When Warner Brothers released the 2010 movie “Inception,” a new kind of psychodrama emerged. In the film, Dominick Cobb, played by Leonardo Dicaprio, and his team implant ideas into an executive’s subconscious while he sleeps. When he wakes up, he thinks the implanted ideas are his own. Professional marketers who saw the film picked up on the notion of making their target audience believe that buying products or acting on a suggestion was the audience's own idea. From that point, a new marketing concept also emerged, called “inception marketing.”

Setting the Goal

In true science fiction fashion, the team in the film uses a military-developed technology known as “dream-sharing” to get into the executive’s subconscious. One of the team’s goals is to get the executive to split up his company. Implanting and cultivating the idea in his brain is the act of "inception." Although marketers don’t have sci-fi tools to get into consumers’ subconscious thoughts, their goal is the same as the team's: They want people to buy cars or select certain vacation spots without being told to do so. Inception marketers reject direct-selling tactics; they believe a target audience is more likely to take some kind of action if it thinks of an idea as its own, rather than someone else's.

Taking the Team Approach

The film stresses teamwork; Cobb is only as capable of the mission as the multifaceted team behind him. Like Cobb’s team, inception marketers do research to discover what interests their target audience and what makes it react favorably or unfavorably to an idea. Like the architects in “Inception,” marketers lay out plans to reach customers. The film calls the team members who implant ideas into the executive’s subconscious "extractors." In inception marketing, an extractor can be a well-crafted message that, while being implanted in someone's subconscious, is also taking away his independent thinking without his knowledge.

Marketing Through Multiple Media Channels

Warner Brothers generated interest in “Inception” before its release through multichannel marketing. With a Facebook page, a comic book, website postings, blogs, newspaper articles and t-shirts, the company discreetly built up mystique around the film. Inception marketers have adopted the technique of messaging across various media channels to build interest in their products and ideas.

Crafting the Message

Inception marketers believe that a simple message resonates best, especially with broad audiences. Warner Brothers not only marketed “Inception” across multiple media channels, it also kept the messages in posts and elsewhere to a few vague words, such as the tag line, “Your Mind Is the Scene of the Crime.” The studio leaves the interpretation of the words to the viewer, a practice inception marketers adopted.

Inception marketers use words and phrases to stir their audience’s emotions. The film set this example by suggesting the unthinkable; that a person’s mind is the scene of a crime. Inception marketers implant a followup message in the audience’s mind, which makes it think it can purge the stress the emotion-stirring word or phrase created. This method is supposed to make the target audience feel relieved of the stress and assured that the problem can be solved if it buys a product or takes some other desired action.

In the film, the subconscious mind repels the extractors’ attempts to implant ideas. To keep target audiences from rejecting messages, inception marketers use subtle words and phrases. They believe that target audiences are less likely to feel influenced by subliminal messages than bold, direct commands and that they're also more likely to think of subtle, cultivated messages as their own ideas.