Thinkers50 in collaboration with Deloitte presents:

The Provocateurs:

podcast series



Martin Lindstrom: On branding, the metaverse, and the somatic marker of Socrates

Self-confessed contrarian thinker and provocateur since childhood, Martin Lindstrom is an international branding expert and one of the world’s leading authorities on the metaverse. Here he joins Geoff Tuff of Deloitte and Des Dearlove of Thinkers50 in a fascinating conversation about branding as an emotional construct, the power of small data, and lying on a bed of Lego.

In the 1990s, Lindstrom pioneered how to build brands on the internet and has since coined terms such as clicks & mortar, contextual marketing, and texting. He has published eight New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestsellers, including Buyology (2008), Small Data (2017), and The Ministry of Common Sense (2021).

In 2022, Lindstrom launched the “Engineering our Dreams” project – a $22,000,000 metaverse experiment, with the multi-pronged purposes of understanding human behavior, the role of businesses, brands, work environments, and ethical standards in virtual worlds. 

Co-founder of several multi-billion-dollar startups, including and Hitwise, Lindstrom is a Thinkers50 Ranked Thinker, listed by TIME magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, and named by LinkedIn as 2021’s most influential business thinker in the USA. He is the founder and chairman of Lindstrom Company.

This podcast is part of an ongoing series of interviews with executives. The executives’ participation in this podcast are solely for educational purposes based on their knowledge of the subject and the views expressed by them are solely their own. This podcast should not be deemed or construed to be for the purpose of soliciting business for any of the companies mentioned, nor does Deloitte advocate or endorse the services or products provided by these companies.

Martin Lindstrom

Founder and Chairman, Lindstrom Company


Des Dearlove

Co-founder, Thinkers50

Geoff Tuff

Principal, Deloitte


Inspired by the book Provoke: How Leaders Shape the Future by Overcoming Fatal Human FlawsWiley, 2021.

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Podcast Transcript

Des Dearlove:

Hello, I’m Des Dearlove and I’m the co-founder of Thinkers50. I’d like to welcome you to our podcast series Provocateurs, in which we explore the experiences, insights, and perspectives of inspiring leaders. Our aim is to provoke you to think and act differently. So conversations with insightful leaders who offer new perspectives on traditional business thinking.

This is a collaboration between Thinkers50 and Deloitte. And my co-host today is Geoff Tuff. Geoff is a principal at Deloitte where he holds leadership roles across the firm’s sustainability, innovation and strategy practices. He’s also the co-author along with Steve Goldbach of Provoke: How Leaders Shape the Future by Overcoming Fatal Human Flaws. Geoff, welcome.

Geoff Tuff:

Thanks Des. It’s great to be here. I got to tell you though, I’m nervous. I’m nervous because we’re joined today by one of the most influential people in the world. So our guest today is Martin Lindstrom. Martin, Welcome. Martin is the founder and chairman of Lindstrom Company, that’s a global branding and culture transformation firm that operates, as I understand it, across five continents in more than 30 countries. He is one of the world’s leading branding experts and we’ll hear a lot more about that today. Advising a variety of leading tech companies, including Uber, Google, and Gucci on innovation in Web 3.0.

For the past decade or so, probably over a decade, he’s been featured as one of the world’s top business thinkers by the Thinkers50 List and Time Magazine, going back to my original statement, has named him as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. So Martin, it is an honor to have you here.

Martin Lindstrom:

Geoff, I’m just as nervous as you are. So if you take those two and combine it, do you know what? It’ll neutralize everything.

Geoff Tuff:

We’re probably going to have a lot of fun instead.

Martin Lindstrom:

Yeah, exactly.

Des Dearlove:

We want to talk about this big experiment that you are involved in, engineering our dreams, big project. Largest metaverse experiment ever conducted. I’m sure we’re going to talk about that. But I want to take you back into the myths of time. I want to take you back to when you were just a young lad, because you had a very interesting start, a very entrepreneurial start. Do you want to tell us a little bit about the Lego story?

Martin Lindstrom:

Well, I was obsessed with Lego. I can tell you so much so that I actually built my own Lego bed. Can you imagine? Now I will not recommend you to sleep in it, which I did, because you will have a lot of dots on the back of your back, which I had. And do you know what? I was so serious that I actually managed to get a sponsorship from Sony. They flew me to Japan to learn how to cut bonsai trees. Can you believe it? Not sure how I did it. And then I opened up my own theme park. I took about a year for me to-

Des Dearlove:

How old are you at this point?

Martin Lindstrom:

At that stage I was 11, right? I was 11.

Geoff Tuff:

It sounds like you’re kind of an overachiever, Martin.

