A Strange Worthwhile Trip – A Review of the Marketing Lessons of the Grateful Dead

marketing-lessons-from-the-grateful-deadFirst off, I have to admit I am not a Grateful Dead fan. My iPod does not have a single song by the band or any of its post-Garcia incarnations. I may have eaten Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream once as a sophomore at U.Va., but that does not qualify me as any shade of Deadhead.

In fact, on my iPod, aside for a good number of audiobooks, the dominant artist is Billy Joel. That said, this book, the Marketing Lessons of the Grateful Dead is so good that I’ve actually been listening to a few iTunes 30-second samples from the band.

Written as collaboration between the renowned David Meerman Scott, author of the New Rules of Marketing and PR 2.0, and Brian Halligan, CEO of Hubspot, the book clearly describes what sets the operations of the band apart from any other band or organization in the music industry.

While I was expecting labored analogies to try and substantiate some kind of business relevance, what I found instead were clear examples of brilliant business moves. They are related to management, marketing, customer service, personal motivation, social networking and public relations.

Among the many questions the book answers are:

• Why in an industry so obsessed with copyright, the Grateful Dead actually encourages its fans to tape its music?
• Why in a here-today-and-gone-tomorrow industry, the band survives in various incarnations even after the passing of one of its key members?
• How the band is able to offer such a wide array of logo products without compromising its authenticity?
• Why rewarding your current customers must always take precedence over recruiting new ones?
• How to partner with mutual respect and benefit?
• How to avoid letting someone else’s monopoly get between you and your customer base?
• How human imperfection and variability can be turned into a positive selling point?

The audiobook version is almost as much as demonstration of these principles as a discussion of them. Rather than bringing in professional narrators, the authors opt to read it themselves. While this doesn’t come across nearly as perfectly polished as Walter Dixon’s narration of the World Wide Raveor Sean Pratt’s narration of the New Rules of Marketing and PR 2.0, opting to read this book themselves was the right choice to authentically present these principles and this material.

In conclusion, to paraphrase liberally from the Entertainer, a song by my own troubadour of choice, if you want to be more than just a serenader in another long-haired band and avoid being commoditized, a.k.a. “put in the back in the discount rack like another can of beans,” read or listen to this book. While I may never be a fan of the Grateful Dead, any doubt that I had about being a fan ofHubspot or David Meerman Scott is gone. Rock on!

(This book review was originally posted on the website of my former employer, Creative Energy. Founded by Tony Treadway,  Sam Barnett, and Teresa Treadway, Creative Energy is a full service marketing agency and a leading national  authority on Business-to-Business Foodservice Marketing. )

The Dueling Reviews – The Big Short vs. Too Big To Fail

ToBigBigShortWhen it comes to the issue of short selling, my mind often drifts to Noah. I wonder how Noah’s neighbors thought of him when the flood came? Did they appreciate the error of their ways? Did they find a sense of admiration for his forethought as they watch the water rise? Or did they try to pass legislation to outlaw arks?

After having listened to both Michael Lewis’ The Big Short and Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big To Fail, somehow I’m willing to bet that at least one of Noah’s neighbors was decrying the evils of arks to all who would listen. He would have probably blamed the ark for creating the storm and claiming the visibility of the ark undermined the confidence of others. This just goes to show when the world is collapsing, it’s tempting and easy to blame those who have found ways to not only survive, but come out ahead… too easy.

In the Big Short, Michael Lewis does an excellent job pointing out that while literally hundreds of pundits claimed after the fact to have predicted the impending downfall of mortgage-based securities and credit default swaps, only a very small group actually took measures. These individuals are far from the villainous profiteers and speculators that many in the media claim them to be.

Instead, they are investors who took significant risks, based on the facts and the strength of their convictions. In one case, one particularly visionary fund manager was literally being threatened and sued by his investors as they tried to get their money out of the fund. As they saw it, the events he predicted were taking longer and longer to occur, leaving the fund losing millions of dollars in premium costs as he waited for the sky to fall. However, he was right, the sky did fall, and he turned those millions in costs into billions in profits for those very same investors.

Lewis also presents an interesting pecking order. The investment bankers who were involved in both the bundling of the mortgages and the creation of the investment vehicles were the high men and women on the totem pole. They would then more-or-less dictate to the insurers, like AIG, what the risks were and to the ratings companies, like Moody’s, what to consider.

In short, the investment bankers making millions were being reviewed and monitored by ratings personnel making tens of thousands and government officials making even less. Considering that all these entities were drawing from the same talent pool, it’s not hard to see which organizations would get the top talent. It’s also easy to see how when the top talent fell into self denial about the situation, why it took so long for the rest of establishment to find the brakes, much less hit them.

