Two More Business Books (Godin & Locke)

By , February 3, 2002

“Survival is Not Enough” and “Gonzo Marketing”

(February 3, 2002 — Over the past two months, during a lull in my consulting work, 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 “micromedia” are themselves “micromarkets” 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 communitites which include potential customers. For example, Dell could encourage its employees who believe in home schooling, 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 transcendant 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.

Both books fail because:

  • Each author selects an intriguing metaphor (“gonzo journalism” and “evolution”) but each fails to make the connection: Godin because he misunderstands evolution and his own concepts and terminology, and Locke because his “gonzo writing” style simply doesn’t work or help his thesis.
  • Each author offers examples which seem almost guaranteed to fail financially (but hey, I could be wrong, and experimenting is not a bad thing).
    • Locke’s notion of empowering thousands of corporate employees to become marketing evangelists is interesting, but I can’t imagine how any large company could calculate the likely costs. First, the company would need to train these employees on proper brand usage, netiquette, and company policies on communications associated with the company’s name. Next, the company would need to hire many more workers, if the current employees will be doing their internet evangelism on company time. Certainly, the company’s spin doctors and lawyers will need to deal with the inevitable damage when some employees misspeak or create embarassment.
    • Godin’s notion of launching many experiments, including launching multiple projects that bet against each other, is intriguing but clearly unaffordable to most companies. Yes, companies must experiment, and try new ideas and new projects, and we must accept that failing is better than not trying — but Godin provides no guidance on how to choose which experiments to try, which risks to accept, and which to reject.
    • Both authors could serve their readers better if their books were edited down to half (or less) of the current length.

IV. So Why Keep Reading?

If I didn’t really like these books, and if I don’t recommend them, why did I keep reading each book to the end? Because I did gain something from each book, and I had the time to spare to plod through and seek out any gems.

Nearly a decade ago, I was an attorney shifting from civil litigation into estate planning. I attended dozens of courses and read many books and articles to bring myself “up to speed” on a new area of the law. And even after I “went solo” and was practicing exclusively as an estate planning and probate attorney, I continued to take classes and read books, including courses books that mostly repeated the same stuff I already knew. One day, during a program featuring several distinguished local attorneys speaking on basic “how to” questions, I approached one of the attorney panelists to ask a very narrow question. His response (after answering the question) was to observe that my question was far beyond the scope of the class, and that he knew I could probably teach his part of the program just as well as he could — so why was I even attending? My reply: “I’ll stop attending these programs the day I don’t learn something new.”

Both of these books were interesting at times, and both contained some nuggets worth grasping. Since I am “between clients” in my consulting practice, I decided to read as much as I could to learn as much new stuff as I can, so I can afford to waste some time. Most folks can’t.

There are many better books that you should read before you waste your time on Gonzo Marketing or Survival Is Not Enough.

(February 3, 2002) by Mark J. Welch

Disclaimer: The book links to Amazon.com are affiliate links (paid advertising).

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