Martin Lindstrom:

I was just queasy. A Provocateur. You could say, right?

Des Dearlove:

But it got the attention, it got Lego’s attention too, didn’t it?

Martin Lindstrom:

It did. Yeah, it did. I mean, I opened the doors to this Legoland and only two people showed up, which was really, I think the lowest point of my career, it was my mom and my dad. So I went to the logo print office, persuaded them to put an ad in the paper, and two days later I had 131 visitors showing up. Just one problem, visitor number 130 and visitor number 131 were the lawyers from Lego suing me. They said it was their brand. I said, what’s the brand? I bought the boxes.

Now the funny part of this story is, as you are indicating, this was in fact that the Lego management heard about that. And in fact the owner of Lego, one of the late founders or co-founders of the brand, actually took his little Fiat Punto I think it was, and drove to the place where I was born and raised. And it was like, God coming visiting you, I can tell you. And we did a deal and the deal was I would get a job at Lego. So I was probably, and still am today, the youngest kid in the history of Lego working at Lego at the age of 12.

Des Dearlove:

Yeah, no, I just think it’s such a fantastic story and it just goes to show us as I was remarking earlier before we came on air that you were sort of a troublemaker and an agitator right from the beginning.

Martin Lindstrom:

Absolutely. I was. I’m so sorry, but I was.

Geoff Tuff:

So Martin, I’m sure we’ll get a bit more of a linear journey at some point, but tell us a little bit about how this entrepreneurial spirit that we heard about just in that one anecdote, how that’s kind of woven through your career and some of the experiences you’ve had along the way and how you’ve been a Provocateur along those various different stages.

Martin Lindstrom:

I mean, I think one of the key things I’ve done was may have been slightly better than the most, is that I was extremely focused from a very young age, as you can hear. So I actually at that stage started to focus on branding. And of course there was a lot of amazing brand experts out there, but I wanted to be the best in the world. So I sort of said, well listen, you can’t go in and be the best in the world unless you sort of trick it a little bit. So I started to combine two ordinary things in a new way where brands always was one dimension and then something else was another dimension. And over the years that something else was first when the worldwide web, the internet, was invented in 1994 where it became … let’s say I wrote the first book ever about how to build brands online.

Then later on I took children and brands, then I took neuroscience and created a term called neuromarketing. Then we took politics and created small data. All these different things were really two ordinary things combined in a new way. And you could almost see there’s like a Venn diagram where you have branding in the center and then you have all these different Venn diagram cycles around, and each of them had another twist to brands. And over time you slowly know, I guess accumulate respect and credibility around the core versus brand.

So this has always been my foundation, but I also always thought if you want to own that space, you need to be highly provocative because, as you won’t get the attention. So over the years what I’ve worked with is to come up with crazy ideas and these ideas, all of them have had one thing in common, that is to make a point so extreme that people will never forget it. So Geoff, I have a feeling of  … you’re going to ask me about a couple of answers or examples here. So I’m just thinking out loud here.

Geoff Tuff:

Before you jump into the examples of your career, Martin, I want to start with just a really basic question. What is a brand? What does a brand mean? And then let’s move forward with your story.

Martin Lindstrom:

Yeah, well a brand is really not made in a factory. It’s made in our minds. And you could basically say it’s an emotional construct. It is an emotion you establish between a person and a factory in the end of the day. And of course that’s increasing the value of the product or a service. So brands are incredibly important. And what’s really important to understand here Geoff is that brands is everything. Brands is not just a product and service, it’s also a person. You are brands, it can be a country, it can be a royal family, it can be a celebrity. So brands are really everything. And I think in the world we live in today, we are so self-aware that I think increasingly we are aware of how to build ourself as brands. So brands is really just an emotional construct.

Des Dearlove:

Would you say though, I mean one way of thinking about, and again you are obviously very free to disagree with this, but it always seems to me that a brand is also a promise. We expect when we see a brand, we think we’ve got a kind of a relationship with it if we understand it and we expect it to live up to its part of the bargain, whatever that might be, whatever that promise is. And Lego is a great example of that. I mean Lego, that brand is a very strong brand for a very good reason.

Martin Lindstrom:

Absolutely. I mean you are spot on. In fact, you should get the job instead of me. I mean it is a promise. And in particular in the world we live in right now, that promise is increasingly important, but that promise is also having another flavor. Today, if you take the younger generation, what they care about in particular is not greenwashing. And it’s for a brand to have a purpose and a purpose is part of that promise that you’re not just buying a product for the sake of buying it and accumulating stuff. You’re also doing it because you’re making the world a greater place to live in or just your life better with your friends.

