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Best Business Books 2020: Marketing

Paying attention to humans

Rishad Tobaccowala
Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data (HarperCollins Leadership, 2020)

Micah Solomon
Ignore Your Customers (and They’ll Go Away): The Simple Playbook for Delivering the Ultimate Customer Service Experience (HarperCollins Leadership, 2020)

Neal Schaffer
The Age of Influence: The Power of Influencers to Elevate Your Brand (HarperCollins Leadership, 2020

Human beings — perhaps you remember them? Those carbon-based members of the species Homo sapiens that ruled earth before machines and data took charge, who created entire civilizations along with the enterprises, inventions, and innovations that kept them humming? In the information age, countless studies, books, and magazine articles have attempted to put the focus back on the human factor. Their authors argue that data and machines are not the be-all and end-all, do not always know best, and often fail — sometimes spectacularly — to represent reality.

People happen to play a key role in the year’s three best business books about marketing, and are the central players in the best of them, Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data, by Rishad Tobaccowala. Tobaccowala, the longtime chief growth officer of the global advertising and communications company Publicis Groupe, is one of the most trusted authorities on digital media. And he makes as thoroughly documented a case as I have come across for why the businesses that thrive are those whose leaders know that what made them great is their human resources. Tobaccowala singles out mighty customer- and user-focused corporations — Walmart, Starbucks, Domino’s, Google — that have “successfully reoriented their thinking on how to fuse technology and humanity,” while he warns of “data-blinded companies” that stumble when they do not correct such matters as “stifled employees [who are] not encouraged to contribute ideas or insights” and “poor customer service due to automated, robotic processes that cause frustration and hurt the brand.”

Human good, machine bad. Such arguments have been presented before. But what makes Tobaccowala’s book so compelling (aside from his natural flair for language and obvious storytelling talents) is that he is no Luddite longing for the days of analog. In fact, he is as data oriented as they come, having played a major role in the founding of some of the very first digital marketing agencies. “I am obviously someone who believes in digital change,” he writes. “Not so obviously, I also believe in the power of people to make transformation work. As much as I value data, devices, and software, I value empathy, innovation, and relationships.”

There is no escaping the fact that data dominates much of the thinking and decision-making in brand marketing now and will continue to do so. In 2020, companies are projected to invest US$203 billion in data analytics, up from $130 billion in 2016. But, the author argues, statistics mean precious little without people. “We must recognize that human judgment and intuition are often necessary to perceive data’s true significance,” he writes. Or, as he suggests in so many words elsewhere in the book: Kill the spreadsheet mentality.

Name another book about business (or any other subject) that in one breath urges the reader to acknowledge ‘the turd on the table’ in the boardroom and references François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Joan Didion in the next.

Restoring the Soul of Business, I kept thinking as I read it, is part Ken Auletta (the New Yorker media critic who, as it happens, authored the foreword), part Deepak Chopra. As detailed and all-business as Tobaccowala is, and as soberly and expertly as he makes his case here, it would be unimaginable to ruminate, at book length no less, on a subject like the importance of humanity without sounding at times like something out of the Up with People program. (One chapter is titled “How to Lead with Soul.”)

Aside from its numerous how-to lists, the book is filled with helpful case studies of companies that have mastered the fusion of data-based marketing and business management with human relationships. Netflix, for instance, empowered its employees to use common sense and the human desire to do the right thing when it came to managing paperwork, instead of relying on traditional, data-based actions. For example, the company instituted an honor system that allowed individual employees to manage their own vacation time and to file business travel expenses in a less onerous way. Employees were given a simple guide: “Act in Netflix’s best interests.” Tobaccowala writes: “Freed from the reporting requirements and strict parameters that most employees resent, they relish their cultures and find more meaning in them.”

A smart and worldly man, Tobaccowala has produced a deeply informed book about brand marketing, data science, and humanity that is a remarkably lively read. Name another book about business (or any other subject) that in one breath urges the reader to acknowledge “the turd on the table” in the boardroom and references François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Joan Didion in the next.

