I’ve read more non-fiction books than I’ve probably read in the past year. I’ve had some good luck, with fun titles like The MouseDriver Chronicles and thought-provoking books like Republic.com. Alas, I have also suffered through several mediocre business books, which manage to stretch a few interesting ideas wastefully into book length.I. Gonzo Marketing I decided to buy Gonzo Marketing: Winning Through Worst Practices, by Christopher Locke, based on a positive review (I wish I could recall where, because I’d like to complain). Locke’s basic thesis in Gonzo Marketing is that in an age of fragmenting media and skeptical consumers, marketers must pursue new, more creative strategies for promoting their brands. Locke’s discussion of the fragmentation of media and the emergence of “micromedia” is no less valid than Cass Sunstein’s similar discussion in Republic.com, and Locke recognizes that the fragmented consumers of “macromedia” are themselves “micro markets” which might be worth pursuing. He offers some interesting ideas, but unfortunately I doubt that any of his examples would result in positive ROI for any of the companies involved. True to its title (a reference to the eccentric writing style of writer Hunter S. Thompson), “Gonzo Marketing” also wanders and weaves along the way to its business advice.
Alas, the odd writing style (sometimes quite readable, sometimes not) failed to entertain or educate me, and it certainly did not convince me that the author’s proposals were worthwhile. The recurring central theme of Gonzo Marketing is that companies should try to connect with customers by having employees or agents participate in communities that include the company’s customers. “Companies don’t give a damn about advertising . . . . What they care about is connecting with potential customers by whatever means is most effective.” (p. 186) Locke suggests that a company like Ford and Dell empower its employees to participate (on company time) in online communities which include potential customers. For example, Dell could encourage its employees who believe in homeschooling, to participate in online communities about home-schooling, not writing sales pitches about Dell, but instead being visible as helpful community members who happen to identify themselves as Dell employees. Locke also suggests that Ford employees who like gardening could participate in related online communities, and perhaps other participants in the community will decide they like Ford and buy Ford trucks.
This is not a new idea. Local business owners have long been involved in their local communities, by sponsoring Little League teams, by encouraging staff to join the local bowling league as a team, by donating supplies to the local Habitat to Humanity project — and quite simply, by being actual members in the local community who share the interests and goals of many other members of that local community. People like to do business with people they like. Alas, Locke’s examples all seem to fail, not because they are “wrong” but because they all appear to fail the ROI (return-on-investment) test required of all intelligent marketing. They also create huge risks of brand dilution and potential legal liability. Another of Locke’s ideas is to “tell a story” or create a fun, playful message that can be associated with your company or product. Thus, ‘marketing’ becomes more engaging, more interesting, and more accepted by consumers — but alas, when marketing is so entertaining that it is accepted, it often is no longer marketing. Oddly, the real message I drew from “Gonzo Marketing” is that companies can do interesting, different styles of marketing, as long as they focus on being “useful” or helpful to the audience they are addressing. It’s not enough to be “relevant” or “entertaining” — those are good, but good marketers must go further: be useful, be helpful — be someone that your audience “knows, likes, and trusts.”
That last phrase is not from Gonzo Marketing — it is one of my standard marketing mantras (I first heard it from consultant Jim McCreigh, whom I hired in 1993 to advise me on promoting my local estate-planning law practice). Gonzo Marketing is not a dreadful book; I read it through, and I enjoyed parts. But I think the book could have been much better if a capable editor had carved its 214 pages down to about 80.II. Survival Is Not Enough When I was searching for “Gonzo Marketing” at the bookstore, I also bought Seth Godin’s latest book, Survival Is Not Enough: Zooming, Evolution, and the Future of Your Company. I was intrigued by the author’s idea of comparing the evolution of ideas and businesses, to the science of evolution. I’m pretty sure that Seth Godin has never read any of the excellent essays or books by Stephen Jay Gould, whose words have helped educate me about evolution. Godin seems to have learned about evolution not from scientists, but from Star Trek (which assumes that ‘evolution’ has a fixed agenda, and that ‘evolution’ is the term used for a single-generation transformation of a species from humanoid to transcendent being). Even when Godin has the right ideas about evolution, his analogy of “genes” and “DNA” to “memes” and “mDNA” often fails through carelessness: he often confuses his own terms and concepts. The real thesis of “Survival is Not Enough” is that companies need to “zoom” by trying new ideas, by experimenting, by accepting that when their business environment changes, they must transform themselves or fail.
Godin is certainly not wrong: every business needs to adapt and experiment. No company can survive the transformation of its environment unless the company transforms itself. Every company should try new things, different things, even bizarre “gonzo” ideas, in order to learn what works and what does not. Yes, “zooming” is a good idea, but Godin doesn’t seem to accept that there are limits: company staff, budgets, and attention. There are some good ideas in Godin’s book, but I think most of them could have been captured in a dozen pages.III. Common Themes A common theme of both Gonzo Marketing and Survival Is Not Enough, and of dozens of other business books, is that companies must adapt to changing times, adapting to match the new environment created by fragmenting media, the emergence of the internet, and the faster competition enabled by disintermediation and interconnections within the supply chain. Change is good, embrace change, try new things.