So you could say that that promise is changing flavor. In the past it was very much a tangible physical thing you could display and now it’s much more an emotion. It’s like a guarantee of what you actually are saying to the world; I’m an okay person and ideally believe in human mankind in the future.

Geoff Tuff:

Great. So I want to go back to the stories you were going to tell. I’ve got some questions about what’s to come in the future with brand, but I’ll hold those for now. But tell us about some of the experiences you’ve had along the way in working with some of these brands. And I’m interested by your Venn diagram and the comment about how you always have an overlapping topic. If you can just bring some of those to life.

Martin Lindstrom:

Well, it’s a good question because I think what once you do is always to create a counterintuitive statement because it makes you think, particularly in this very linear world we are living in right now. So if I wind time back to 2008 where I wrote a book called Buyology, it was where I introduced the term neuromarketing. One thing I realized when you are introducing such a controversial new term, where we by the way conducted more than 2000 scans of users’ brains using fMRI, and one thing I realized was incredibly important was to do something for the better.

So we actually recruited more than 2000 smokers. My mom was a heavy smoker by then, and I was incredibly frustrated and concerned about her 40 cigarettes or 50 cigarettes per day consumption patterns. So that actually sparked my interest in neuroscience because I couldn’t understand, how do I make her stop smoking?

She knows it’s not healthy, she knows it’s irritating for everyone around it, costs a fortune, you’re not looking good doing it. Why? And it was very hard for me to understand as rational as I was for those five minutes. So we conducted this, started using fMRI, and we actually started to test the health warnings on the cigarette packs. And what we learned to everyone’s surprise was that the health warnings in the United States is called the surgeon’s general warning. In the UK, it’s one of those nasty photos you get on the cigarette packs. But in the old days we had to realize just with a text, it had the opposite effect.

In fact, they encouraged smokers to smoke more, not less. And that was a profound insight, which of course was something we worked very hard on understanding. So as a consequence of that, we started to understand what does it take to change this around, and developed various methodologies around that gave all that insight and studies to different science groups around the world and to governments. And today I’m proud of saying that the methodology we proposed and the visual language we proposed has now been adopted in more than 60 countries by governments and, according to WHO, save more than a million people’s lives. And I think what I’m saying here beside doing a humble bragging with politics-

Geoff Tuff:

You don’t have to be humble, you can just brag. It’s a great story.

Martin Lindstrom:

Well, yeah, except that my mom passed away from smoking.

Geoff Tuff:

Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.

Martin Lindstrom:

No, yeah, me too actually, because that was really my driving force to do this. But if I should take that aside with of course, in its own right is very emotional. It is to do something dramatic and there is a very interesting piece of our brain, an area which is called the somatic markers. When something dramatic is happening in your life, it’s called a somatic marker. When Socrates was teaching his students, whenever he said something really, really important, he would slap them on the chin at the same time and they would walk off and they’ll never forget it. Well, that slap on the chin is a somatic marker.

That’s really what I’ve learned. Coming back to your question Geoff, and that is the Provocateur. That is when I did this cigarette stuff, it woke governments up around the world and created a tension around it. And that somatic marker is really what I’m always looking for because we live in a world right now where there’s so much noise that you are not getting any attention at all. So if you want to create a new philosophy, a new statement, a new direction, you can only do it by provoking. So that’s what I’m doing through these methodologies. Right?

Geoff Tuff:

Yeah, that’s fantastic. I’m fascinated at… well, I’m actually just fascinated by the whole concept of fMRI and what you can actually tell and whether you can get to some of the underlying reasons why people were smoking more when they saw those warnings, et cetera. So if you have a short answer to that, I’d love to hear it. But just generally recognizing you can’t run marketing divisions or marketing companies by strapping a bunch of people up to an MRI machine. How do you know you’re hitting the somatic marker now when you’re developing a new campaign or a new brand position or what have you?

Martin Lindstrom:

So those two very simple questions in one. Thank you for that, Geoff. Let’s see if we kind of answer that in a short way. First of all, the reason why it happened was really to the Pavlov’s effect. You know the dogs, that whole story. Well, in fact, when you link a piece of graphics with a certain feeling of lighting up a cigarette, you’re getting the nucleus accumbens, which is the craving spot in the brain activated. Well, those two symbolics are linked together just like the Pavlov and the dogs.

So when I suddenly put on a health warning where it has a text on and the text says, smoking kills, I’m actually not reading it. What I’m seeing instead is I’m seeing a symbol and those symbols are activating a craving in my brain. So that’s the reason why those graphic designs did not work, and that’s what we discovered through the fMRI study.

