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.
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 martinlindstrom.com.
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