On the flip side of this situation there’s Sorkin’s Too Big To Fail, the somewhat more epic story of the mad scramble of Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley, Wachovia, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Citigroup, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department to overt the creation of a second Great Depression and preserve shareholder wealth. With dozens of characters and personal as well as financial intrigue, this book reads like a cross between War and Peace and the Wall Street Journal.

From Fuld, the CEO of Lehman Brothers, refusing to accept the depth of the situation he faced to Secretary Paulson releasing sometimes contradicting statements in a mad scramble to restore confidence in the market, it’s here… and that’s both the strength and the weakness of the book. For while the insider perspective of the book is intriguing, bearing in mind the sources are insiders themselves, with their own agendas in play, the question of credibility becomes the elephant in the room. Though the events are not in question, to be privy to as many private conversations as Sorkin presents, his network of sources would surely put the Treasury Department, the FBI, the FDIC, the SEC, the Secret Service and the NSC all to shame.

Though giving some service to the foresight of the Blackstone Group, one of the best known short selling organizations on Wall Street, Too Big to Fail presents short sellers as exacerbating the calamities that were in fact caused by breathtaking financial irresponsibility and risk taking on an epic scale. While much is made of the power of rumors to start an action, even the biggest rumors peter out if there are no facts to back them up. After all, when rumors are fully supported by actual facts, then they aren’t rumors at all… they’re breaking news.

When it comes to short sellers, being the first to see the coming storm does not make you responsible for the destruction it causes.  Instead, it should serve as an example of the extreme importance of paying constant attention to sound principles, because while great risks do often offer great rewards  they wouldn’t be risks if they didn’t have a downside.

(This book review was originally posted on the website of my former employer, Creative Energy. Founded by Tony Treadway and Sam Barnett, Creative Energy is a full service marketing agency and a leading national  authority on Business-to-Business Foodservice Marketing. )

A Well-Rounded Review of The World is Flat

(Originally Posted Just 3, 2010 on the Creative Energy Blog)

In any discussion of international business, global marketing or outsourcing, inevitably the book, The World is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman, comes into the conversation. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

The first three quarters of this book are brilliant in many ways. They present an insightful portrait of the global economy, domestic needs for an improved federally based educational system and a major technological improvement to our technological infrastructure.

The book isolates game changing events in economics, technology and politics and makes the point that the fall of the Berlin Wall did more than free Eastern Europe. The fall proved to the third world once and for all a socialist, centrally planned economy cannot work.

Mr. Friedman does an excellent job of presenting that there is much more than cheap labor at play with the loss of domestic jobs to outsourcing. In fact, he effectively proves that protectionism is a costly and misguided program that’s more likely to handicap a nation’s quality of life than help it.

When facing overseas competition, protectionism is not and never has been the answer… education is. The more students we excite about math, science and engineering, the more innovations we can expect and the brighter our future.

Likewise, Friedman discusses how individuals can and have adapted to the global economy. These are people who have made deliberate choices pertaining to their careers and have come out on top as a direct result.

The only shortcoming is the last quarter of the book. Here the author’s forays off the reservation to make attacks on the Bush administration that are not supported by the facts… including the facts he presented. For example, no administration has done more to reduce protectionist policies and open trade, a fact Mr. Friedman deliberately fails to praise, or even mention, even though much of his book advocates this very policy.

In short, the first three quarters of this book are fantastic sources of information for both individuals and companies as they try to understand and find their places in the rapidly evolving global economy. As for the last quarter… unless you like reading politically motivated diatribes, you might want to check out what’s on TV instead.

Which Social Media Audiobook/Book is Right for You?

Okay, as anyone who is trying to dig into social media can tell you there are enough books out there to make your eyes bleed… or if you’re an audiobook fiend like me there are enough social audiobooks out there to make your ears bleed. So how do you decide which to invest your time into reading/listening. Here are my recommendations based on what I’ve listened to so far-and believe me not all the ones I’ve listened to made this list.

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Abridged vs. Unabridged Audiobooks – In this Sandbox Forget Brevity, Attention Span is KING!

Have you ever heard a colleague talking about a business author he saw being interviewed? You join in with information from two or three of that author’s books and another of your colleagues says dismissively, “Did you read those books or just listen to them?”

That’s the thing about audiobooks, people seem to equate the audiobook with having “seen the movie.” Sure some of the information might be there, but you didn’t really get all the information, right? Wrong!

When you listen to an unabridged book, you are getting the full scope, every single word that was in the print edition and even more. Often, there is commentary by the author after the end of the work. Also, with books like Crush It by Gary Vaynerchuckyou get the Vaynerchuck reading his own words, hitting those words with the emphasis that he heard in his mind when he was composing the book and he even adds little asides.

