The Best Marketing Book

I have not completed my next ‘book’ chapter this week, so instead I will share this book review (of sorts).

People looking to get into marketing often ask me what books they should read. Unfortunately there are not many I can recommend. Most marketing books seem to actually be books on how to be creative or sometimes just that you should be creative. Thanks.) Creative marketing skills were likely important 30 years ago, but today’s best marketers are closer to 70/30 technical/creative – and that technical side of marketing gets very short shelf space in the bookstore.

I am regularly disappointed when I start on a new marketing book. The best that can be said is that many of them have interesting case studies. In a twitter conversation I had with Tom Peter’s recently he told me that he only reads the case studies of the books he buys and skips all the rest completely. I actually like synthesis and conclusions from my business books. Unfortunately I rarely get what I hope for. This lack of concrete marketing synthesis is a big reason why I’ve decided to start this ‘live writing’ process – to fill the gap with a marketing book that covers what someone really needs to know in the function.

The marketing books that have influenced me the most were generally not marketing books at all: books like Duncan Watt’s Everything is Obvious (Once you know the answer), or Tyler Cowen’s The Average is Over.  Both of those books (and others) will eventually get write-ups here – likely in weeks when I can’t get my act together to write a book chapter.

When it comes to core marketing books – books where the author knew she was talking about marketing when she wrote it – there is one that, for me, stands far above the rest. I have bought this book for my entire marketing team. I recommend it to non-marketer executives who want to get grounding on what’s really important in marketing. And I definitely recommend it any time I talk to a fellow marketer.

For all of my promotion of the book, it’s still not very well known (this may be a hint that having me promote your book is not going to help very much). As of today it’s ranked as the 82,563th bestselling book on Amazon. There doesn’t seem to be a rating on where it ranks on their marketing book list, but the 100th bestselling marketing book is ranked 10,350th overall and the 99th is 10,266th, so we might be able to extrapolate that it’s something like the 860th bestselling marketing book. Basically: It’s not driving the conversation about marketing today. And it should be.

The book is called How Brands Grow by Byron Sharp.

how brands grow

My argument that marketing is like medicine in the 19th century is stolen directly from Mr. Sharp – as are a lot of my beliefs about marketing. He makes some compelling arguments.

First: If you are at all involved in marketing and you haven’t read this book already, you should put an order in at Amazon now. I even provided a link (it’s not even an affiliate link, so I’m not getting paid for this)

Second: Let me try and summarize a few of his concepts from the book, and briefly where I disagree with him.


How Brands Grow

Mr. Sharp spends most of his book destroying the generally accepted beliefs of most marketers with data. Some of the concepts he attacks:

  • Most of your sales will come from a small group of loyal customers: Not true. He uses sales data to show that repeat purchases are directly correlated to share. There is no such thing as a small brand with loyal buyers. It just doesn’t exist. You need to focus on growing your overall share and getting more customers, rather than trying to increase loyalty with your existing customers and by doing so will actually increase loyalty as a side-effect.
  • You need to have a differentiated product targeted at a specific customer segment: Not true. Segmentation itself is a fairly artificial exercise (interesting math, and great for storytelling, but not great at actually selling products).  It turns out that being appealing to a lot of people is almost always better than trying to specialize in a niche.
  • Loyalty Programs do not increase loyalty – even a little bit, and definitely cost more money than they could ever drive in increased revenue
  • Brand marketing does not affect your best customers. It increases the frequency of purchase for your occasional customers a very small amount. This means that people always say they are not affected by marketing: “I maybe drink Coke once every 8 months – the ads don’t affect me.” He argues that that ‘unaffected drinker’ would have drunk Coke every 8.1 months without the ads. It’s a subtle effect that is very hard to measure, but has a huge effect over the long term (without anyone knowing they were consciously affected).

There is more, but I won’t spoil all the surprises as you read it (have I mentioned yet you should be buying and reading this book already?). He backs everything up with some pretty compelling data that you  won’t see in the received wisdom spouted by most marketing texts.


Where I disagree

Mr. Sharp is an academic who, as far as I know, has not spent time trying to make companies work. His data is very compelling, but it is also generalized. The risk of that generalization is that, in order to make a conclusion, treats all companies and situations the same. This is a mistake. I will dive into one specific example.

Mr. Sharp believes that Loyalty Programs destroy value. I believe that MOST Loyalty Programs destroy value. I even believe that on average Loyalty Program destroy value. If you were to ask me to guess which of two retailers performed better last year and all I knew about the two retailers was that one had a loyalty program and one did not, I would guess the program-less retailer every time. But I also believe that it is possible to create loyalty programs that create value. I even believe there are many (or at least some) loyalty programs out there right now that create value for their companies.

Mr. Sharp shows some very compelling data on specific loyalty programs that are destroying value. But just because I show you a bunch of white swans, it doesn’t mean that black swans cannot exist (with credit to Nassim Taleb). I will go into a significant amount of detail on loyalty programs in a month or two that will hopefully prove this to you.

My second criticism of the book is that while it spends a lot of time tearing down the false-tower of 20th century marketing, it does not spend a great deal of time re-building something to replace it. You are left at the end of the book thinking most of marketing is a waste of time, but unclear how to best spend your time in a new (effective) way.

The good news is you can at least stop wasting your time.

Hopefully over the next few months I can start walking you through how to best spend all the time you have saved. But before I can do that there is an awful lot you need to stop doing. Read Byron Sharp’s fantastic (and under-rated) book and you will know more about what is true in marketing that 90% of the professionals out there right now.