Simple principles work, even in complex times

By Paul B. Brown

  • Simplicity Marketing, by Steven M. Cristol and Peter Sealey (Free Press)
  • Emotional Branding, by Daryl Travis (Prima Venture)
  • Counterintuitive Marketing, by Kevin J. Clancy and Peter C. Krieg (Free Press)
  • The Power of Positive Thinking in Business, by Scott W. Ventrella (Simon & Schuster)

Maybe ol' St. Nick should write a marketing book. He has amazing brand awareness. His customer-satisfaction scores are remarkably high, and he even has his own proprietary matrix for determining the customers he wants to target: making the list, checking it twice. But even Santa might be bedeviled by the new economy, in which, we are told, marketing is harder than it has ever been. In Simplicity Marketing: End Brand Competition, Clutter, and Confusion, marketing consultant Steven M. Cristol and Peter Sealey, a former chief marketing officer at Coca-Cola, point out that in these times, even a simple product like Crest toothpaste comes in 45 variations. In the first chapter, they present their argument: consumers long for simpler choices.

Cristol and Sealey go on to give lots of examples, but most of them aren't particularly helpful and many are contradictory. Procter & Gamble, which the authors hold up as a model, has been simplifying its product lines. The result? Financial underperformance and shuffling in the executive suite. And even though McDonald's may stand for consistency (one of the hallmarks of simplicity marketing, the book argues), the number of choices it now offers is a far cry from the days of just hamburgers, fries, and drinks. The book suffers from references to old financial numbers and outdated products, too. (It has been a while since McDonald's sold the Arch Deluxe.)

Still, the basic premise is right. If you want people to buy your product, make it simple for them. And then, forge a connection.

Have you ever noticed that Apple computer owners and people who stay at Four Seasons Hotels can't help raving about them? What has occurred is that the company or product commanding such profound loyalty has forged what Daryl Travis, chancellor of Arian, Lowe & Travis, a Chicago-based ad agency, describes as a visceral connection to customers. In his book Emotional Branding: How Successful Brands Gain the Irrational Edge, Travis makes a compelling case: brands lead to repeat business -- the absolute best kind to have, of course -- and to be truly effective, a brand must create an emotional bond with customers.

How do you do that? Well, not to be simplistic, but how about this as a formula worthy of St. Nick? You ask customers what they want, and you give it (and more) to them.

That isn't as easy as it sounds, according to Counterintuitive Marketing: How Great Marketing Comes from Uncommon Sense, by Kevin J. Clancy and Peter C. Krieg. The book's title isn't great. But if the authors had gone with a more apt description of their thesis, something like The You-Really-Have-to-Work-Hard-at-Marketing Book, their sales probably wouldn't be so good. Still, that pretty much sums up the message delivered by Clancy -- former chairman of the respected Yankelovich Clancy and Shulman research and polling company and now head of research firm Copernicus -- and his coauthor, an executive vice-president at Copernicus. The secondary message: research is good. And for the more advanced students: research is necessary.

When you do the math, Clancy and Krieg argue, the average return on investment on any marketing or advertising campaign is between 1% and 4%. In other words, you would be better off putting your marketing budget in Treasury bills.

Why the lousy returns? In a nutshell, the authors say, marketers fail to do their homework. For one thing, they go after the obvious targets, such as heavy buyers who tend to be either extremely loyal to their brands or extremely sensitive to prices (since they buy so much). Not much of a profit margin there. Another pitfall for marketers is delegating either too much or not enough to their advertising agencies. Or they go with "what feels right" -- what the authors call "Testosterone-Driven Marketing."

"For over 20 years," Clancy and Krieg write, "we've been working with companies that are loaded with testosterone. .... We recognize that American management consulting firms have trained top executives to believe that they can get 80% of the way to a great decision on judgment alone -- and the remaining 20% takes too much time and costs too much money. We reject this idea for the same reason we reject the idea that the best way to make a decision is to use a Ouija board."

Their not-so-counterintuitive conclusion is that marketing needs to be at the center of the company. It must be taken seriously, which means doing lots of research to find out what customers want.

Not surprisingly, the book is pretty dense, but it's not impenetrable. Like a challenging class with your favorite college professor, it's also far and away the most worthwhile use of your time.

No more derivatives, please!
Everyone who reads has a method for noting information he or she wants to remember. Highlighting is popular. Book reviewers, who have no qualms about marking up a volume, tend to set off pertinent information in brackets. I mention this because I noticed an interesting thing when I reviewed my notes on The Power of Positive Thinking in Business: The Roadmap to Peak Performance, by Scott W. Ventrella. The only sections I highlighted in this perfectly respectable, well-written interpretation of Norman Vincent Peale's classic The Power of Positive Thinking were quotes from the original.

The following passage from the first page of the Peale book (which has sold more than 22 million copies) sets the tone for what truly is a classic: "Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers, you cannot be successful or happy."

Peale's book sounds a bit corny today but remains inspirational -- so much so that you hate to see people turning to a derivative work like Ventrella's latest offering.

It's easy to understand the reasoning behind the decision to go with a "brand extension." Simon & Schuster was trying to sell more units. But the better approach is the one that Doubleday took four years ago, when it decided it wanted to bring attention to My Years with General Motors, by Alfred P. Sloan, the man who made GM, GM. Instead of coming out with What You Can Learn from My Years with General Motors, Doubleday simply reissued the book with a new cover and a new introduction (by Peter F. Drucker). And the reissue did quite well, thank you.

Paul B. Brown is the author or coauthor of 10 books and editor-in-chief of, an online financial-planning company.

Executive Reader

Joseph Azary
Founder of Azary Technologies, a medical-technology consulting firm based in Huntington, Conn.

On his nightstand
What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School, by Mark H. McCormack. "It's a little outdated -- especially when he talks about computers -- but the principles are still good," says Azary. "He promotes the idea that you should be an 'active listener' when you're on a sales call. He says that you should make it so that both sides walk away feeling like they won."

Recent fave
Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life, by Spencer Johnson. "It drives home that you need to look to the future to predict trends that could affect your business."

Business bible
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey. "Each time I read it, I pick up more information. The last time I read it, I was really interested in balancing success in business with family needs, physical needs in terms of exercise, and spiritual needs. I want to keep in perspective all the things that are important in my life." --Mike Hofman

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