April 11, 2009

Book Review: Branding Only Works On Cattle

This book on branding is a peculiar animal.

Argumentative, poorly organised and with a distracting number of typing errors, it makes for a difficult read. Which is a real pity because author Jonathan Salem Baskin has a number of very useful things to say about the world of branding. But he’s the annoying boy in class, the show-off who’s so determined to make the rest of us sit up and listen that we’re in danger in missing out on many of the sharper observations he has to offer.

Baskin begins by announcing a shift in the world of branding, a new heresy to the established orthodoxy, and declares himself its high priest. However, for much of the early part of the book, it seems that the orthodoxy he’s challenging is ‘advertising-as-branding’ as practised by large agencies, rather than branding itself, which can distract from the value of much of what he has to say.

But the real challenge is his assertion, repeated throughout, that his represents a brave new world of thinking. I’m not so certain that much of his thinking is new; it’s just that those who ply their trade in the great shop-windows of the world largely ignore it. For many business-owners, much of what Baskin has to write will seem common sense.

After dismissing most of what passes for branding as useless (aha! he thought that might get your attention), Baskin proposes a new behaviour-based model instead. He argues that most branding activity is geared towards achieving results that have little to do with sales and suggests that, “corporations ask nothing of branding other than glorified name recognition”.

He accuses branding professionals of failing to distinguish between communications success and commercial failure and of resisting the only measures that truly matter for branding: behaviours that lead to sales. For Baskin, “the starting point of branding, should be the end-point of your business strategy: selling stuff”. This makes great sense, but it’s hardly new.

What is more novel is Baskin’s suggestion that “maybe branding is a structural approach to the enterprise as a sustainable, adaptable one-room branding and marketing machine”. He goes on to liken the successful brand to a swarm of bees or hive of ants “consciously alert and buzzing with behaviours”.

Now this is very interesting stuff indeed. Because he sees branding as being based around a series of events that make or break the enterprise, Baskin suggests that brands must adapt to the experiences of their customers in the same way that certain insects respond to changes in their environment. Apparently, bees and ants don’t communicate in a ‘let me tell you what I’ve just learned’ sort of way; instead, they react to the behaviours of others in their group and adapt their own behaviours accordingly. Baskin says that brand-managers must move beyond telling their customers what to think and behave instead in ways that lead to measurable outcomes.

Baskin then produces his trump card and suggests that the best way in which to interact with customers through the brand is to adopt the models used by the gamers who make and play alternative reality games. These game-plans have five elements that he thinks are relevant to brand management: Goals (or payoff), Context, Narrative Flow, Tools and Winners & Losers. He believes that successful companies are already using these one way or another and argues that for them “branding is experience, and the behaviours look a lot more like playing a game than engaging with any traditional branding campaign”.

Finally, Baskin puts down the failure of brands in the twenty-first century to the shortening of what he describes as a “brand interlude”, the period between expectations and experience. Back in the old days of traditional brand-management (which Baskin likes to compare to a séance where branding clairvoyants called out to the ether for signs that their diversions were working), it took much longer for woolly assertions to be found out. Now, thanks to the speeding up of communications, this interlude has grown shorter and shorter, meaning that brands that promise one thing and don’t deliver on it get found out much more quickly.

If only Baskin had taken his own advice and produced a book that made it easier for his readers to get to the good ideas and take action on them. As it is, this book is a struggle to read and only a few hardy souls who are prepared to see past Baskin’s clever-boy routine will make it through to the finish.

Branding Only Works on Cattle: The New Way to Get Known (and drive your competitors crazy) by Jonathan Salem Baskin

Publisher: John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 978-0470742570

(This review first appeared in Marketing Age, the magazine of the Marketing Institute of Ireland).


Jonathan Salem Baskin said...

Gerard, I'm sorry that you didn't like my style, but I'm encouraged that you 'got' the major, large, business-changing content. And if you missed my detailed checklists, 'how tos,' and other specific examples of how to turn branding nonsense into real business strategy, well, I encourage you to visit my blog, DIM BULB (http://dimbulb.typepad.com), whereat I post timely examples of real business cases 5 days/week.



Gerard Tannam said...

Jonathan, thanks for your note and good luck with the book.