Now, back to your second question, well, how do you do this without fMRI? Well, it’s a good question. That’s the reason why some years later I wrote another book called Small Data and we find small data seemingly insignificant observations you make in people’s lives, which are leading to a huge or profound change. And small data, quite often I have to tell you, is just as powerful as neuroscience because it’s a matter about observing things and finding a little thing in everyday life and then basically taking that concept and evolving it into a solution. So, that you can do very cheaply and it’s incredibly powerful.

The challenge is that in our data-obsessed world today where people love spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations, that is just not turning a lot of people on when you say you only had 24 respondents in a study. For some reason our society is not believing it. But I can tell you on the other hand, and if we have time we can talk about how it works, but time after time, some of the most powerful transformations of companies I’ve at least been involved with started with small data. So fMRI and neuroscience is powerful quite often to verify a hypothesis, but it needs to start with small data, which actually in its own right is even more powerful.

Des Dearlove:

And of course, small data is the title of one of your… you have a gift for as well as being provocative, you have a gift for certain phrases. I love Buyology, it’s one of my all time favorite book titles. It’s just genius. As is Small Data. At a time when everybody was talking about big data and your book comes out, Small Data. It’s that positioning yourself in a sort of contrarian point of view, which brings us in a certain way to the metaverse. Let’s talk about this experiment that you’re involved in. Tell us a little bit more. It’s very intriguing.

Martin Lindstrom:

Well listen, in 2004 when social media really kicked off with Facebook as a leader, I think it’s fair to say that that challenges bureaucracy, it amplified the concept of fake news and it also, I would claim, destroyed the lives for a lot of young people. Now, if we were able to wind back time and redo this again, what question would we ask ourselves back then? And I thought a lot about that I have to say, and the answer is I don’t have an answer.

But one thing I concluded out of this is that we probably could have simulated the future better. We probably could have said, why don’t we take certain dimensions of this and simulated and maybe we couldn’t answer all the questions, but maybe we could have 20% or 30% of coverage and this is really what we’re doing now. So why do we do this now?

Well, I’ll give you some stats, which for me is profound. An average adult American is spending 10.5 hours glued to a screen every day. That’s 66% of your awakening hours. Generation Z or in European, Generation Z is spending 77% of the time in front of a screen. If I look at people, young kids from the age of 7 to 10, they on average are spending time in front of not one screen, not two screens, but 2.4 screens on average in Northern Europe.

So it’s not a question about if we are moving into a reality plus or a metaverse type of environment. It’s just about when it’s happening. And I think it’s fair to say with the arrival of a Reality plus launched by Apple very soon, supposedly with the augmented reality glasses and of course with artificial intelligence and ChatGPT, this is just on the breaking point to become something which is going to define our lives.

And that is the stage where I said exactly what I did with the cigarette smoking issue back in the days. I said, listen, this is of course on one hand fascinating. On the other hand, this is probably fundamentally going to change everyone’s lives and this is probably the last train leaving the station. So we better get our house in order.

So over the last 18 months at this stage we’ve raised 22 million US dollars and right now conducting the largest scientific study in the world where people are moving into a reality plus environment for good to understand multiple aspects. It’s sponsored by 22 of the largest brands around. And really what we are doing through this experiment is to understand different extreme scenarios of what is going on when we are exposed to augmented reality, virtual reality. Of course a ChatGPT version, not 5 or 6, but perhaps version 10.

So we can now start to set a framework almost like a picket fence around how far this should go. The outcome of our project has evolved a lot because there’s so much attention around what we’re doing right now from governments around the world that we are very likely to see a variation of PG13, which very well Geoff, from the United States. From the movie categorization, we probably will develop now a similar categorization for what we call digital content. So really what we are talking about here is just like you have a health declaration on the back of food, you have a digital health declaration and that will just like when you eat potato chips and it has 120 calories in it and one bag is probably enough, while you will have the same on all digital content you are consuming, whether you are a child or adult.

Why? Because we now have, and this is extremely concerning, we now have evidence that the brain is developing almost to 90% by the age of seven. Yet if you are altering the brain in terms of virtual reality or augmented reality, you create friendships with an avatar or through AI driven avatars, then you literally are changing our personality and the chemistry balance in the brain, which is called neurotransmitters. So we are literally in the engineering rooms of destroying the next generation. And that is for me extremely concerning. And that’s a reason why we literally are working with the who’s who around the world on this project. And hopefully, you know what, hopefully I can pull it off. But it is of course an exhaustive, super exciting, but exhaustive challenge I set in front of myself here.

