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Buyology: How Everything We Believe About Why We Buy Is Wrong by Martin Lindstrom

Considering the amount of money spent on advertising and the staggering sizes of corporate marketing budgets, it's astonishing to what extent it's unclear what exactly those huge amounts of money buy. Lord Lever famously said that half of the money spent on advertising is wasted - but he had no way of knowing which half.

Buyology: How Everything We Believe About Why We Buy Is Wrong by Martin Lindstrom

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: Reporting on a large study using neuro-marketing to explore purchasing behaviour, this is not as ground breaking as it claims to be, but certainly still worth picking up, whether you are a market researcher, advertiser or a general reader interested in human behaviour.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: May 2009
Publisher: Random House Business
ISBN: 978-1847940131

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The efficiency of selling is, of course, in direct relationship to what we know about how and why people buy things.

Theories from various branches of social science, mostly psychology, have been applied with varying success to buying behaviour, and there exists a body of knowledge, composed of a mixture of common sense, practitioners' experience and, increasingly, some respectable research results from both the field and the laboratory.

Martin Lindstrom is as big a brand guru as they get, sitting on the boards of several companies, CEO of a couple of successful brand agencies as well as a publisher of a branding blog with an audience of millions. His consultancy work and his observation of various products and brands 'flopping' led him to believe that the traditional tools of market research - analysis of sales data and various forms of research consisting essentially of asking people questions - were not enough.

Buyology is a result of a foray into neuro-marketing, or a research project that combines cutting edge tools of neurophysiology and medicine (essentially precise brain scanning) with the objectives of the salesmen.

Evil enterprise, possibly, but providing insights that are interesting beyond the obvious, although nowhere near as ground breaking as the blurb promises and as Lindstrom himself frequently claims in the text. He is clearly very excited about the big neuro-marketing project - and he should be (I would have been myself!), as the scale and reach of the study was indeed unprecedented for what was essentially an equivalent of 'basic research' in the field of marketing. This excitement, occasionally infectious, more often contributes to the sense of hubris permeating the whole of Buyology.

Is there any substance beyond the hype, then?

The main thesis of Lindstrom's is expressed in his subtitle: everything we believe about why we buy is wrong.

Traditional market research, which, according to Lindstrom, consists of people being asked directly why they made a particular purchase decision, is limited if not downright useless as in most cases people simply don't know, or are not aware, of what drives their purchases. In order to make neuro-marketing appear more revolutionary, Lindstrom chooses to ignore a vast number of techniques that can be used to indirectly study the buying process, from anthropological observation to all kinds of projective techniques to other in-depth methods adapted from clinical psychology to sophisticated techniques of statistical analysis.

Neuro-marketing is Lindstrom's answer and his study certainly goes a long way towards testing some of his intuitions and ideas, some common-sensical, some controversial.

The discussion of the role of ritual and habitual routines in usage and purchase of products is insightful and the real-life examples very interesting (from lime + Corona to slow pouring of Guinness). But then, unnecessary generalisation somehow spoils it: nothing will persuade me that the results of learning and the resulting preference for a particular model or interface (e.g. of Nokia versus Motorola) can be in any meaningful way described as 'ritualistic', as in habitual and repeated activities that have little or no logical basis that stem from the need for control in a complex and unpredictable world.

The section on subliminal advertising (similar to the one dealing with ritualistic behaviours), takes a term and re-defines it to support a supposedly shocking claim. The term always referred to messages below the sensory threshold, i.e. ones that that people cannot consciously decode even if they tried. Lindstrom applies it to anything that people are not aware of, even if it's only because they don't pay attention.

I am not at all surprised that exposure to a pub or club bedecked in Marlboro red and with Marlboro-reminiscent sofas activates the 'craving spot' in the minds of smokers. I would be also surprised if there was much difference between the level of such activation by a pub in Marlboro livery and any pub or club.

To get really woried about subliminal power of associations I would need to see a study that showed that a 'craving spot' in brains of non-smokers was activated by the Marlboro red and images of a desert: but I doubt that we'll see a result like that anytime soon.

The sections on sensory branding are amongst the most practically applicable, and might talk some sense into brand managers, as I doubt that many general readers will be shocked by the fact that a logo is not such an all-important aspect of the brand, and olfactory or auditory associations can have a much stronger effect if only because we are unaware of being advertised to.

From the point of view of general exploration of human behaviour, one of the most interesting was the experiment that demonstrated that recalling intense religious experience and exposure to strong, emotionally engaging brands activate similar areas of the brain, and these areas are different to those activated by recalling intense emotional experience with other people. Clearly, the concept of an 'iconic brand' is less figurative than we might have suspected.

Predictably, the most mileage can be probably gained (if only you can afford it) from using neuro-marketing to predict the reception of new products. New product development is notoriously risky area: 80% or more new products fail, and not surprisingly as we are surrounded by so much stuff that in reality we don't need any new products at all, the fact that 20% of products succeed can be seen as a testament to the fantastic skills of marketing people. Brain scanning won't help to predict reactions that are formed as a part of social dynamic after the product is launched, but will certainly ease some of the birth pangs and possibly help to avoid obvious flops.

One of the most interesting results the study came up with was that viewing cigarette advertising with morbid warnings wasn't an effective deterrent to smoking (although, actually we don't know whether it was or not - the study didn't seem to measure the actual behaviour) and in fact the 'craving spot' in the brains of smokers was MORE activated by exposure to advertising with warnings than to advertising without them. I thought that using a cognitive dissonance framework would go a long way towards explaining this result, but no interpretation was offered apart from some vague mentions of guilt.

But then, Buyology doesn't generally explore possible avenues of interpretation of the findings: wherever his hypotheses were confirmed, Lindstrom seems content with it and only occasionally risks an attempt at explaining why it might be so.

He also never includes the measures of actual behaviour, being content with measuring the brain activity and asking various 'standard market research questions'.

But the main problems with Buyology are the inflated claims of the ground breaking importance of the reported results: not because the results aren't interesting, as for the most they are, but because the hype creates an expectation that the book fails to satisfy. As a brand, Buyology doesn't deliver on its promise and as such is a bit of an anticlimax despite many gems hiding in the padding. Not as ground breaking as it claims to be, it's certainly still worth picking up, whether you are a market researcher, advertiser or a general reader interested in human behaviour.

In his conclusions, Lindstrom predicts a future in which ever more canny marketers with a better understanding of what drives us are ever more able to create associations that really get under our skin and direct us towards their products and brands. In those circumstances, being more aware of how unconscious associations and desires motivate our buying behaviour will provide a crucial tool of defence and Buyology can certainly help in gaining such awareness.

Buyology won't be particularly challenging for any reader. The writing is energetic if not to say frothy, the density of ideas accessibly low and Buyology offers an enjoyable as well as a reasonably informative read.

If you can get it on expenses, do so, otherwise borrow.

For those interested in psychology of persuasion, Robert Cialdini's classic Influence is the best starting point, while A Mind of Its Own by Cordelia Fine provides accessible, enjoyable and illuminating insight into seeming irrationality of our brains.

The review copy was sent to the Bookbag by the publisher - thank you!

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