For those of you who followed the link to Marketing Age in my original post, you'll know that Jonathan also responded to my review there; here's what he had to say:

"I wasn't surprised by Gerard Tannam’s unfavourable critique of my book, Branding Only Works On Cattle, though I was disappointed by his snitty digs at my style and proofreading skills.

My substantive point is that we need to ask new questions about brands, and that marketers are no longer qualified to offer the answers. Consumers are harder to find, more difficult to convince, and nearly impossible to keep loyal. Today, the drivers of purchase and satisfaction have little to do with creative advertising, product extensions, social media campaigns, or the other tactics available in the marketing toolbox.

What matters is behaviour -- what businesses do, what their consumers and customers do, and the knowledge and emotions those actions prompt and enable -- and it is behaviour that constitutes an ongoing real-world give-and-take that isn’t “about” brands as much as evidences, proves, and sustains brands themselves.

This is a radical reassessment of the definition and delivery of branding, and it suggests new ways for businesses to approach markets, allocate resources, and measure results. It’s what I write about in my columns for Advertising Age and Information Week, and on my blog, Dim Bulb.

Gerard Tannam is right when he repeats that my thinking isn’t all that new. It’s not. Businesses are in business to make profits, and I think this is the core point of branding. It’s just not what most brand gurus deliver. Most of them don’t even understand it (or choose to ignore it) in lieu of fuzzy, make-believe outcomes, like “likeability,” “brand equity,” or “social currency/buzz.”

I can understand why he was unhappy with my book, and that he had trouble finishing it. Like a pagan priest who is convinced that the way to overcome a drought is to sacrifice more virgins, I’m sure he found my detailed analyses, checklists, and real-world examples the corollary of new planting and irrigation techniques.

Fortunately, I didn’t write my book for committed branding experts, but rather for the business executives who’ve always suspected that there’s not necessarily “a there” there when said experts blather on about the power of brands. It’s not a pithy book full of easy, ever-crazier marketing ideas intended to avoid the ugly, difficult reality in which real business operate. Most books on brands are written by marketers intent on impressing one another.

Branding Only Works on Cattle is for business people who want to find new ways to make money with their branding, since I believe the gurus are too busy inventing new ways to spend it. I’m sorry that the reviewer didn’t like my style; neither did my 14 yr-old daughter, who announced that she’ll wait to watch the movie adaptation.

I will make sure there’s a ticket waiting for Gerard, too."

Gerard Tannam said...

What sort of a father encourages a virgin-slaughtering pagan to line up for tickets to the movies alongside his fourteen year old daughter?

Only joking, of course, but Jonathan Baskin’s response to my review is difficult to take too seriously.

Jonathan has some ideas to sell and it seems this customer had the temerity to criticise some of the packaging and presentation. So Jonathan reaches across the counter to shake some sense into him, as the buyer just doesn’t seem to get it.

And then he goes even further. Because the customer doesn’t get it, then he must be one of those dreadful marketers that Jonathan writes about in the book, one who’s looking for a ‘pithy book full of easy, ever-crazier marketing ideas intended to avoid the ugly difficult reality in which real businesses operate’.

But this pagan marketer, who spends more time than most with both his customers and with his customer’s customers, does operate in a real world and isn’t going to reach for his ceremonial dagger just yet. He may be a nasty marketer, but he’s a business owner too, and many of Jonathan’s ideas do make sense to him (despite his being a brand-builder of little brain who might be expected to struggle with a radical reassessment of the definition and delivery of branding).

In fact, Jonathan seems to have overlooked the fact that my review of his content was largely favourable and that I gave his new planting and irrigation techniques the thumbs-up.

His reaction is so wide of the mark that I can’t help but wonder whether this is his stock response to any thoughtful criticism of his book, ready to be sent out at a moment’s notice to any poor forty-three or fourteen-year old mug who stands in line and doesn’t buy his hectoring style and sloppy presentation.

Jonathan Salem Baskin said...

Gerard, what great fun! I should follow your advice and develop a 'stock' response...it might be a way to more properly brand myself, eh?

Thanks again for your thinking, and apologies if I misread your nearly-consistent complaints about my style as disdain for my ideas.

Bon chance,