The Meeting of the Mind and Marketing: 11 Books to Read

First published October 15, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

It’s official! With this column, I break David Berkowitz’s Search Insider column count record, with 225 of my own. And to commemorate the occasion, I wanted to follow up on a request that came in response to my column two weeks ago. I had warned any would-be students of human nature that this wasn’t a quest to be taken lightly. A few readers responded by asking for a recommended reading list.

So this week, I went through my bookshelf at home and jotted down a list of titles that I found particularly insightful or interesting in understanding the human condition. Today, I offer them as suggestions for some fall or winter reading. I came up with 22 titles, so I’ve broken them into two groups. This week, all the titles are specifically for those who want to explore the intersection between marketing and the way our minds work.“How Customers Think” — Gerald Zaltman. Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman has carved out a nice little career by exploring the psychology of consumerism. The foundation of Zaltman’s approach is his metaphor elicitation technique. Metaphors are linguistic keys to some of the darker workings of our mind, and Zaltman shows how these can be used as a Rosetta stone to unlock consumers’ true feelings towards brands and products. A fascinating approach suffers a little from Zaltman’s dry and overly academic writing style, but it’s a very worthy candidate for the list.

“The Culture Code” — Clotaire Rapaille. If Zaltman is a little stodgy and academic, Rapaille is an unabashed French nouveau-riche pop psychologist who has used his decidedly qualitative approach to dig down to the cultural common denominators behind our brand relationships. This book looks for those labels cultures apply to some of the best-known brands in the world. Being French, Rapaille brings an occasionally charming European cultural arrogance to his subject (i.e. in France, the culture code for cheese is “alive”, but in the U.S. it’s “dead”). This is  an easy and interesting read; while you might have some quibbles with Rapaille’s findings, he has plenty of willing customers among the Fortune 500.

“Buy-ology” — Martin Lindstrom. Lindstrom’s ego is almost matched by the insight he brings in his latest book. Lindstrom is the self-styled guru of brand perception and has written before on how our senses interpret brands. In “Buy-ology,” he goes one step further and launches an extensive brain scanning research project to see exactly what happens in our brains when we think about brands. For example, do the warning labels on a pack of cigarettes have any impact on our desire for a smoke? Does product placement really work? (The answer, in both cases, is no, according to Lindstrom) Don’t worry about getting caught in academic jargon here. Lindstrom keeps it light and readable.

“Why Choose This Book?” — Read Montague. Baylor University neurologist Montague was behind the original Pepsi Challenge fMRI test — and in this book, he takes on no less a challenge than explaining how we make decisions. The writing style’s a little uneven, as Montague tries to balance his academic background with a style overly determined to appeal to a wider audience. That said, Montague knows his stuff and the insights here are solid, supported by both his own and others’ research.

“Predictably Irrational” — Dan Ariely.  Ariely follows in the footsteps of behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky by looking at some of the common irrational biases of humans. For example, why does a 50-cent aspirin eliminate a headache better than a 5-cent generic brand, even though the pills are identical? And why would offering your mother-in-law $300 for a fabulous meal be an unforgivable social transgression, yet be expected in a restaurant? The territory has been covered before, but Ariely deals with a highly interesting topic with a nice, light touch.

“The Mind of the Market” — Michael Shermer. Last but not least, Michael Shermer delivers what I consider to be a tour-de-force on this topic. Shermer’s approach is well-grounded in evolutionary psychology (he labels it evolutionary economics), so he and I share a common approach to understanding consumer behavior. He strikes the right balance in his writing, delivering solid information without worrying too much about how it might play for a wider audience. This is probably my favorite on this list.

If these six titles whet your appetite, here are some other titles you might consider:

“Driven” by Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria

“Why We Buy” by Paco Underhill

“The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz

“The Advertised Mind” by Erik Du Plessis

“Brain Rules’ by John Medina

Next week I’ll share another 11 books, as well as some reader suggestions. Feel free to keep the suggestions coming!

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