Melanie Greenberg Ph.D.

The Mindful Self-Express

10 Ways Your Supermarket Hijacks Your Brain

Counterfeit crates, neuromarketing, and more hidden traps.

Posted Mar 14, 2012

"Products, like people, have personalities, and they can make or break them in the market place." — David Ogilvy

What's in a brand name? Well, it turns out, a whole heck of a lot. Did you know that people rate the identical beverage as tastier when it's in a "Coke" can than in a "Pepsi" can? This and other juicy tidbits of information are revealed in the book Buyology, as well as marketing guru Martin Lindstrom's bestseller, Brandwashed.

Here are 10 great examples of how consumers get baffled by branding into parting with their hard-earned cash:

Jasminko Ibrakovic/Shutterstock
Source: Jasminko Ibrakovic/Shutterstock

1. Fooled by Fresh Flowers

Have you ever noticed that upscale supermarkets such as Whole Foods place fresh flowers right next to their store entrances? This creates an image of "fresh from the farm" delectability that sets a tone for a consumer's shopping experience. Would the shopping experience start on such a good note if cans of Spam, dog food, toilet cleaner, and light bulbs were the first things you saw? Hmmmm...

2. Crazed by Counterfeit Crates  

Notice those stacked cardboard boxes filled with fresh apples and oranges? If you look closer, it turns out that in Whole Foods, all those boxes are actually part of one giant box with partitions. This is deliberately done to create the image of workers having piled crates of freshly picked fruit on top of one another when in reality, according to Lindstrom, store-bought apples can be as much as 14 months old.

3. Baffled by Bananas

Surely, bananas are just bananas, right? Nope. Here's what Lindstrom wrote in a recent post for Fast Company:

"Dole and other banana growers have turned the creation of a banana into a science, in part to manipulate perceptions of freshness. In fact, they've issued a banana guide to greengrocers, illustrating the various color stages a banana can attain during its life cycle. Each color represents the sales potential for the banana in question. For example, sales records show that bananas with Pantone color 13-0858 (otherwise known as Vibrant Yellow) are less likely to sell than bananas with Pantone color 12-0752 (also called Buttercup), which is one grade warmer, visually, and seems to imply a riper, fresher fruit. Companies like Dole have analyzed the sales effects of all varieties of color and, as a result, plant their crops under conditions most ideal to creating the right "color."

4. Muddled by Missing Milk

As you search for the milk and eggs that most people need to make a quick stop for, have you ever noticed that they are at the back of the store? This is no accident. Having to walk down the aisles to get to your basics makes it more likely that you'll pick up some delectable but expensive impulse buy, placed precisely at eye level, along the way.

5. Exasperated by Expiration Dates 

Speaking of milk and eggs, did you notice that milk has an expiration date, as do some bottled waters, soda, and even toothpaste? Some official government body must be looking after your interests by ensuring optimal freshness, right? Wrong. Actually, some of these products don't ever actually expire, or expire long after the date noted. If the milk in your fridge isn't rancid and it smells fresh, it's probably fine to drink. Stores often add these dates to push you to throw out such products and replace them more often, leading to more sales and predictable time periods for re-ordering.

6. Bedazzled by Bottled Waters

About bottled water: Did you know that not only is tap water perfectly safe to drink in most areas but that some bottled waters actually are tap water, maybe with filtering or some other ingredients to make them taste a bit better. Others are gathered from the same reservoirs that your tap water comes from. No protective regulation ensures that bottled water has to come from some melted arctic glacier, despite the blue labels and glacial pictures. And in some cases, bottled waters, such as Dasani, can actually be dehydrating, rather than thirst-quenching, due to their high salt content.

7. Oodles of Organics

How about those green products we pay extra for? A few years ago, brands such as Method hand soaps were making a killing, but now more mainstream brands have gotten wise and rolled out  their own organic "green" versions. You may see some spurious advertising. The term "organic," for example, is sometimes used when it shouldn't be, such as the case of the farm with fat, happy chickens grazing the land—that bought the stuff they sold to the stores from the dark, overcrowded, coop down the road. Of course, not all organic products represent fraudulent advertising—if you care about how animals are treated, terms such as "grass-fed" or "free-range" can denote more humane practices.

8. Exasperated by Faux Environmentalists

Green washing and cleaning products may be better for the environment, but research shows that may of us buy these products not out of environmental concern but to keep up with the bicycling, composting, Prius owners next door. (I do live in Marin County...) There's status in showing how altruistic you are, especially if you pay a higher price to help the environment—a phenomenon known as competitive altruism. Some research shows when buying decisions are completely private, or the price is the same, people actually make less "green" choices. Bring on the social pressure!

9. Tracked by Techno-Geeks

Marketers are getting more surreptitious and Machiavellian all the time in the ways they collect data on unwitting consumers. Google has changed its privacy practices to make "opting in" to being tracked the default option, meaning that targeted ads can pop up over the words most likely to generate clicks. Supermarket discount cards also track your every purchase the better to target you in the future.

10. Nailed by Neuromarketers

The new—and hot—science of neuromarketing uses brain-scanning technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at which brain areas light up at different stages of the purchasing process. In one study, experimenters were able to predict consumers' buying choices seven seconds before consumers themselves knew what they were going to buy.

These examples should give new meaning to the phrase caveat emptor. The next time you're at the market, skirt the perimeter, look on the top shelves, bring a list, and don't get seduced by the pastoral green fields on the labels. And if you really want "fresh from the farm," visit your local farmers' market.

Melanie Greenberg is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Mill Valley, Marin County, CA. She is also a researcher, author, and national speaker with expertise in life stress, relationships, mind-body health, and effects of society and media on human behavior.

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