Unabridged is the key. It’s the heart and the soul of the matter. It means you get EVERY SINGLE WORD of the text.

Abridgement is not your friend. It means that those who ask, “Did you actually read those books?,” actually have a leg on which to stand. Whether you’re listening to a business book, another form of nonfiction book or a fiction book, abridgments cheat you of the full information and experience.

“But, Bob, I don’t have the time. abridgments are shorter and brevity is king.” I’ll admit in other mediums, brevity is king, but when it comes to audiobooks brevity is the equivalent of those guys in your college dorm who run around cheating on tests and acting like jerks to girls, administration and faculty alike– so that people think everyone from your dorm is a jerk. In short, abridgments give audiobooks a bad name.

There are only four reasons to listen to an abridged audiobook, and only one of them is worth a damn.

  1. Unabridged books are more expensive. – This argument is the easiest to dismiss. If you’re serious about increasing your knowledge of business using audiobooks then get a subscription to a service like audible.com. They charge you a set amount a month and give you two credits a month you can use on any audiobook to cover the total price. And guess what, in 99.99% of cases both the abridged and unabridged versions only cost one credit. The cost argument is out of here!
  2. I don’t have the time to listen to the unabridged audiobooks. – If you don’t have the time to listen to unabridged audiobooks, than the question really becomes, “How much is the information worth to you?” Borrowing the earlier analogy basing your knowledge of a book or subject on an abridged audiobook is like going to see the movie or waiting for a TV special to tell you the “important parts.” Chances are you’re left with just the highlights and you miss out on the not-so-little things like the research, the background, the proof, the author’s insights and the proper application. If time really is that much of a concern than I suggest you skip the abridged audiobook all together and go directly to Soundview Executive Business Summaries. Here you’ll get your high-speed highlights, but don’t have any illusions of actually having read/listened to the book. (NO, I don’t work for or receive any kind of remuneration from Amazon, any of the authors or audiobook companies I mention in this blog… and I promise I’d mention it if I did. Thanks to WordPress.com limitations I can’t even do Adwords or Amazon Associates. Any ads you see here are 100% WordPress.com – 0% Bob.)
  3. But celebrities read the abridged versions. – Okay this argument applies more to fiction than business audiobooks, but for some reason celebrities occasionally like to dip their toe into the audiobook pool at the shallow end and read abridgments. Julia Roberts did it for the Nanny Diaries, Martin Sheen did it for Patriot Games, Liam Neeson did it for How the Irish Saved Civilization and Edward Hermann did it for Atlas Shrugged. Okay, I admit. It’s neat hearing a celebrity reading a book. Often, they bring a lot to the experience. The question here is do they bring enough to make up for what’s been taken away? If you liked to experience that celebrity’s work, go experience them more fully in one of their movies, TV shows or plays. Likewise, if you are interested in a book, experience it fully in its unabridged version.
  4. But it’s only available abridged. – This is the one argument that actually holds water. As much as I love traditional hardcopy books, you can’t read one while you drive, fold laundry, take a shower or do any of the myriad of things you can do as you listen to an audiobook. On this issue, we can only hope that more publishers and authors see the value of getting the full work that they have created with such care, effort and expense released in an unabridged audio version. I think if more authors realized that audio abridgments are comparable to their worst over zealous editing nightmares, the more they’d fight to make sure their unabridged efforts see the light of day in the audiobook world.

So in conclusions, let’s hear it for those of us with the attention spans to listen, enjoy, appreciate and absorb an unabridged audiobook. We’re a rare breed and if someone does ask you whether you, “read it or just listened to it,” simply reply, “Yes, every single word.”

Read this Book, I Dare You- A Review of Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business.

(Originally Posted May 20, 2010 on the Creative Energy Blog)

Have you ever had the experience of seeing an absolutely brilliant movie trailer, only to be utterly disappointed by the movie itself? Well, that was more or less my experience with this book.

If you visit socialnomics.com, you’ll find a collection of brilliantly edited video trailers that do a fantastic job communicating the power and promise of social media. True, there are compelling powerful facts, but it’s the editing that brings these facts to light. If you want proof of the necessity of editing to effective communication, one only needs to read the book to see what happens without it.

For me, after having seen these brilliant trailers, I was overjoyed to find that this book was available on audible.com. I purchased it without hesitation. And so began a disappointing, meandering journey covering what could have been powerful and compelling material.

As I listened, it became a constant struggle to continue to do so. There were two reasons for this. First, apparently someone instructed Nick Sullivan, thenarrator of the piece, that nearly all human inflection should be stripped from the material, rendering his voice less compelling than the worst lecturer imaginable. (Which is a shame, because having listened to other books he’s read, he does have the range to be quite an interesting reader.) Second, the text, while containing compelling facts was poorly written and organized.

