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

In an atmosphere of economic fear, we tend to prioritize our most basic needs–food, sex, sleep, and survival. You cannot build brands in a recession unless you are able to manage fear and understand how it affects purchasing behavior. Here’s how to turn threats into opportunity.


What 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

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About the author

Martin Lindstrom, author of seven books, including theNew York Times–best-selling Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends, is one of the world’s foremost branding experts. His previous books have been translated into 47 languages and sold well over one million copies