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10 books for marketing advantage

What marketers should read to add breadth, insight and originality to their marketing arsenal.
Any one of them is sure to repay the investment of time
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

You’re a marketer, so I’ll assume you’ve already got across the marketing canon.

You’ll have read Philip Kotler way back and have Post-it notes sticking out of his peerless Marketing Management to prove it. There’ll be a well-thumbed copy of Strategic Brand Management on your shelves – Kevin Keller’s weighty text covering everything from brand equity to private label strategy. And you’ll have acquainted yourself with Theodore Levitt, either through The Marketing Imagination or his original, seminal paper, Marketing Myopia, with its classic definition of the difference between marketing and sales.

So far, so foundational. And what sturdy foundations they are. What follows next is more about marketing advantage – books to add breadth, insight and originality to your marketing practice.

Here are 10 to browse through, choose from and get stuck into if you have any downtime over the holiday or into 2023. In no particular order and with no particular bias: any one of them is sure to repay the investment of time.

Human Universals by Donald E Brown

US anthropologist Brown postulates the idea of ‘The Universal People’ by examining the many traits, concepts and practices that “all people, all societies, all cultures and all languages have in common”.

A useful corrective for anyone tempted to segment ever narrower, in pursuit of minor attitudinal differences between groups or cultures. Especially valuable for the global marketer, as a counter to the ‘that-won’t-work-here’ resistance of the local team who insist their market is unique.  This slim, sane volume offers inspiration to dig deeper, to the richer seam of emotions, needs and values that unite.

Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed

Marketers are hungry for ideas. But they tend not to be too keen on ‘rebels’. In today’s corporate cultures, consensus rules, and workshops still come with the requirement never to openly disagree but always to ‘build’.

Syed’s sweep is greater than marketing, greater than business, and his underlying principle is trenchant: diversity of cognition is paramount in problem solving and idea generation. Homogeneity is the enemy, with its guarantee of “collective blindness”. If you’re putting together a brainstorming session anytime soon, this is one to read first.

Good Strategy. Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt

The word strategy has lost its meaning. I’ve heard it used to ‘big up’ what is fundamentally a tactic, or as an erroneous synonym for objective. Then once you muddle in vision, mission and purpose – well, no wonder our junior marketers get confused.

This is a business book, not a marketing book, but the UCLA professor’s simple, three-stage approach to the development of strategy worthy of the name, combined with his ruthlessly high standards on what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’, can easily be applied to the genuinely strategic challenges we face in our marketing endeavours.

The 100-Year Life by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott

If there is one slide you’re guaranteed to see in a trends presentation, it’s the observation that we are all living longer. Gratton and Scott take this several steps further by combining their skills in psychology and economics to show what longevity will mean for education, health and society.

Their big idea is the notion of the multistage life and the decoupling of age and stage. The linear lives of yesterday – school, college, marriage, career, retirement – will give way to something more organic, fluid and fulfilling. This is miles away from the pedestrian ‘How can we attract the grey market?’ and ‘How do we get younger consumers?’ territory that marketers can get bogged down in. So don’t.

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

Since Nike is owner of one of the most famous slogans of all time, and originator of some of the world’s most celebrated ads and commercials, you would think that marketing communications forms a big chunk of this book.

Well, Nike founder Knight gives it a mention – but the book is about what it really takes to build a great brand: the risks, the fights, the lawsuits, the innovative leaps, the obsessive focus on product, the tireless passion for higher-order success. You could read it for inspiration – but perspective is closer to the point.

The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid by C K Prahalad

The subtitle of the late Indian-American professor’s 2004 blockbuster was Eradicating Poverty Through Profits. Drawing on case studies set in emerging markets, the book illustrates how some businesses are achieving commercial objectives while bringing material and social improvements to some of the world’s poorest populations.

Much of this is through innovating to deliver the desired benefits at vastly reduced costs – often small fractions of what had previously been norms. Prahalad was prescient – it’s what many of the world’s consumers would welcome right now, and not just in emerging markets.

Obliquity by John Kay

The essence of economist Kay’s arresting theory is that you get what you want by going at it indirectly. But that is not to say you know what you want at the outset: crucial to Kay’s vision is that we learn about our true objectives as part of a process of discovery.

For marketers weary of all the talk of ‘roadmaps’ and ‘pillars’ this will resonate as a more organic tilt at problem solving. ‘Muddling through’ is closer to the truth of how things often work out in business, and it’s reassuring to see an entire chapter concluding that that is no bad thing.

Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy D Wilson

Predates by a decade some of the behavioural science concepts explored in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Wilson, an emeritus professor of psychology, paints a more nuanced, complex picture of human behaviour that embraces and integrates the role of feelings, the building of identity and the desire to maintain a sense of wellbeing.

If we believe marketing’s central role is to put the consumer at the heart of the business, then we’d better make it our business to know that consumer – making allowances for the limitations of their own self-knowledge and the role of their nonconscious traits.

Alchemy by Rory Sutherland

There are marketers who are wise enough to do pretty much everything right. And there are marketers who are wiser still, to occasionally, and deliberately, do something wrong. Logic, due process, even a full-on effectiveness culture will only ever take you so far.

Sutherland works back from seemingly bonkers ideas that really should never have made it – like branded placebos, or ‘royal potatoes’ – and analyses what might have been the perverse human psychology behind their unlikely uptake.

The most fun to read of all the books on the list: footnotes are there, all soberly laid out at the bottom of the pages, but invariably played for laughs.

Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull

As we kick back for the holiday break, I’m guessing a few of us are going to be appreciating the clever, engaging and original creativity of Pixar Studios (personal favourites are Cars and Inside Out).

It’s too easy and too lazy to put their amazing success down to ‘talent’. Sure, it plays a part, as does leadership, but so does process, working techniques and even office layout – the HQ building was designed to increase the serendipity of people bumping into each other, with the ready exchange of ideas that promotes. What’s great is that it is easy to see how you could simply transport some of this into the marketing team – starting the first day back.