Inception Marketing


Inception infographic by user dehahs on Deviant Art

You’ve likely seen the movie Inception by now, but even if you haven’t you’ve heard of the plot. That, in essence, it is possible to plant an idea in a person’s subconscious they would interpret as their own. In the movie this feat is accomplished through a group of thieves infiltrating their mark’s dream (or, more specifically dreams within dreams as noted in the infographic above).

Yet this isn’t simply a concept for the movies – it’s also a potent communications strategy. Social scientist Dan Ariely shares an example of how effective this concept is in his book The Upside of Irrationality. Chapter 4, titled:  The Not-Invented-Here Bias: Why “My” Ideas Are Better than “Yours” shares multiple examples and thorough research supporting this simple concept:  that we value our own ideas ahead of others. This explains why the idea of Inception would be effective.

Dan’s inspiration for this research stemmed from a personal example: his experience sharing research findings to groups of executives in the hopes they would use some of them to create better products. Specifically, he was sharing thoughts to a group of bankers encouraging them to help consumers save money for the future, rather than spending their paychecks as soon as they get them. Dan presented win-win ideas to the executives which would help their customers improve financial decision making and, in the process, increase their customer base and loyalty. Unfortunately the execs didn’t seem all that interested:

…here I was, looking at a sea of unenthusiastic faces.  I was presenting the bankers with a good idea — not just some vague notion but one supported by solid data.  They sat back passively in their chairs, clearly not taking in the possibilities. I began to wonder if the lack of excitement on their part was due to the fact that the idea was mine rather than theirs.  If that were the case, should I try to get the executives to think that the idea was their own or at least partially theirs?  Would that make them more interested in trying it out?

As a social scientist, Dan had to get answers to these questions, so naturally he conducted several experiments. In one such experiment, participants looked at a list of three problems one at a time and generated proposed solutions for each.  Once the participants finished generating their three solutions, they then went back and rated each one on practicality and probability for success.  Another group received the same set of problems but didn’t get to suggest solutions, simply evaluate answers given.

The problems were:

  1. How can communities reduce the amount of water they use without imposing tough restrictions
  2. How can individuals help to promote our “gross national happiness”?
  3. What innovative change could be made to an alarm clock to make it more effective?

In all cases participants rated their own solutions as much more practical and having a greater potential for success than the control groups. They also said they would invest more of their time and money into promoting their own ideas rather than the ones provided.

I’m not going to share more from the book because it’s highly worth reading, but the lesson is simple:  people have a clear bias for their own ideas. And as marketing and communications professionals, that spells opportunity. Influencing your target audience to come to organic conclusions about about your brand — before you actively market to them and generating interest in a new product concept — before you go to market with it — is a powerful play.

Surgically implanting ideas through dream technology is science fiction, but priming your market before they’re ready to buy or have even heard of you is a devastatingly powerful approach. And the best part: there are ways to do this that are far less invasive than manipulating people’s dreams. All that may be required is for you to truly understand your audience: if you already know how they think, you can develop strategies that take advantage of existing biases, viewpoints and worldviews and put them to work for you.