You have the right to choose… between Coca-Cola and Pepsi

As a marketeer, I am of course quite keen on marketing (just as well really). I feel I need to start this blog post with the disclaimer that these are thoughts and observations  about the industry, rather than criticisms.

Well, now that you’re expecting a hypocritical marketing rant, I’ll begin.

Take a look at this picture:

iPad ads at Oxford St tube platform

I took this on Saturday at Oxford Circus tube. What’s different or interesting about it?

Every poster down the entire platform is for the iPad. The iPad with a Hockney-esque picture on it; the iPad with an adorable little girl on it; the iPad lovingly displaying the chapter of a book, Kindle-style… and so on. No written explanation – purely visual. Because a written explanation isn’t needed about what the iPad is or does. Brand recognition of the iPad is so high all that all the ads need to do is act as a reminder of how much better the iPad is than any other tablet device out there. (I’m being a little facetious here I’ll admit, given that I opted for the Asus Transformer instead.)

What I’m interested in here is the illusion of choice and individualism, hence putting Coca-Cola and Pepsi in the blog title when I could have put ‘iPad: another Apple related blog post’.

In British society, to be truly cool you have to be an ‘individual’. You have to stand out from the crowd, you have to do things a little differently, or at least you have to do them first. Other people may follow YOU, but the truly cool individual is not a follower. To admit that you buy something because everyone else does, or because an ad told you to, is not something many will admit to. Being a sheep = uncool.

In reality there are very few ‘individuals’ in these terms, and they’re not necessarily deemed cool either. Often those who opt to do something a little differently are labelled odd, and avoided for their questionable choice of outfit /uncomfortable decision not to shower / integrate. Yet like teenagers wanting to join the cool gang we keep on pretending all our decisions are our own, independently made.

A little while back I was at a party and a friend of a friend started grilling me about why I do marketing. How could you do something so immoral for a living, he asked. I replied I market online language tuition which doesn’t feel too immoral to me. I then pointed out that all businesses need to be marketed, and a business which doesn’t in a capitalist society is likely to fail. If someone doesn’t know about your brand, how can they buy your product, help your charity, or subscribe to a service they need or want?

He said he wasn’t influenced by adverts; that they were a waste of time and had no impact on his decisions. Being the evil marketing pedant I am I asked him to name the best computer brand. Apple, he said without hesitation. Why, I asked. Because they’re the best, he answered. I asked him if he had tried, or even read reviews for all the others. He admitted he hadn’t.

He was a little put out when I suggested it may be because Apple have such a huge marketing spend that he likes them. Or because historically they have marketed themselves with ‘Think Different’ to appeal to people who don’t like to follow the crowd, sheep-like, into the corporate abyss. He paused and said that he likes Apple because his dad liked Apple and always bought their products.

Either way, it wasn’t down to a rational decision at all. This isn’t a criticism, as none of us are truly rational; in fact emotionally-made decisions can often be the sanest (read How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer for more on this – very interesting book).

Back to Apple, and the iPad ads down the entire tube platform, it’s staggering to think how much that must have cost. But obviously not surprising that Apple can afford it, given their dominant position in the tablet market and privileged brand position generally. Of course it’s also to do with timing, as Apple was the first to produce a tablet, but how could a smaller brand with a limited marketing budget compete with the iPad? Most of my friends have never heard of the Asus Transformer, and Asus can hardly be called a small brand.

So the leading brand becomes a circular, self-fulfilling thing: a company creates a good product, markets it effectively, makes high sales, can afford a huge marketing spend for future product launches; brand awareness soars, everyone buys it. It’s often more down to brand recognition than any kind of informed purchase decision making. I know this is stating the obvious, yet as consumers we’re so often in denial about this.

We exist in a complicated culture and community with different influences acting on us all the time. That isn’t to say that all the influences are bad. But, putting my Evil Marketeer hat aside, I do think that as consumers we need to be more self-aware about our purchasing decisions if making an ‘independent’ choice (in reality the most we can aim for is probably ‘informed’) is genuinely important to us.

I don’t necessarily see market dominance as a problem – of course I would want any brand I work on to dominate its category – but as a consumer I do want choice, and therefore I want more opportunities for start ups and other small businesses to break into the marketplace without a huge financial backing. So I need to be more aware of what I’m buying and perhaps willing to do a little more research first rather than just following the crowd.

To finish, here’s an interesting graphic about The Illusion of Choice doing the rounds lately. A reminder of how few corporations own the top FMCG brands:

The Illusion of Choice graphic

So, that’s about 300 brands whittled down to only 10 corporations. Thought you should know 😉


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