Imust confess that I picked up this book with an acute sense of apprehension. The cover compared it with Who Moved My Cheese and the blurbs suggested it was a sort of “branding for hard-boiled idiots” manual that halfwits write because they cannot understand anything more complex than their annual sales targets. It reeked of a return to the “good old days when we sold hard and swore long” school of marketing.
I was wrong. Not entirely but, as Jawaharlal Nehru would say, “very substantially”. For one, the book uses the interesting device of fiction—the treatise is presented through the eyes of Bob Jones, who leaves the sales department of Simpton’s Sausages to do a one-year stint in brand management. This makes the book easy to get through. The branding lessons are woven into the narrative and are easy to absorb. More importantly, while the author does go on a tirade against the mystical excesses of branding, his own view is a largely sensible one, albeit a trifle simplistic.
Where’s the Sausage?
David J. Taylor, advertising expert and best-selling author, begins the story with Bob Jones coming into the brand management function and discovering that all his fears about branding—a combination of hot air and pretentious posturing (gleaned from a failed attempt at reading Jean Noel Kapferer, according to a thinly veiled allusion)—coming true. The company is straying from its core sausage competence into the airy world of lifestyle pizzas. The head of marketing is a moron, given to conducting lengthy seminars using arcane tools such as brand pyramids and pronouncing things “simply simpsational” without feeling any embarrassment whatsoever. He is aided and abetted in his efforts by his subordinates and agencies and backed by the new regime at the company, which has recently taken over after old Mr Simpton retired. Everything old is jettisoned, and a bold new direction is awaited.
Armed with common sense and off-the-shelf examples, Bob stumbles along the path of branding nirvana. He starts off by going back to the core competence of the company, the sausage, and re-examining the product. In this he is helped by Simpton and some old hands in the company sidelined by the new regime, and infuses life back into the core offering of the company. He discards the language of his boss and opts for insights based on observation and common sense, and involves key stakeholders in the company, creating a sense of shared ownership in the brand.
Bob then approaches a small advertising agency (that’s not in love with itself) and creates a campaign, similar to those more prevalent these days, that is not based on the 30-second commercial. In short, he rescues the company from disaster. His boss meets his comeuppance, the old owner comes out of retirement and ends up becoming the head of marketing. Along the way, he’s passionately kissed by one of his female colleagues who is unable to resist his simple charms.
The story is pure hokum: The characters are stereotyped, the plot thinner than a copywriter’s imagination and the language utterly functional. Taylor is well advised not to pursue fiction in any form as a career. But the device still works. The lessons in branding—such as brands are rooted in motivating ideas, insight comes from immersion in real life and the brand expresses itself through everything it does, beginning with the product, and not merely by what it says it will do—are all well taken. The examples are simple and pointed, and serve to illustrate the thesis quite well. The bits about branding are written with clarity and precision.
Yet, one wishes that the author had not made his job so easy for himself by painting the counterpoint in such vividly ridiculous colours that his prescriptions seem brilliant by contrast. The caricaturizing of the other school of branding robs the book of any real conceptual merit. His critique is rooted in some truths, but his representation is too frivolous to deserve a real conversation on the subject. But then this is a book, by its own admission, aimed at beginners in the field. In that case it speaks to its audience rather well. Even to the more advanced reader its lessons serve to underline today’s mainstream wisdom.
The only people who will have trouble reading this book are those who are sensitive about the kind of fiction they read. Seen through that filter, this is an embarrassingly bad book. But as books on marketing go, it is highly readable.
Santosh Desai is chief executive officer and managing director of Future Brands.
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