We First: How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)
David A. Aaker
Brand Relevance: Making Competitors Irrelevant
The Thank You Economy
(Harper Business, 2011)
At first glance, the three best business books of 2011 on marketing seem to go in very different directions. However, they do share one trait: They pay only lip service to marketing. A couple of decades ago that might have disqualified them from consideration, but these days, a surprising number of marketing books aren’t all that high on marketing.
Most of those books’ authors say that marketing, as it’s been practiced since the dawn of paid media, doesn’t really get to the heart of the challenges that brands face today. In fact, although it’s still true that most major marketers spend tons of money on advertising — U.S. advertisers spent about US$9 billion in this year’s network TV “up-front” — the references these books make to advertisements, if they appear at all, are almost entirely incidental.
The real action is in the much tougher arena of rethinking the companies that sell the brands. So, in We First: How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World, brand consultant Simon Mainwaring ponders the role of the corporation in addressing the world’s ills, tackling such topics as charitable giving, environmentalism, and sustainability. In Brand Relevance: Making Competitors Irrelevant, David A. Aaker, professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, looks at how companies can build brands that aren’t just new and improved, but unequaled. And in The Thank You Economy, wine-selling social media guru Gary Vaynerchuk advocates that marketers build a culture in which “good intent” is paramount. In each case, the authors emphasize that making these things happen requires fundamental shifts in corporate culture, not just marketing window dressing.
Yes, marketing is no longer about simple brand repositioning, but about corporate reinvention. Thus, it’s more than coincidence that all three books have something else in common: They chastise marketers about their focus on the short term at the expense of the long term — not surprising given that the kind of corporate reinvention these authors describe could take years, courage, and, in many cases, substantial investment. And not just in the marketing budget.
We First is that rare marketing book that is truly visionary. It is also sure to be controversial, because Simon Mainwaring takes trends such as green marketing, cause marketing, and corporate social responsibility and pushes them to their farthest extreme, urging corporations to stop pursuing profit for profit’s sake and instead refocus their efforts on pursuing profit by benefiting the world. (This, of course, flies in the face of one of the basic beliefs of certain economists, perhaps summed up most succinctly in Milton Friedman’s provocative 1970 essay titled “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits.”)
If it sounds like Mainwaring is making a plea for environmental sustainability, that’s just the tip of his very large iceberg. He is also questioning whether it’s time for corporations to rethink employee compensation, including that of the CEO, to reconsider the impact of using tax havens to shield profits, and even to think about how they might help put shoes on children in poor countries, as Toms Shoes has done with its “One for One” program.
Mainwaring is calling for a “We First” economy (an interesting bit of branding given that it is also the name of his consulting firm), and he proposes it as a response to Bill Gates’s call for “creative capitalism” at the 2008 World Economic Forum. Unlike the current economy, the We First economy “is a comprehensive system of mindful consumerism in which every single transaction for products and services would include a contribution toward building a better world,” writes Mainwaring. “Profit for profit’s sake is a mindset that drives too many investors, businesses, and corporations to neglect three critical issues that We First capitalism seeks to change: one, the methods of producing profits; two, the consequences of profits, and three, the social implications of profits.”