Geoff Tuff:

So I have to say, Martin, that this is the direction I wanted to go before when I said I’ve got some questions about the future and what that may bring. You’re clearly someone who is a force for good and using brands or creating brands that are a force for good in the world. There are others who may actually have a different stance and maybe an opposite stance. Is there a danger in some ways that this knowledge that you’re creating is used by the “bad guys”? I’m thinking of the impact of fake news, which we are subject to quite often here in the US, I’m sure elsewhere around the world. 

What can we do to prevent the concept of brand being used in a negative way to influence opinions and influence behavior in any category?

Martin Lindstrom:

Geoff, you can’t. I mean let’s be realistic. And I think when you talk to people with both inventors of AI or virtual reality or augmented reality, they’re all saying to me today, when we have chats behind closed doors, “do you know what, I’m surprised about how my content, my strategies, my algorithms have been used as a weapon against human mankind”. People are just not aware of it. Just think about the Manhattan project. I think the reality here is that what we have to do very quickly is to make populations become aware of what the ramifications are.

I was just spending time with the House of Lords in London two days ago to discuss this very topic because it’s likely to become a law as well in the UK now what we’re doing, and I think what they said was, you’re doing the right thing by being extremely provocative. So some of our experiments were still to be announced in public, but they are extremely provocative, but they’re designed around creating a somatic marker so that it’s a shock. And then immediately thereafter, we are attaching guiding principles to companies.

So what we are doing here is they’ll be creating this pledge among the leading brands and companies around the world, which is basically saying we are buying into this way of thinking, and then we create kind of a peer pressure among chief executives around the world to buy into this. Now along with that, we are also working with educational systems around the world. So we work with both the education system out of the US government, but also with EU and out of the UK where we are creating almost like a food pyramid but just a digital pyramid instead, where we are helping teachers to get a grip around this because they have no idea about how to handle this right now and neither does the parents for that sake, right?

So that’s the second thing we’re doing. And then the third thing we are doing is, of course to go in and develop methodologies in the gaming universe, for example, where things we know today is creating far too much addiction and literally is destroying the brain, that we create new tools which have a similar type of intrigue, but are not destroying the neurotransmitter balance. And that is leading science we’re talking about here where we work with Harvard and MIT on this right now.

So I’m trying to do my best, but I can tell you one thing, I’m pretty sure just as the case has been with any of my previous books, that people are going to use it as a weapon. And I’ll give you examples. I mean for Small Data, I had multiple governments reaching out to us and say, how do we use small data in the way we are setting policies.

For Buyology, we’ve been contacted by, I mean at least 20 different politicians which wanted to use neuroscience to make sure they would lead a race. And of course we are saying consistently no, but we also know they went somewhere else. So you know what? I believe that if you can push this hard enough, get enough voice, you are five minutes ahead of everyone else. And that comes back to I guess my definition of the future, which I stole from Tom Peters, that you’re only predicting the future by being five minutes ahead and we try to be five minutes ahead all the time.

Des Dearlove:

You sort of hinted at some of the experiments, I mean, you and I have had conversations where you’re talking about… I mean what I found fascinating was the notion that what happens in the virtual world can have a physical impact on the human body, which seems the wrong way around somehow. But I know that you’re looking into some of those things, and I appreciate that you can’t necessarily tell us everything that you are up to in your lab, but can you give us some idea of some of the sorts of areas you’re going to look at? And so how that’s going to play out?

Martin Lindstrom:

Oh, you’re so diplomatic, I love you, Des! This British way of navigating words, which I just… I’m so lost on that one. Well done. I mean, yeah, I can give you some indications. We are looking into at this stage eight different industries. So we are looking into the B2B industry and then you’ll say, well what the heck does it have to do with ethics? Well, I don’t need to tell you that if your boss in the future is going to be an algorithm, well then suddenly the ethical relationship with who you’re dealing with is going to be very, very different. And this by the way is happening already. If you are gamifying the way we work today, people are getting exhausted. And I don’t need to tell you that certain rideshare companies gamified the way you basically were hiring a driver or the way they’re driving, which meant that they’re working into 20 or 24 hours a day without a break.

So the ethical side on the B2B area is something which is very interesting. We are also looking into spaces like psychological safety. Amy Edmondson has lent a helping hand of being interested and involved in our projects. You know her very well I know. But there we are looking into how to create a psychological safe environment to improve creativity in virtual environments. So here we are working with some of the leading authorities in the world on hologram designs.

I can tell you already now, I’m not sure if you tried hologram meetings. Of course it’s part of our daily work now and it’s crazy what’s happening in those meetings because you literally feel the person is sitting in front of you. So what we are measuring now is the brain waves as I sit in a hologram meeting, to understand how do you decode signals which was disappearing on Zoom and Teams, but now with a presence; how do you decode that and how does it impact our brain of feeling psychologically safe? How does it impact the brain when it comes to creativity to create alignment?