The book reads as if it began as a series of brilliant little speeches each too short to truly constitute a chapter on its own. So Mr. Qualman apparently made up for this with filler and fluff. For example, Qualman used the same anecdote over and over and over again, namely the triumph of Obama over the traditional Clinton political machine to win the Democratic nomination.

\At one point as I listened, I began to sincerely suspect that Qualman would probably have rather written an entire book on this one case. Unfortunately for Mr. Qualman, that book has already been written, it’s called Game Change and it’s an example of marvelous writing and, I suspect,editing.

As is my habit to do, I also bought a physical copy of the book as well. I normally do this because I want the ability to site favorite passages more easily and become even more familiar with the text. This time I did so to confirm to my unbelieving mind that such powerful material could be mired in nearly impenetrable, rambling text.

To anyone out there who is thinking, “well, Bob’s not being fair. This is a marketing book after all… how compelling can the material be?” In answer to this, I’d gleefully point you to Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff, a compelling and highly informative read covering many of the same topics.

In all seriousness, Socialnomics reads as if it was never touched by an editor. In many ways it reminds me of some self-published pieces I’ve read with something brilliant to say and no idea of how to say it. True, at the end of each chapter there is a list of points covered, but these seem to be an after-the-fact attempt at organization—a bandaid when surgery was necessary.

Please don’t misunderstand me. This book has much to add to our understanding of social media, but rather than reading it may I suggest one of three courses of action.

– One – Assign someone to do it for you and come back with a two-page summary. Be kind to this person afterwards, because they may be angry.

– Two – Wait for the Cliff Notes or pinkmonkey.com version.

– Three – Brew yourself a large pot of coffee and sit down with this tome yourself. If you do this, make sure to have a much better written book nearby to remind yourself how the English language is supposed to work.

In closing, in the halls of Wiley & Sons Publisher there is probably an editor hiding under his desk curled in the fetal position muttering to himself saying, “Erik wouldn’t listen? Why wouldn’t he listen?”

To this editor, all I have to say is, “There, there… he should have.”

“Death in the Middle” is Alive and Well – Thoughts on the Treasure Hunt: Inside the Mind of the New Consumer

(Originally posted 8/5/2010 on the Creative Energy Blog.)

Years ago, 2007 to be exact, I listened to and then read the book, Treasure Hunt: Inside the Mind of the New Consumer, by Michael J. Silverstein. In its pages was a brilliant analysis of numerous consumer trends. Perhaps the most insightful of observation of all was an overarching principle called, “Death in the Middle.”

This principle asserted that American consumers would continue to buy cheaper and cheaper goods, often opting for store brands rather than midpoint brand, so they could then afford high-ticket items or premium brands on which they would not compromise. For example, to see this principle at work look for the consumer who chooses store brand macaroni instead of Kraft, store brand steak sauce instead of A1 and store brand detergent rather than Tide, yet who still insists on premium chocolate, gourmet mustard and a new pair of Nikes every year.

Then the economy went into the tank and I have to admit I figured so did the applicably of much of the book. I figured that sure customers would start choosing lower end store brands, but the high-end part of the scenario would not continue. Hence, mid point brands would enjoy a stay of execution. I could not have been more wrong.

In the last 24 hours alone, I’ve seen multiple clear demonstrations of this principle at work. Just heading to the local Wal-Mart is an object lesson. Widened aisle and reorganized shelves thinly hide the fact that the selection of brands is being gradually reduced to make way for Great Value store brand offerings. One evidence of this initiative was the Wal-Mart’s launch in March of last year of more than 80 new product lines. (For more information on this, here is Wal-Mart’s press release on the subject.)

Yet even as more and more Americans choose store brand items to save money, they buy iPhones and iPads in numbers so large that figures defy even the most optimistic sales forecasts according to MarketWatch.

In addition to this, according to the August 4, 2010 issue of the Wall Street Journal, premiums brands like Ralph Lauren are enjoying similar sales surges, as well as increased American market share. One has to wonder how much of this share gain once firmly belonged to midpoint competitors.

All of this is further confirmed by the cover article of July 29, 2010 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, “The New Abnormal.” Although, the article never sites the Treasure Hunt, the article’s author seems content to document the seemingly contradictory behaviors for consumers both cutting back in some areas to splurge in others.

Far from killing the Death-in-the-Middle trend, the current recession has accelerated the trend. The result is a situation where the brand managers of mid-point brands who once may have relied upon consumer habits and expected loyalty need to grab a copy of the Treasure Hunt as soon as possible. In short, it’s time to run for the high ground on quality or the low ground on price, but staying in the middle will only succeed in putting your brand 6 feet under the ground.


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