Don’t Deprive the World of Your Ideas: Four Books

It’s difficult for me to even think about marketing or branding without thinking about Scott Belsky. His Making Ideas Happen (Portfolio, 2010) and the whole 99%/Bēhance/Action Method is as close to a working system for this stuff as I’ve seen. Belsky says to identify your differentiating attributes and emphasize them. Doug Rushkoff once told me to give people something they can’t get anywhere else, and Howard Bloom once said that if you’re not actively marketing yourself, then you’re depriving the world of your ideas. This is how you stand out without a doubt.

Besides Belsky’s, I have come across four other recent books on the topic of self-promotion and breaking through the cluttered airwaves. Even the airwaves specific to this topic are noisy, so if my reviews seem cavalier, it’s because I only want to give you a general sense of each of these books. If one piques your interest, I highly recommend checking it out.

On the very first page of his book Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business (FT Press, 2010), Luke Williams cosigns the statements above, but makes strong qualifications thereof. “Novelty for novelty’s sake” is a resource killer, and customers seek the familiar. Differentiating yourself is one thing, being different is entirely another. It’s not about differentiating, it’s about disrupting. “Differentiate all you want,” Williams writes, “but figure out a way to be the only one who does what you do, or die” (p. 2). The full “Disruptive Thinking” plan is more complex than that, of course, but that’s its most basic premise. Williams is a Fellow at frog design and an Adjunct Professor of Innovation at NYU Stern School of Business, so this stuff is his stuff. His book deserves to be at the top of this list.

I’m trying to change the world before I change my mind.
Pete Miser

The subtitle of The Dragonfly Effect by Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith with Carlye Adler (Jossey-Bass, 2010) reads “Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change,” but before you scroll to the next book, hear me out. Aaker, Smith, and Adler have put together a crash course in achieving the ever-elusive just noticeable difference for your big ideas.

A dragonfly has four wings, and the dragonfly effect has four skills: focus, grab attention, engage, take action. Their first case study (Team Sameer and Team Vinay) yields the following list. Some of these should sound familiar (these are from How to Do Something Seismic–and Create a Movement by Robert Chatwani):

  1. Stay focused; develop a single goal.
  2. Tell your story.
  3. Act, then think.
  4. Design for collaboration.
  5. Employ empowerment marketing.
  6. Measure one metric.
  7. Try, fail, try again, succeed.
  8. Don’t ask for help; require it.

I love these, and that last one, seemingly counterintuitive, is quite brilliant. And there are hundereds more in here. The Dragonfly Effect is a solid system for success in our media-saturated times.

If you’re more interested in starting a movement, a campaign that focuses more on people and passion than products and projects, then Brains on Fire by Robbin Phillips, Greg Cordell, Geno Church, and Spike Jones (J. Wiley, 2010) is the book for you. These authors aren’t writing about product launches and opting-in. They’re writing about conversations and engagement. The clutetrain might be still making the rounds, but these folks are taking it to new stations. And now that the technology has caught up with the ideas, so can you.

“Markets are conversations,” stated The Cluetrain Manifesto (Perseus Books, 1999), and conversations are where movements start. Participation does not equal engagement, but Brains on Fire employs eleven lessons in getting from the former to the latter. From “Movements Start with the First Conversation” (Lesson 2) and “Movements Empower People with Knowledge” (Lesson 5), to “Movements Have Shared Ownership” (Lesson 6) and “Movements get Results” (Lesson 10), this book is as fun as it is fearless.

I found out about Brains on Fire from Scott Stratten, fellow Geekend 2010 speaker and author of Unmarketing: Stop Marketing. Start Engaging (J. Wiley, 2009). Unlike some of the authors above, Stratten tackles more traditional marketing tactics (e.g., cold calling) in less traditional ways (e.g., giving things away). He also often tries too hard to be funny. That, along with the traditional marketing buzzwords found throughout the book, make it difficult to take some of this stuff seriously. Reading this, I often got the feeling he wasn’t talking to me.

With that said, Stratten’s ideas are good. If you’re looking for a quick guide (the chapters herein are very short, easy to read one or two in just a few minutes) on how it’s done now, Unmarketing is a damn good start.

Getting focused, truly differentiating yourself or your campaign not just for differentiation’s sake, involving and engaging your audience, and being as open and transparent as possible are not just suggestions for success, they are how it’s done now. These four books (along with Scott Belsky’s Making Ideas Happen and the ever-relevant Cluetrain Manifesto) are a crash curriculum in current marketing and spreading ideas. Don’t deprive the world of yours. Get them out there.