And by the way, on diversity as well, because people which are very introvert, don’t say a lot, but actually the most creative people, according to our studies, women are not necessarily as brash as some men are. So their voice is not so prominent. Well that is timid around when we do experiments using hologram. So this is the B2B space, super fascinating. And then we have some of the leading brands sponsoring this whole thing. Then we have on the B2C space, everything from FMCG and CPG brands. And this one example, which is more or less a public experiment we are doing right now on Red Bull is to say, well, if I drink a Red Bull in a physical space, you get energy.

Now we know today from all our flavor design experiments that around 50% of what you taste is actually not the taste, it is the environment. It’s a little bit like the reason why you probably hated coffee when you drank it the first time or hated a beer the first time, but like it now is because you actually, when you drink it again and again, it’s reinforcing your brain to understand that you are an adult. So you actually are drinking it to become an adult. And you feel that, and that reinforcement certainly is tuning your taste preferences around.

So in the Red Bull case, we’re looking into the perceived value of energy and tapping into the next generation of place placebo. So we have one of the leading experts on place placebo working on this experiment and what we are now introducing as a whole new term, which we call the ‘metacebo’ effect. The metacebo effect is literally when you drink a virtual Red Bull, you are actually getting more energy physically, which sounds crazy, but we have evidence for now.

That is where this starts to be very intriguing and very thought provoking because we can now see that even though you may not spend time in a virtual environment, other people who do would actually change their brain structures if they spend time there, and change physical appearance later on in a very subtle way; our brains will literally rewire. And that is of course what we are interested in understanding because that will impact the next generation and the DNA coding, right?

Geoff Tuff:

I have to say this is fascinating. I don’t know if I’m really excited or really scared, but I have concluded two things. Number one, I now understand why you’ve been named one of the most influential people in the world, and number two, I’m going to feel a lot better next time I have a beer. So thank you for that.

So Des named a couple of your books that he liked the titles off. I got to say my favorite is, if I’ve got this right, The Ministry of Common Sense, which I think is your most recent book with the subtitle of How to Eliminate Bureaucratic Red Tape, Bad Excuses, and Corporate BS, which I love. And I think you and I probably think very similarly that’s got some tones of some of the books that Steve and I have written. But can you tell us a little bit about that book and where it came from, what it’s intended to do beyond the obvious subtitle that is encouraging?

Martin Lindstrom:

Absolutely. I mean, many years ago I was asked by Charlie Bell, who was a former, former former CEO of McDonald’s, to reinvent the Happy Meal. And I said to Charlie, I’d love to do that if I can make it healthy. Charlie was a good man, so he said yes. And we started to develop the new Happy Meal design and we really again used the power of storytelling and perception and placebos. So we converted … the bushes in the forest was the broccoli and the cucumber was the murder weapon, and the tomato was the blood. And then we created this amazing Shrek type of narrative. And as we launched it as a pilot in Germany, it was a huge success. The parents loved it, kids ate broccoli, at the age of six, can you believe it? And even the franchisees really liked it. So I thought with myself, this is a home run. So I went to the headquarters of McDonald’s outside of Chicago and I’ll never forget it because they said to me, “this is interesting”. Geoff, what does that mean when people say “interesting”?

Geoff Tuff:

“Thanks Martin, see you later”.

Martin Lindstrom:

Well, I was European, so I thought, yes! They think it’s interesting! So I was waiting for two years and we were waiting for the big launch of this new Happy Meal. And guess what? It was the usual suspect … a sugar bond … the meat inside the toy. And this time it had sliced apples in the little plastic bag. And that’s really where I learned about what we call bureaucracy or what I call an immune system, a defense mechanism for change. We are petrified of changing. And in this case with McDonald’s, they have two main toy suppliers. The biggest in the world by the way, was this a product place or a private labeled manufacturing setup. So they were addicted to a certain way of working and I of course asked myself, what the heck did I do wrong? What could I’ve done differently?

So for over two years we worked with psychologists joining me for every single meeting to understand dynamics in rooms. And out of that we started to change the way we work with companies and brands and organizations to understand the dynamics between people and how you make decisions happen in a very tangible way. And you could say in many ways the outcome of that became the result of The Ministry of Common Sense, which later on was named, not by me, but by a lovely lady in the UK, which we worked with on Standard Chartered Bank, where we had to turn around the bank and she came up with that title very late at night and said, you know what? Everything is rubbish here, let’s create a ministry.

