by word-of-mouth advertising.

Whenever I meet up with executives around the world, I remind them that today the most powerful force in marketing is not a corporation. It's not a CEO. It's not a big-budget marketing department. Today and in the future, the people who hold the real power are hyperconnected, mouse-clicking consumers and their wide circles of virtual and real-life friends and acquaintances. In other words, the people who hold the real power are us.

As a result, brands of the future simply must be transparent and live up to their promises. Trust me (and you marketers out there take note), any brand that doesn't will be instantly and painfully exposed and reviled.

BrandwashedMartin 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 martinlindstrom.com.

Read more by Lindstrom: How Whole Foods "Primes" You To Shop

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3 Comments

  • Glenn Anderson

    Now THAT’s an interesting experiment. The problem is, the concept behind it means a trickier campaign for marketers in today’s word of mouth marketing. One has to study and see who are the big influencers in social media networks and then convince them to use your products. However, this definitely gives us a lot of important insights. In this light, using other tips like the ones listed here: http://blog.printplace.com/how...  ,  must be altered with those big influencers in mind. 
     

  • Fiona Adler

    Too true. Nothing is stronger than word-of-mouth, and with everyone so connected online, it's easy to be exposed to (or find out) what people think about various businesses and products. In the past, good service was important, but now it's essential.  Whether a business' reputation is positive or negative, it is amplified online.

  • Deena McClusky

    I absolutely agree with your discoveries about peer influence. I find that I am actually disinclined to purchase products based on advertising because I feel that advertising is only necessary for products that fail to sell themselves through word of mouth. I, on the other hand, shop at the same stores, use the same shampoo, buy many of the same groceries, etc. as someone in my life whose style and personal being I admire greatly.