At your service

In an age of algorithms and impersonal transactions, customer service often seems like a quaint feature of commerce, gone the way of the gourmet in-flight meal, the department store gift-wrap stand, and full-service filling stations. Micah Solomon, a leading expert on company culture and the customer experience, heartily disagrees with this trend. In his book Ignore Your Customers (and They’ll Go Away): The Simple Playbook for Delivering the Ultimate Customer Service Experience, Solomon convincingly argues that delivering world-class customer service is not only possible for businesses today, but essential.

Solomon provides a steady clip of success stories via brands including Zappos, Olive Garden, JetBlue, Tumi, Starbucks, Safelite, Nordstrom, Ritz-Carlton, Warby Parker, Whole Foods, and the Cleveland Clinic. Some of the stories are already legend — like the one about the Zappos call center agent who stayed on the phone for more than 10 hours with a customer seeking a pair of Ugg boots. Naturally, most of us could never expect that level of service from a company today. But the extremes are not the point. As Solomon explains: “Although talking with a customer for ten straight hours is indefensible by traditional call center logic (where a call is supposed to only take five to eight minutes), it makes business sense if you think of the ten-hour phone call as a flag that Zappos has hoisted high in the air to illustrate to its employees just how far they should be ready to go to make an emotional connection with a customer.” And that flag was seen far beyond Zappos’s own ranks. Late-night host Jimmy Fallon did a sketch based on it. This admittedly unusual customer interaction wound up delivering media attention and marketing benefits worth many times the cost of one epic phone call.

Solomon defines exemplary customer service as that which employs the “wow” factor. “Anytime someone tells you that wow customer service is too expensive, ask them how much they paid on their marketing and sales efforts last year,” Solomon writes. “Creating an emotional connection with your customers is the most direct route to getting your customers to do your marketing for you.” To work, however, it must be employed at every level of an organization. Again, it’s the perceived investment that turns so many bosses off. But as Solomon contends, “The reality is that winning and retaining customers this way is one of the only true bargains around, because of the word of mouth it inspires.” He estimates that 93 percent of consumers base their decisions in whole or in part on word-of-mouth recommendations — a staggering but altogether plausible figure in a social media–fixated world. It is, after all, the same environment in which businesses have become equally enthralled with Net Promoter Scores, a basic measurement of customer sentiment that quantifies word-of-mouth recommendations — the cheapest, most effective form of marketing. (Fortune reported in 2020 that two-thirds of the Fortune 1000 now use the measurement.)

The author spends a lot of time on Ritz-Carlton when discussing the wow factor, and yet, he stresses, the standard is as sensible and as employable at the corner shop as at a luxury hotel chain. Examples of “wow” at the hotel chain range from the practical (a special menu prepared by the kitchen each day for a chronically allergic child) to the fantastical (a hobbit-themed birthday party for a Tolkien-obsessed guest). Such “wow” stories are disseminated every week throughout the company “to inspire other employees to find ways to do something similarly memorable for their own guests,” Solomon writes.

Aside from its many case studies, this impeccably organized book is rich with how-to lists sporting irresistible titles such as “How to Build Automatic Positivity,” “How to Find the Right People, and How to Stop Finding the Wrong Ones,” and “Five Steps Toward Creating a Customer Service Culture.” Each of the 10 chapters — which include “Building a Backbone to Support the Smiles” and, my favorite, “Stepford Customer Service” — ends with a helpful, bullet-pointed recap and a series of questions for discussion groups. An example, from chapter 5, “The Experience Means Everything”: “One way to think of the customer experience is as a movie put on for the benefit of customers. Whether or not we use this metaphor in our organization, do we pay sufficient attention to pacing, staging, lighting, and other soft, dramatic details of the customer experience? Would there be value for us in doing so?” What a powerful exercise, I thought, for a company looking to up its game — whether the group happens to meet in person or via Zoom.

