“I don’t look at logos.”

I’d like to tell you a story about a respondent in a focus group. For this research, we recruited several groups of research scientists who were using a particular class of lab products. We were interested in their responses to the general marketing efforts of the competitors in this market segment, and to the marketing efforts of our client in particular.

Part way through one of these groups, one of the respondents said: “No, I do not look at logos.” Her statement was immediately seconded by several other members of the group.

Many scientists believe that they possess particularly strong immunity to marketing efforts.

Now, if you walk into any lab, you’ll find logos on just about every item in the place. From the pipettes to the chromatographs to the cover of the lab notebooks to the back of the Post-it® note pads, logos are everywhere. It is impossible NOT to look at logos, so, it’s hard to believe that this respondent meant exactly what she said: “I do not look at logos.” What she meant to imply was that while there may be lots of logos around, she believes that she can ignore them.

After further discussion, it became clear that this respondent felt that the marketing efforts of this product segment just did not affect her. She thought she was “immune” to marketing. Many other respondents expressed the same sentiment, and their comments made it clear that they had a generally negative impression of marketing.

Now, scientists are not alone in believing they are immune to marketing efforts. This sentiment is shared by a wide section of the general population. But in my experience, many scientists believe that they possess particularly strong immunity. Those scientists that I’ve discussed this with feel that somehow the rational thought processes embedded in their discipline confers some sort of “extra special” protection against the “insidious” and generally negative nature of marketing.

As we’ll see shortly, some recently published research proves that immunity to marketing is a myth.

Marketers and Audiences Escalate the Situation

As someone who spends a lot of time thinking, writing and speaking with clients about marketing for life science companies, I have always believed that the idea that someone could be immune to the effects of marketing is as ludicrous as the idea that they could be immune to the effects of, well, air pressure, or capitalism. After all, marketing is part of the structure of our society. We all come in contact with marketing messages every day.

We have all learned to pay very little conscious attention to these messages. We see them as annoyances, clamoring for our attention. And we get tired of being bothered all the time, so we develop thick “mental calluses.” We learn to tune marketing out, so marketers learn that to get our attention, they have to shout louder.

Back in the days of only three TV networks, marketing could work by interrupting people (it’s still called a ‘commercial break’, after all). And interrupting still works, to some extent, doesn’t it. Aren’t you annoyed by those flashing banner ads at the top of web pages? If you are like most people, you can’t help but read some of them, even as annoying as they are. That style of interrupting still works, on occasion.

It is a continuing struggle: marketers want to grab the attention of the audience, and the audience doesn’t want their attention hijacked.

But people don’t like interruptions, so they develop sophisticated filters that distinguish between useful information and noise. And in response, the marketers vying for attention develop more sophisticated methods of attracting attention. And then these methods in effect, train the audience to become ever more selective in what they pay attention to. It is a continuing struggle: marketers want to grab the attention of the audience, and the audience doesn’t want their attention hijacked.

Escalation Results in Sophistication

To get a glimpse of how far this war for attention has come, look back at some of the advertisements in magazines from the 50’s and 60’s. They feel quaint and, in many ways, naïve. And in the intervening decades, as the audience (and their filters) have gotten more sophisticated, the marketing efforts required to reach those audiences have gotten more sophisticated, as well.

Clear evidence of marketing sophistication was seen in our discussion with the participants in the focus group I mentioned at the start of this newsletter. Their ability to decode visual messages was extremely fine-tuned, and this ability was shared by every scientist in the group. To give just one example: despite the statement that they “do not look at logos,” the respondents had a fascinating discussion about which of the several logos from key competitors looked the most “out of date.” They could read significant meaning into the choice of colors. They could decode the meanings in images and shapes. They could apply this sophisticated visual processing to ads, catalog covers, logos, web sites and brochures. They were drawn to certain messages and designs, and were uninterested, or even repulsed, by others. When they consciously paid attention, these scientists were sophisticated consumers of marketing messages.

The culture these scientists grew up in, so dominated by visual communication, had taught them very sophisticated skills in seeing and consuming this same visual communication. Yet these life science researchers believed they could control their own responses to these marketing messages.

The Myth of Immunity

The view that when people pay attention, they are sophisticated marketing consumers, is not surprising. But if you believe you are immune to marketing, then you believe you can prevent marketing from having any effect. You are in control, and can decide whether to change your behavior or not.

Even subliminal exposure to brands changed the behavior of the viewer.

Most people would agree with the previous statement, but in fact, this is not the case. Recent research1 shows that marketing messages have clear effects, outside of your control. In fact, you don’t even have to consciously register marketing messages to be affected by them in profound ways. Researchers at Duke University and the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada found that even subliminal exposure to brands changed the behavior of the viewer. This effect extends beyond purchase behavior. The most amazing thing about this change in behavior was that it was triggered by subliminal messages. That is, the viewer did not have to consciously register the stimulus to exhibit the change in behavior.

The research was conducted like this: Subjects were shown a series of numbers, one at a time in sequence. They were asked to keep a running sum. Interspersed among the numbers were logos from one of two companies. These logos were shown too quickly to be consciously registered. In fact, in subsequent questioning, no respondents reported seeing any images amidst the number sequence.

Previous research had established that the two logos represented different ‘personality traits.’ One set of logos was associated with particular character traits such as honesty or creativity; the others had different character traits, but were neutral with respect to the traits (honesty, creativity) being measured.