And today the Ministry of Common Sense is up and thriving, running very well at Standard Chartered Bank and they’ve cleared up hundreds if not thousands of stupidities. So really it’s a way to clear out stupidities in organizations and make things happen.

Geoff Tuff:

That’s fantastic. And kudos to whoever came up with that title. I love it. I am interested in trying to link that the notion of the work you’re doing in the corporate space with some of the branding work and the idea of a somatic marker. Is there a corporate equivalent of a somatic marker that any of our listeners who are executives themselves should be on the lookout for or should be triggering to make sure that they can move past the bureaucracy and cut the red tape?

Martin Lindstrom:

Well, yeah, I probably would say that the number one thing you should be very aware of is what I call the chicken cage syndrome. So some years ago there was an experiment done with chickens. They were put into a cage for half a year. One day they were let out on the beautiful green grass where the sun was shining and the birds were singing, and guess what? The chickens went out and after 30 seconds they went straight back in again. And I call that the chicken cage syndrome. And what I think I’ve learned working with and dealing with chicken cages around the world, which I’m sure Geoff, you’ve seen in the thousands in your work, is a way to break it down. And this is where the trick happens.

We live and we operate in a world which is, I would say, ruled by quarterly announcement earnings because of Wall Street and the street in general. We don’t have any patience anymore. And I think you can see that with various companies. 

So what happens here is that that lack of patience has to be waived into the system. And the best way of illustrating that comes back to this part two of the chicken cage story because if you really want to have a chicken leaving the chicken cage, don’t put a piece of corn far away from the cage but actually leave it just outside the cage so the chicken can eat it. And the other chickens are looking at it and saying, wow, that’s a successful, and then there’s another piece of corn and another piece of corn and it gets you to the end goal. Those pieces of small bite sized success stories is what I call a 90 day intervention.

And 90 day intervention is really to break down stuff, is a little bit what Henry Ford said once, “nothing is too difficult if you break it down to smaller steps”. Well that’s really what we are doing here and I’ve learned that you increasingly have to be even more micro-focused on the smaller steps. They all have to link to behavioral chains in the organization, which by the way, you always should measure because if you don’t do that, you just can’t convince the immune system to buy into it. And then you create a movement, one person at a time in this case, one chicken at a time, but you create a movement which then becomes a change.

And this is really, I think, the best way to deal with change strategies in an organization. At least that’s my experience. Geoff, I’m sure you have tons of other amazing suggestions to what to do, but at least in my little world, that’s what I’ve learned is working well, right?

Geoff Tuff:

Yeah, love it.

Des Dearlove:

Yeah, I’ve just noticed how orderly your bookcase is, Martin, and I glance over my shoulder and see what a mess mine is. I wonder if that’s representative of what’s going on in our minds. That’s all slightly scary. But I’m going to take a chance here because last time I saw you, we were at MIT and we were doing a panel discussion. Actually we think we were talking about fake news and I wanted it to end on a high, on an upbeat thing. I asked everybody on the panel whether they were optimistic about the future and of course it got to you because the other two had said “they were”, you did that contrarian thing where you said, “I’m not”.

So that kind of… and then I wish I hadn’t asked you, but I’m going to ask you again because you have an opportunity here. Some of the things you’ve been talking about are very hopeful about changing the world. And so I am going to put the question to you again. Are you optimistic? Do you think we can turn this thing around?

Martin Lindstrom:

How many minutes do I have for this answer?

Des Dearlove:

As many as you need.

Geoff Tuff:

As many as you want, as long as you land in the place Des wants you to, I think is the answer, Martin.

Martin Lindstrom:

Do you know what I’m optimistic about? I’m optimistic about… so for example, we do experiments with Dr. Brennan Spiegel out of Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles right now, which is where you basically can heal people or remove pain through mental virtual reality: extremely powerful stuff. We today can see that if you’re using technology right, you can build up a sense of empathy with people. We are doing other experiments where we clearly can see that we actually can change people’s music taste and make them become more happy every day by priming people through other means.

We’re doing so much stuff, which I think is for the better. We are also seeing, sadly, there’s a lot of less positive stuff going up there. And I had to say to you that I was just on a call with your friend Marshall Goldsmith yesterday. Marshall and I make contact every week and Marshall said to me yesterday, “Martin, for the first time in all these years we’ve known each other, I have to coach you”. And he said to me, “Martin, don’t be so doom and gloom about the future because there’s always a good with a bad”.

I’m still going to go against Marshall’s view and say, no, I’m not positive about the future. But I have to say I’m positive about two other aspects. I’m positive about the fact that certainly the experiments we’re doing and the outcome of some of the solutions are remarkable and they are without any doubt when you hear about them a year two from now, depending on when the various stuff is released, you’re going to say, I never thought that in my entire life. So that’s a good side.

