How brands tap into the power of perception

Posted on by Guy Cookson

When visiting a pharmacy you may have noticed that alongside the cheap own brand packs of ibuprofen you can also buy much more expensive products that appear to have been developed to target particular kinds of pain.

In bright pink there is Nurofen Express Period Pain. In purple, Nurofen Express Migraine Pain, and in yellow, Nurofen Express Cold & Flu.

All of these products contain the same active ingredient and cannot target pain in any specific part of the body.

Nurofen itself differs only from standard ibuprofen in that it contains some additional ingredients to slightly increase the speed at which ibuprofen enters the blood stream.

And so, thinking rationally, it seems fairly ridiculous to pay a large premium for any kind of Nurofen, least of all one of the premium ‘targeted’ varieties.

But before we get mad at the makers of Nurofen it is worth remembering that humans often do not think rationally.

“Research into the placebo effect shows that branded analgesics are more effective,” explains Rory Sutherland. “Promoting something as a cure for a narrowly defined condition, as Nurofen did, also increases placebo power, as does raising the price or changing the colour. So everything the company was doing added to the efficacy of the product.”

Marketing cannot turn a terrible product into a good one – ibuprofen really does alleviate pain after all – but it can shift perceptions enough to radically alter an experience for the better.

This is why well known brands invest so much into reinforcing their values.

Nike do not simply want to be associated with performance – they want you to actually believe you can run faster when you wear their gear. And perhaps the power of all those affiliations with the world’s greatest athletes means you actually can.

I was reminded of the power of perception when reading about the case of a participant in a Covid-19 vaccine trial that reported having experienced terrible side effects, only to then discover she had actually been given a harmless placebo.

When she received the real vaccine at a later date she had no side effects at all.


A version of this article was published as part of a weekly column by Guy Cookson on marketing, design, trends and strategy in the Lancaster Guardian, Blackpool Gazette, Lancashire Post and other titles. See our brand, web design and marketing recent projects.

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