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.”
Yes, that shouting you hear in the background is coming from people at a certain end of the political spectrum, crying: “Socialist!” (Or maybe even “Communist!”) But to jump to that conclusion about Mainwaring, and his book, would be to fundamentally misunderstand what he’s talking about. A former creative director at Ogilvy & Mather on the Motorola account, and also on the Nike account at the revered ad agency Wieden + Kennedy, Mainwaring hasn’t abandoned capitalism. Instead, he contends that a We First approach is needed to save capitalism, if for no other reason than that humanity is consuming the earth’s resources faster than they can be regenerated. Rethinking compensation, as another example, is not about redistributing wealth but making sure that people have money to buy things. “The basis for this principle is less a moral argument than an economic reality: without a reasonably prosperous middle class in any society, the engine of capitalism falters,” asserts Mainwaring.
Fortunately, once Mainwaring abandons some of the preachiness that occasionally drags down We First, he offers plenty of examples of companies that are already practicing We First capitalism. Like many other observers, he lauds Wal-Mart Stores Inc. for embracing rigorous environmental values — such as using 100 percent renewable energy — and pushing those standards down through its vast supply chain. But the retailer’s environmental initiatives mean it is meeting the mark on only one of Mainwaring’s five domains of sustainability. His broad definition of the term also encompasses economic, moral, ethical, and social values. To meet those standards, Walmart would have to, among other things, pay its associates more and offer them more reasonably priced health benefits.
By now, you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with marketing, or with the social media–driven consumers referred to in the book’s subtitle. Mainwaring says that We First capitalism is what they demand. In reaching this conclusion, he relies heavily on the 2009 “goodpurpose” survey from public relations firm Edelman. According to the survey results, 83 percent of consumers are willing to change how they consume to make the world better and 64 percent wouldn’t mind recommending brands that support good causes. If that’s the case, the role of social media is an obvious amplifier of word of mouth.
But Mainwaring’s bigger point about social media lies in how consumers are using it to push companies toward more responsible practices. Consumers and Greenpeace, he explains, successfully used social channels to pressure Nestlé and Cadbury to stop buying palm oil — a key ingredient in chocolate bars — from suppliers that were involved in deforestation. When the initial actions taken by the two companies weren’t enough, social media helped push both of them further. Although Nestlé and Cadbury were playing defense in this case, it’s easy to see how a company could proactively change its practices to better align with the We First philosophy and use that as a marketing differentiator.
The vision presented in We First is huge and probably too idealistic for most companies to fully implement. But that doesn’t matter. It’s the best marketing book of the year because anyone who reads it will begin to question how his or her company does business, and that’s the initial step to change.
Brand Power Redefined
The first thing a reader notices about Brand Relevance is how many of today’s power brands have already made good on its central concept: Brand preference has long ceased to be a powerful driver of marketing success. Brand success, therefore, requires something more. That something, according to David Aaker, now vice chairman of Prophet, a marketing consulting firm, “is to redefine the market in such a way that the competitor is irrelevant or less relevant, possibly by making the competitor’s strengths actually become weaknesses.” This requires creating brand relevance by carving out a new category or subcategory for your offering that has these key characteristics: a weak or nonexistent competitor set, a distinctive definition, a value proposition, a loyal customer base, and, perhaps most importantly, barriers to competition.
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.
Vaynerchuk’s book is as conversational as his various feeds. Explaining the now-famous Old Spice Man social media campaign, in which former NFL player Isaiah Mustafa interacted directly via social media channels with individual people, he enthuses: “With this campaign, Procter & Gamble…showed the world how a brand can play a kick-ass game of media Ping-Pong.” (More on what he thought were the campaign’s shortcomings in a minute.)
So what is the Thank You Economy? It’s today’s consumer-driven, social media–enabled economy, in which Vaynerchuk declares, “Only the companies that can figure out how to mind their manners in a very old-fashioned way — and do it authentically — are going to have a prayer of competing.”
Whereas We First argues that consumers are demanding more accountability from corporations in how they operate within the world at large, Vaynerchuk turns the premise inward. No matter how large the business, he says, companies can and should delight individual customers, who are becoming ever more discerning about how corporations should treat them. Drawing from his own experience, he asks: “How else do you think I outsell Costco locally and Wine.com nationally?… The real success of Wine Library wasn’t due to the videos I posted, but to the hours I spent talking to people online afterward, making connections and building relationships.”
Which points directly to Vaynerchuk’s disappointment with the Old Spice Man campaign, even though it is viewed in the ad industry as one of the most successful social media campaigns to date. As far as the Thank You Economy is concerned, he says P&G dropped the ball because the brand didn’t use its new following in social channels to build an ongoing dialogue. “Every one of those people should have received an email, thanking the followers for watching the videos and offering them a reason to keep checking in,” Vaynerchuk says. He’s right. If building long-term relationships is the key to sustaining a brand, than P&G missed a major opportunity. “They turned what had all the markings of a superb social media campaign into a one-shot tactic,” he complains.
In fact, although The Thank You Economy is full of anecdotes about how brands delight customers using tactics, Vaynerchuk goes to great lengths to explain that tactics work only as part of an ongoing engagement, an engagement that has to be more than superficial. As Aaker says in Brand Relevance, in order to differentiate a brand or a company, the employees have to live it.
For Vaynerchuk, that comes down to intent: “If you’ve ever considered embarking on a social media campaign, or even tried an initiative or two, what was your intent? Was your goal to get someone to click through or click the ‘Like’ button? Or was it to build your online identity and foster a connection between yourself and the consumer?” You know the right answer.
Vaynerchuk’s book is full of commonsense advice, but it has a big flaw: It promises that building individual customer connections is scalable, but it doesn’t really explain how the biggest brands can build those connections. It could have used more case studies involving a Ford, or a Microsoft, or a Kraft. That said, Vaynerchuk is inspirational. We First and Brand Relevance are food for thought, but The Thank You Economy is food for the soul of marketers who aim to build long-term relationships with their customers.
In a world cluttered with brands and the media they support, traditional ways of messaging and targeting just aren’t getting the job done. And throwing money at the problem isn’t working. But as this year’s best marketing books show, companies can succeed if they market their brands in other ways — through the “media” of buzz-worthy products, excellent consumer experiences, and outstanding customer service. Since that’s the case, these books contend, it’s time to reframe the discipline and move forward.
- Catharine P. Taylor has covered advertising and marketing for more than 20 years, focusing on the impact of digital media since 1994 and writing for publications including Adweek, Advertising Age, and Wired. Founder of Adweek’s AdFreak blog, she currently posts about advertising on her own blog, Adverganza.com; writes the weekly Social Media Insider column for Mediapost; and is a frequent speaker on the impact of social media on advertising, media, and behavior.