The other side I’m positive about is the fact that I think we have enough attention by policymakers around the world, by governments around the world to introduce a new version of PG13. And I was very surprised by that. I mean, we spent a whole day in the parliament the other day to discuss with all the policy makers around this, and that is exactly what’s happening in the White House, exactly what we’re seeing in the EU in Brussels. So I’m so pleased about that they’re welcoming our thoughts and we can impact that. So that’s on the positive news. So my answer is probably it’s more negative than positive, but it’s not necessary just doom and gloom.

Des Dearlove:

Okay. You were going so well. And I’m in the same campus as Marshall Goldsmith and I can’t always say that, but I am on this particular thing. I think positivity has a certain power. Geoff, you must see a lot… I’m just going to finish with you as well because you must see a lot of the technology trends and things playing out with clients. I mean, are you optimistic? Does it fill you with hope? I mean, you’ve said earlier that you’re not sure whether you’re frightened or inspired really, and I feel that too.

Geoff Tuff:

Yeah. So I know the answer I have to give on this Des, but it is a natural answer and I do feel positive, not necessarily just because of technology, and actually I wanted to take Martin in this direction as well, but because what I’ve seen humans be able to do in the face of really gnarly problems. So Des as you know, I do a lot of work in energy and sustainability these days and our push to decarbonize big, dirty value chains is a really gnarly problem. And in some ways we could sit back and watch to see what might happen and when the right technology might come along to allow us to do that.

But what I’m starting to see in part due to new policies being put into the corporate world from governments around the world is people are trying things. They’re taking those small steps that Martin talked about and starting to make progress. We’re not inventing clean hydrogen in one fell swoop. We’re not suddenly installing massive capacity of wind and solar in one fell swoop. But we are taking small steps and demonstrating even without immediate economic payback that we can do things and solve gnarly problems.

So yes, I am optimistic. That’s just given what I’m seeing on the ground and part of it is enabled by technology. But that actually is a question I wanted to ask you, Martin. Not necessarily just to do with energy, but if you had to offer a word of encouragement to the world, to our listeners who day in day out deal with some small problems but also gnarly problems, what’s the one piece of advice you would have for anyone out there to keep in mind, the equivalent of the Socratic slap on the chin?

Martin Lindstrom:

I think my answer would be that I think you have to look at yourself with a different agenda. Today in our world we have one bank account. No, you received your salary. I believe in the future we should have perhaps three, perhaps five bank accounts. One additional bank account will be your personal brand, right? One personal bank account for me would be what you learned and how you constantly are learning and it becomes part of the value you’re getting out of your daily lives. And maybe you should have a fourth bank account, which is how much change do you make in the world which is leading to something for the better.

I don’t think we allow ourselves to think about those things. There’s all sorts of different studies showing that the more you give the happier you are, that’s not built into today’s metrics somehow. So I would say for many of the leaders out there, try to think about your bank account in a different way and ask yourself, how can you fill some of the other pockets? Now this is not something I’m just making up. We know from all sorts of different sciences now that the more you actually learn, the longer you live, I mean in the populations around the world, those people which are teaching the most are the ones living the longest.

Those people who are most social and helping other people look at studies coming out. Italy are the longest living people on planet earth. And by the way, if you have your personal brand, you also feel safer because maybe you are fired, but you always have a safety net, which is your brand. So my advice to leaders out there is to think about those dimensions that will help you to build a culture which is stronger, right? It will help you to be a better boss. I would also claim, and do you know what? I think it will be helping you to become a better husband, a better wife. So that’s probably my advice. I know it’s not exactly what you’re looking for, but I think-

Geoff Tuff:

No, it is.

Martin Lindstrom:


Geoff Tuff:

I love that answer and I think you also gave someone a great business idea, to go and invent the multiple pocket bank accounts.

Martin Lindstrom:

Yeah, yeah, it would be fantastic.

Des Dearlove:

Well, we could talk about this stuff for hours, I think. It’s always the same when I get together with you Martin, but that is all we have time for. So huge thanks to our guest, Martin Lindstrom and to you for listening.

This is The Provocateurs Podcast and we’ve been Des Dearlove and Geoff Tuff. Please join us again soon for another episode of Provocateurs.

This podcast is part of an ongoing series of interviews with executives. The executives’ participation in this podcast are solely for educational purposes based on their knowledge of the subject and the views expressed by them are solely their own. This podcast should not be deemed or construed to be for the purpose of soliciting business for any of the companies mentioned, nor does Deloitte advocate or endorse the services or products provided by these companies.

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