The influence agenda

When it comes to consumerism, there are two kinds of people in the world today: those who influence and those who are being influenced. It has become nearly impossible in a social media–centric culture to escape the all-powerful social media influencers — those celebrities, fashionistas, foodies, makeup artists, and other enthusiasts who populate our favorite feeds. They have become a marketer’s best friend and not-so-secret weapon. From boldface names such as Selena Gomez and Cristiano Ronaldo to Internet personalities such as filmmaker Zach King and foodie Mariam “Cookin’ with Mima” Ezzeddine, influencers are the advertising pitchmen and pitchwomen of our time. Influencer marketing is the hottest category for businesses seeking to achieve maximum brand impact at optimal ROI.

The influencer market is on track to reach $15 billion by 2022, up from $8 billion in 2019, according to an analysis by Business Insider; about four in five brands now employ Instagram and nearly half utilize Facebook for influencer campaigns. So move over, Maytag repairman and Flo from Progressive — it’s Kylie Jenner’s game now.

In The Age of Influence: The Power of Influencers to Elevate Your Brand, social media expert Neal Schaffer has produced a definitive guide for businesses large and small seeking to tap those influencers best positioned to boost their company’s visibility, customer affinity, and sales. In this thorough volume, Schaffer describes how influencer marketing has become a global phenomenon, noting that in China, revenues generated from influencers are 30 times greater than in Europe, and half of the top 10 fashion brands on the leading shopping site Taobao were launched by influencers. And he reveals the best practices for creating successful, on-brand, long-term collaborations with seasoned spokespeople. (“It’s a marriage, not a one-night stand,” Schaffer explains.)

The author stipulates up front that this book is not about developing an individual brand but, rather, “engaging the voices of influencers — ‘leveraging the other’ as I call it — to spread your message.… It is about returning to the original premise of engaging in social media: Inciting word-of-mouth conversations about your brand.” And though influencers may specialize in short-form, evanescent content, The Age of Influence is a rigorously sourced guide for any business that has yet to get its arms around the often intimidating beast that is influencer marketing.

Before describing how to design a solid influencer strategy from the ground up, Schaffer explains how we arrived at the age of the influencer, a trend inextricably linked to consumers’ growing interaction with and dependence on social media. He goes on to meticulously lay out the “new rules” of organic social media marketing, the methods and tools by which a business can grow its social media presence at scale, and how to confront the almighty algorithm.

Schaffer details the emergence of the “visual voice” in social campaigns, the struggle that brands often have finding theirs, and creative solutions marketers can employ by partnering with influencers. The author pithily notes: “People tell stories that brands can’t.” The numerous case studies include Nordstrom, Target, the Hawaii Tourism Bureau, and the Salvation Army. He notes how some companies have even tapped their own employees as influencers, with winning results. Cathay Pacific Airways came to realize that its team members, being the most expert travelers around, were perfectly aligned with the company’s brand values and its marketing mission. In another example, nutrition brand GNC engaged with targets who were new to health and fitness and who were turned off by the jargon of the “gym rat” by enlisting influencers to speak in more welcoming language.

Schaffer expertly dissects the influencer landscape, explaining the different types and levels of brand emissaries — from celebrities with their built-in legions of followers to nano-influencers with a relative handful of fans. Bigger isn’t always better, as social media accounts with smaller followings often have a more engaged audience than larger ones.

Another chapter, “16 Different Ways to Collaborate with Influencers,” addresses affiliate marketing, content creation and sourcing, event coverage, sweepstakes, and more. With an eye on the future, Schaffer explains how artificial intelligence is poised to revolutionize the influencer marketing space.

Despite the power and ubiquity of technology, it’s clear that the influencer game, though often shallow, is a profoundly human one, for it revolves around the idea that people listen to and value the opinions of other people. And perhaps that’s the biggest takeaway from this trio of books. Whether it is in urging a restoration of soul to business or making a plea to recognize that customer service entails understanding and meeting human needs, today’s smart marketers grasp that great business ideas start with people and work through technology.

Author profile:

  • Tony Case is a journalist who has written extensively about media and brand marketing for more than two decades. His work has been featured in publications including Ad Age, Adweek, and Variety, and he has appeared as a marketing expert on programs such as ABC’s Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, and CNBC’s Squawk Box.
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