Upon completion of the running sum, the participants were tested for an increase in behaviors related to the personality trait. The results were significant: participants subliminally exposed to the logo of a brand associated with creativity exhibited more creative behavior (on a double blind test designed to measure such behavior) than participants exposed to the logo of a brand not associated with creativity. Similarly, participants subliminally exposed to logos of a brand they associated with honesty, displayed more honesty in subsequent tests than did participants exposed to logos that had no such connotation.

The relevance of this research is that it clearly demonstrates that “immunity” to marketing is a myth. The subliminal presence of the logos changed participants’ behavior, and the effects were present even when the subjects were completely unaware of the presence of any marketing message whatsoever.

Brand exposure can shape non-conscious behavior.

In the words of the authors: “Brand exposure can shape non-conscious behavior.” So, even those who believe that a rational world-view grants them immunity can be profoundly affected by marketing. The authors conclude: “Participants responded to brands by behaving in line with the brand’s characteristics, and did so with no conscious awareness of the influence.”

This research shatters the idea that you can be immune to marketing. How does this apply to life science marketing, which typically involves selling sophisticated products or services to technically sophisticated audiences? Let’s summarize by highlighting four key take-aways:

First, no one is immune

The authors state, “…we believe consumers are unlikely to have the ability to successfully guard against brand-influence, given the capacity such efforts would require and the fact that much of brand-influence likely flies under the radar of consumer attention.” Which means that no one is immune to this influence.

Now, this is not a terrible thing. First of all, several conditions have to be met for the effect to be pronounced, and secondly, marketing can be used to introduce new ideas, to educate and inform. The relationship between company and audience (a.k.a., customer) does not always have to be an oppositional one.

Second: marketing matters

Marketing really does matter. It affects people. It can educate and inform them. It can have this effect even when they don’t know that it does. Even when they think they are immune. Even when the message is sent subliminally and they haven’t registered it… it can still affect their behavior. If you think about this, it has powerful implications. You don’t consciously see a particular logo, but after seeing it, you behave more in line with that brand’s characteristics.

The ability to shape behavior is one of the many reasons that marketing has a powerful place in business. It is not sufficient, but it is certainly necessary. No great company ever succeeded without paying close attention to marketing, and this is true whether your audience has a rational world-view or not. But while marketing’s strategic importance should not be doubted, the tactics you use in your marketing do indeed depend upon whether your audience has a rational world-view or not.

Third, the audience’s values matter

No great company ever succeeded without paying close attention to marketing.

The effect on behavior studied by the researchers is strongest when the audience values the characteristics embedded in the brand image. When the audience does not value (or does not possess a “chronic motivation” to exhibit) the characteristics embedded in the brand, there will be little or no effect. In the words of the authors: “…end-states that are negatively perceived…will not motivate…behavior.” Furthermore, “it is not thought to be possible to create a new motivated state” via brand exposure, rather, brand exposure “can only activate “pre-existing mental representations.” So, for example, if the audience values the goal of efficiency, and a particular brand has connotations of efficiency, exposure to the brand can elicit more efficient behavior. If the audience does not value efficiency, however, then the behavior modification is not evident. As the authors state: “…brand exposure can elicit goal-directed behavior when the brand is goal-relevant.” So, marketing matters, and its effect is greatest when it is targeted to and aligns with the specific values of the audience.

Fourth, brands have human characteristics

People associate your brand with a particular set of characteristics. As the authors note, “Researchers have found good evidence that consumers perceive brands as being linked to human characteristics.” If brands have ‘personality traits’, and if brands can influence the non-conscious behavior of people who come in contact with the brand, the obvious implication is that shaping the characteristics of your brand has the ability to shape people’s perceptions and behaviors. “Participants responded to brands by behaving in line with the brand’s characteristics, and did so with no conscious awareness of the influence.”

But having the ability to shape behavior is not the same as a guarantee of doing so. After all, your brand may or may not have characteristics that will affect people in the way you desire. In the research I have been discussing, the respondents behaved in a particular fashion after seeing one logo, not after seeing the other. The characteristic had to be something valued. In other words, the brand character should align with goal-directed traits desired by the audience.

Implications for life science marketing

For life science companies, the implication is clear: choose characteristics that lie in the intersection between the values of your audience and the desired positioning of your brand, and imbue these characteristics into your brand’s personality. This will attract those audience members who value those characteristics, and increase the likelihood of affecting their behavior.

So how do you know what characteristics your audience values? This is where a very clear understanding of the audience (gained through experience, audience research or market analysis) enters the picture. Without this clear understanding, the end results will always be in doubt.

And once you have this understanding, how do you know what should be the positioning of your brand? This is where a clear brand strategy is crucial. Great brand strategies are developed deliberately, and the executed purposefully.

And finally, how do you shape the character of your brand? That is, how do you imbue your brand with characteristics that you have determined, either through experience, research, market analysis or just plain luck, that your audience will value? Well, the channels by which this is accomplished are well known, and we’ll cover these channels in a future issue.

Immunity to marketing is a myth.

For now, accept the fact that immunity to marketing is a myth, and that you should choose your brand’s characteristics (its “personality”) carefully and in light of a clear understanding of your audiences’ values.



(1) Fitzsimons, Grainne M., Tanya L Chartrand, and Gavan J Fitzsimons, “Automatic Effects of Brand Exposure on Motivated Behavior: How Apple Makes You “Think Different””, Journal Of Consumer Research, Inc., Vol. 35, June 2008.