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 / Winter 2011 / Issue 65(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2011: Marketing

In defining the characteristics that enable some brands to surge past others, Aaker brings an academic’s eye to the question of why some brands transcend their markets, and the result is a book thick with examples and lessons. One of the prime examples that Aaker uses to describe brand relevance is, of course, Apple Inc., particularly its roster of “i” products. Not only are they great products in and of themselves, he writes, but they also create substantial barriers to entry that keep other brands from competing directly. Nowadays, there are plenty of smartphones besides the iPhone, MP3 players besides the iPod, and tablets besides the iPad, but Apple’s products are also part of the larger iTunes ecosystem of audio, video, and apps. That’s quite a barrier. As Aaker points out, each Apple innovation also builds on existing ones, to make the company a “moving target,” which is a core component of ensuring that a brand is continually relevant.

Aaker also writes extensively about other breakout brands, such as Toyota’s Prius, but many of his example products are decidedly more prosaic. If you market toothpaste, you will be able to read this book and get ideas for how to break out of the mold. (In fact, Aaker devotes specific attention to the toothpaste category.)

Additionally, the book offers a comprehensive look at the kinds of factors that can make a brand relevant, which sometimes means looking at an established category such as car rentals in an entirely new way. Aaker cites Zipcar Inc., whose founders recognized that sharing a car makes more sense than owning one for some people, as probably the brightest example of the brand relevance concept.

Started in 2000 in Boston, Zipcar had 350,000 members and 6,500 vehicles by 2010, focused mainly in urban centers and on college campuses. Members can reserve cars minutes before they need them, anytime, day or night. Although Aaker points out that the rest of the industry has responded by developing “more flexible” ways to rent, Zipcar has maintained its relevance not only because of its service, but because “rather than being about renting cars, [Zipcar is] about urban life and the freedom of not owning and maintaining a car but still having access to one. In that spirit it provides a way to cope with urban living in a fun, upbeat, and environmentally sensitive way.” It’s hard to see how an Avis or a Hertz could capture the same magic, even if it had programs that offered identical benefits.

Other ways that brands can be relevant include providing a unique customer experience (Starbucks), being a brand that offers “over-the-top service” (Zappos), and, in an unintended tip of the hat to We First, aligning themselves with some greater good.

It’s clear from these examples that the ability to make brands relevant involves much more than the marketing department. Thus, Aaker devotes the book’s last chapter to dissecting cultures of innovation, such as General Electric’s. Among other initiatives, the company inaugurated an Imagination Breakthrough program in 2003, which charges every GE business with proposing new products and services that could make $100 million within three to five years. “The rude fact is that not all organizations allow ideas to emerge, nurture those ideas, and implement them in the marketplace,” he explains. Brand relevance may be a relatively simple concept; building it is not.

Mind Your Manners

If you decide to read all three of this year’s best marketing books, Gary Vaynerchuk’s The Thank You Economy would be a good palate cleanser between We First and Brand Relevance. The other two books can be ponderous at times, but this book is anything but — as befits something written by a self-made social media superstar. Vaynerchuk’s personal Twitter account, @garyvee, has almost 900,000 followers. The charismatic Vaynerchuk also has the requisite YouTube channel, made 1,000 video posts on his now-inactive Wine Library TV blog, and is a frequent and popular speaker at digital conferences.

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