The power of emphasizing brand performance
Creativity Creative Thinking

What the Placebo Effect Means for Content Marketing

Let’s play a game. Which brands do these slogans belong to?

  • Just do It.
  • Is it in you?
  • …gives you wings.

If you guessed Nike, Gatorade, and Red Bull, you’re right, and you’ve just proved how well content marketing can work when you tell the right stories. Another thing all these brands have in common? Their emotional marketing is all about performance storytelling.

Nike’s recent campaign targeted to women, “Better For It,” is intended to make the average woman feel like she can perform better with Nike:

Nike does a great job of connecting personally with average consumers and encouraging them to internalize performance-related feelings of strength, hope, motivation, ambition, perseverance, and pride.

Similarly, Red Bull associates itself with extreme sports and performance-based events. It’s one of the most successfully marketed performance brands out there.

Remember Felix Baumgartner’s stratosphere jump? Of course you do. It was a record-breaking feat cleverly sponsored by Red Bull that helped shoot the company to the forefront of highly emotional performance-based marketing. The message? Drinking Red Bull is all about being exceptional. The video has been viewed over 39 million times:

Your Wish Is My Command

Scientific investigation has recently revealed that the power of beliefs about a brand’s performance can actually impact our performance.

A recent psychological study shows we internalize performance-based emotional marketing to a shocking degree: Successful performance marketing of a brand that is believed and internalized actually improves our performance when we use that brand.

Yes, really.

In one study, researchers invited participants to test out a new golf putter. Half the participants were told they were using a new Nike putter while the other half were not told the brand. But all participants used the same putter. Amazingly, those who were told it was a Nike putter needed fewer putts to sink the ball.

Sheer belief in the performance-boosting qualities of the Nike brand led to improved performance in the participants who were told they were using a Nike putter. This is akin to the placebo effect in psychology.

What Is The Placebo Effect?

In the medical world, a placebo is “anything that seems to be a ‘real’ medical treatment—but isn’t. It could be a pill, a shot, or some other type of ‘fake’ treatment. What all placebos have in common is that they do not contain an active substance meant to affect health.” – WebMD

Placebos Effect

In the study on putting performance, the placebo would be the putter because the characteristics of the putter itself don’t actually affect performance.

According to, the placebo effect is “a remarkable phenomenon in which a placebo can sometimes improve a patient’s condition simply because the person has the expectation that it will be helpful.”

In the study, the placebo effect can be observed when participants, believing in the performance-boosting qualities of the Nike brand, actually experience improved performance while using the same putter as everyone else.

However, the placebo effect is not well understood. It’s hard to explain how a belief or expectation of something happening could make it happen. But numerous studies show that the placebo effect happens all the time. Sometimes, it even happens when we know we’re receiving a placebo. I’ll just let you ponder the mysteries of that fact for a second…

How Can You Use the Placebo Effect in Content Marketing?

One theory surrounding what may be happening in the brain during the placebo effect could give content marketers an important clue to direct strategies that have a tangible impact on consumers.

It’s possible that the “ritual of medicine” could prompt changes in the brain that help explain the placebo effect in a medical setting. The ritual of medicine refers to all the surrounding environmental and procedural cues for your brain that lead to the expectation that you’re going to get better. Your brain internalizes things like the doctor’s office, the Q&A period; even the smells and sounds associated with going to the doctor could trigger changes in the brain. These cues may function as subliminal conditioning that can control bodily processes of which we are totally unaware.

Content marketers can look at their strategy as building up a rich environment of cues that lead to a belief in the consumer that the product has beneficial performance properties.

Top performance brands make their customers believe they can perform better

Let’s take Nike as a case study example. In the “Better For It” campaign, the focus is not a Nike product. The focus is a set of feelings derived from the experience of using the product. It’s all about fostering the belief that you can get better. In this campaign Nike doesn’t actually make any claims about its products’ performance—it leverages emotional marketing to associate itself with a feeling of empowerment.

Over time, through the “ritual of marketing” we could call it, consumers begin to expect the Nike brand to deliver this feeling, so much so that when they buy a Nike product, the sheer expectation triggers the brain to deliver that sense of empowerment to the purchaser.

The belief that Nike gear is better isn’t just enough to make a purchasing decision, it’s enough to make your performance better. Whether or not the Nike gear is objectively better than other gear is irrelevant on all fronts.

As incredible as it sounds, the placebo effect phenomenon is real. That’s some game-changing brain science for the world of content marketing.

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