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How O2 Conditioned Its Customers With Emotions

Instead of calling on rationality, they bypassed it


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Nabil Alouani

2 years ago | 3 min read

When I decided to get a new phone, I was looking at three brands.

I knew that Samsung was a reliable option, Apple was for exceptional minds, and there was Huawei. The little I knew about the latter is that on top of fighting the competition, they were having trouble with Google and the United States.

The image I drew in my mind about Huawei was that of an underdog trying to take down giants despite the handicaps. Also, I happen to love underdogs.

Naturally, I bought a Huawei, and, as you have noticed, it wasn’t for its price-quality ratio.

We believe that our brand choices are logical and driven by our rational thinking. It turns out our brand decisions are primarily driven by our emotional predisposition.

Unlike Huawei, who had nothing to do with influencing my consumer behavior, there are plenty of companies out there that learned to leverage the subconscious to alter our decision-making intentionally.

In 2001, Cellnet, a struggling communications network, rebranded as O2 and launched a campaign that got them from the last to the first position in the market within four years.

How did they pull that off?

Instead of targeting rational thinking, their ads were all about emotions.

First, the core message that O2 marketing geniuses came up with was:

“O2: See what you can do.”

Then, all of their ads featured a watery blue atmosphere with bubbles flowing through it, people smiling, flirting, and floating around. There was also a dog catching a ball, and the whole thing was wrapped up in calm and serene music — well, at least according to 2001’s standards.

Neither in the marketing message nor in the ads was there a single word about the quality of their service or the extent of their coverage — nada.

I don’t know about you, but I find their music is somewhat scary.

O2 didn’t dominate the market by convincing their prospects but by conditioning them.

The conditioning happens by leveraging the way the subconscious mind processes information. The process is called association and takes place in the limbic brain. What you ought to know about this limbic guy is that it’s lazy, always avoiding deep, deliberate thinking and aiming for quick shortcuts.

As a result, when we perceive something, our brains make an instant judgment of its emotional value. The assessment is then used as a reference to build a future decision: “I see red iron, I feel a burning heat. Bingo! Red iron is dangerous — stay away!”

In the case of O2, when prospects watched the ads, their subconscious mind went like this: “ I see O2, I feel calm and serenity. Bingo! O2 is awesome — grab it!”

When prospects started to look for a network service, they subconsciously recalled the calm and serenity that the O2 ad brought — and voilà, they invested.

What’s really powerful about exploiting the association process, is its effectiveness regardless of how little the audience is paying attention. In fact, your subconscious mind doesn’t give a fuck about your rational thinking. According to it, the latter is easily distracted and too slow to rely on — and that’s great news for marketers.

In several studies, Dr. Robert Heath, who’s an associate professor of advertising theory at the University of Bath, proved that ads are more effective when we don’t pay conscious attention to them. He explained that the association process is precisely robust because we consume the adverts thoughtlessly. In his words:

“We are not aware this happens, which means we can’t argue against it.”

So, when we passively watch an ad that provokes specific emotional stimuli, we get conditioned. That’s what made O2 a leader in the network market.

That’s also what got me to buy Huawei. Even if I didn’t watch any ads, it was the association process that persuaded me: “Bingo. Huawei is an underdog. Support it!”

If you relate, you probably recall what happens when someone asks us why we bought this product and not the other. We conceive all sorts of rational arguments to justify our decision. I always brag about my phone’s speed, quality of pictures, and its below-the-market price.

But hey, you and I know that those weren’t my real motives.

Like many other psychology-based marketing tools, targeting emotions is controversial. Luckily, this one has an antidote, a simple yet counterintuitive one.

Dr. Heath explains that actively engaging with the ad helps to diffuse its subconscious influence. Our awareness brings our rational thinking to the table. Thus, we get to choose whether to argue against the hidden message or accept it.

So, as a consumer, try to pay attention to avoid falling too much for this technique, and as a marketer, remember that not everything worth doing is worth overdoing.

This article was originally published by Nabil ALOUANI on medium.

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Nabil Alouani

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Business | Psychology | Marketing — What's your favorite quote? Mine is "True masters are eternal students."


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