Decisions, decisions…

In my part-time alternate life as a consultant, I have often pondered why a person chooses to buy a Billabong sweatshirt as opposed to a Quiksilver one. The choice is not an obvious one. The products themselves are essentially the same. The name is the only real difference. The gradient between one and the other is an infinitesimal pattern of grey, yet the decision — and millions more exactly like it — happen everyday.

Jonah Lehrer has emerged over the past few years as neuroscience’s strongest and most interesting voice. His Proust Was a Neuroscientist (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007) is as smart and fun a mix of the Two Cultures as you’re likely to find. With his spot as Seed Magazine‘s Editor at Large and a contributing editor gig at Wired, Lehrer is poised and positioned to inform the public about brain science like few others ever have been.

How We DecideWith How We Decide (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), Lehrer turns his attention to the marketplace and how our brain power influences our buying power. Peter Merholz wrote that it was clear that Lehrer had “attended the Gladwell school of non-fiction writing, anchoring his facts in stories.” Maybe it was a compliment, but having recently read Gladwell’s latest book (the sometimes quite interesting but ultimately nearly pointless Outliers), I prefer Lehrer’s prose. It’s clear, concise, and lyrical, and at least I know there’s some science behind it.

The traditional wisdom says that we make important decisions by relying on the rationality of the logical brain to override the “animal stuff” (as Howard Bloom calls it) of our emotions and instinctual drives. In How We Decide, Lehrer contends that the process is a bit more nuanced than that. It’s a subtle dance, a process of bend and blend that depends on the situation. Well, it’s not quite that simple either, but Lehrer’s book often makes it all seem so. It ends with a “taxonomy of decision-making,” which helpfully applies many of the book’s anecdotal dilemmas to practical, real-world situations.

SpentComing to the brain and purchasing decisions from a different angle, Geoffrey Miller’s Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Customer Behavior (Viking, 2009) argues that it’s all just so many peacock feathers. Miller is an evolutionary psychologist, so his lens is longer than Lehrer’s, but doesn’t mean he sees the situation any clearer or in higher relief. Like Lehrer, he writes to be read, but where Lehrer’s prose is positive, Miller’s negativity seeps into his sentences. His wit is by turns playful and biting, veiling and betraying a deep-seated cynicism toward the consumer capitalism he’s analyzing.

Miller writes like he’s the first academic to discover the field of marketing, as if Stewart Ewen, Douglas Rushkoff, and Marshall McLuhan (!), among many, many others hadn’t already upturned similar soil. In addition, his arguments smack of psychoanalytic reasoning (i.e., many of our purchasing decisions are driven by the libido and thereby illustrate material sublimation, many others are driven by narcissism, etc.) dressed up in evolutionary garb: We buy stuff to advertise our potential to each other as possible mates, sexual and Platonic. It’s certainly not all bad or bland though. Miller’s idea of “fitness faking” (about which I’ve written before) makes a brief appearance, and his “Exercises for the Reader” (similar to Lehrer’s concluding taxonomy) are a nice touch of pragmatism more science books could use.

After having read both of these books, I don’t feel any closer to understanding the Billabong/Quiksilver dilemma, but as Miller writes on the very first page of Spent, echoing McLuhan, “consumerism is hard to describe when it’s the ocean and we’re the plankton.”

I Want That! by Thomas Hine

Columbus killed more Indians than Hitler did Jews, but on his birthday you get sales on shoes — The Goats

What at first might seem mundane subject matter is made illuminating and interesting by Thomas Hine’s engaging narrative, personal and historical examples, and downright deep digging. Excavating our culture of consumption from the perspectives of power, responsibility, discovery, self-expression, insecurity, attention, belonging, celebration, and convenience, Hine unearths the desires and rituals that have made us all shoppers in one sense or another. In the spirit of the quote above, I Want That! (HarperCollins) points out the fact that we “mix up reverence with consumption.” Our every holiday is tied to purchases and a subsequent sale of some sort. Continue reading “I Want That! by Thomas Hine”

Gonzo Marketing by Christopher Locke

To bring humor to a topic requires mastery beyond that of a mere expert. In Gonzo Marketing: Winning through Worst Practices (Perseus Publishing), Christopher Locke exhibits a lot of things, but most of all, his hilarious wit shines bright over the often drab concepts of business. His mastery is not of how business is done best, but how it’s done worst. Continue reading “Gonzo Marketing by Christopher Locke”

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

Journalist Malcolm Gladwell has put together what is easily one of the most readable books about social phenomena out right now. Borrowing by analogy from epidemiology, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Little Brown & Company) is a clear, concise analysis of social epidemics and why they “tip” (“The Tipping Point” is the name given to the moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass). Gladwell says, “If you talk to the people who study epidemics – epidemiologists – you realize that they have a strikingly different way of looking at the world. They don’t share the assumptions the rest of us have about how and why change happens.” Continue reading “The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell”