Monday, April 14

Writing Accidental Books: David Vinjamuri


After reading a few chapters of “Accidental Branding” by David Vinjamuri, I was perplexed. Could it be that a former brand manager at Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola and marketing guru for recent Google-acquisition DoubleClick and Save.com, wrote a book that is both gratifying and grasping at the same time? Exactly so.

“Accidental Branding” is gratifying in that the research and interviews are worthwhile; the writing is vivid and engaging; and the case studies — John Peterman, Craig Newmark, and Roxanne Quimby (among them) — timely. The modest cover price of $16.47 for Accidental Branding via Amazon works.

Without question, Vinjamuri succeeds where so many other business writers fail — by bringing passion to pages of businesses. He does it with flair and style, creating case studies that you actually care about. I love that about the book, enough so to recommend it. Chances are that you will love the book, enough so that you might fall in love with it like Diane K. Danielson did.

But there is something troubling too. “Accidental Branding” seems to drift into a trend that is becoming troublesome. In attempting to dispel the myths of what they teach in business school as being wrong or incomplete (which is largely correct), the author presents solutions that are not strong enough to unseat traditional teachings despite finding case studies to back up his argument.

It makes me wonder. What are we doing nowadays, anyway? Social media is becoming the boom and bane for business in ways that very few have ever expected. And when books are written with the Internet communication in mind, they tend to forget their intent and fill pages with more inspirational ideas than concrete solutions in the way that books like In Search of Excellence used to do.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but it makes one wonder if the next wave of entrepreneurs are somehow missing out because the business and marketing books being written today are chock full of case studies designed to prove some clever ideas. For example, Vinjamuri presents six: sweat the small stuff, pick a fight, be your own customer, be unnaturally persistent, build a myth, and be faithful.

The fifth is especially interesting to me because Kevin Goodman recently asked me about how viral marketing myths might mirror the urban legend phenomena, something Chip Heath, associate professor at Stanford University, wrote about four years ago.

“Creating the mythology for your brand means that you have to understand both
the narrative and how it will be spoken and shared…,” writes Vinjamuri. “… By crafting this story carefully, you will make a better case for your business than
any presentation or advertisement possibly could.”

While there is certainly some truth to the concept that storytelling works (better than bullets anyway) because it’s memorable, creating a mythos for your brand can have some unintended consequences that run afoul in what I call the Fragile Brand Theory . Specifically, a mythos can sometimes overtake the sustainability of the brand and when that happens … they risk collapse. And yet another pitfall that can transpire a well-positioned myth comes straight from the urban legend department: over time, the point of origin becomes expectedly fuzzy and may even be stolen away by someone who demonstrates your story better then you do.

“Mary Worth … Mary Worth … Mary …” ... You get the idea. The story variations have overshadowed the point of origin.

Sure, I suspect Vinjamuri might think I’m missing “rule six,” which reminds entrepreneurs to remain faithful to their brands. He’s right, but sometimes brand busting moments are not manageable as several dozen companies can attest. Brands are much more fragile than that.

Even so, and I cannot stress this enough: where I part ways on some conclusions presented by Vinjamuri, I can appreciate excellent storytelling around some very interesting break-the-mold brands. They are often not covered enough, and Vinjamuri presents those as masterfully as one might suspect from someone who works on Starwood Hotels, among others.

Now the only question that remains is whether his “Accidental Brands” can move beyond the moment and capture its own mythos. We shall see. I hope so.

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5 comments:

Kevin Goodman on 4/14/08, 7:31 PM said...

I’ll have to add ‘Accidental Branding’ to my wish list.

I am curious how Vinjamuri proposes creating and perpetuating the myth, I doubt it is easily (I mean magically) achieved. One observation I have had is that we tend to trust those secret whispers even more than a sworn statement. Turning a myth/legend into a brand or vice versa certainly has heavyweight potential when it comes to silently influencing the consumer.

It’s interesting that Rich notices the danger of the legend running away which seems to be a very possible insight. A myth or a legend by its very nature belongs to the community and not any individual or brand per se.

My particular interest in the subject was in promoting an artist. I think every great artist has approached branding from the legend building perspective. We had a young Picasso going into a restaurant, demanding that a small drawing satisfy his debt – ‘he wasn’t starving – it was a beautiful marketing strategy’. Dali, Warhol, Dekooning – all legend makers. Approaching art like business (unless you can make it legendary as Warhol did with his factory productions) would have been the end for these guys but contrarily I believe there genius was as much in business/marketing/promoting as it was art.

My point is that art world is big business and perhaps there is some wisdom ‘regular’ business can take from the art world. Charles Saatchi once considered the world’s premier adman found trading art to be much more lucrative than owning a power share in one of the world’s largest ad agencies. Artists become marketable commodities by legend and convincing kingpin collectors that they are legends.

How does that help ‘businesses? I think we find all luxury brands are legends. It seems the difference between your well suited commercial builder and the elitist old school craftsman who is booked two years in advance – when you magically combine the two you get Starbucks!

Thanks Rich for another great post but most especially for the mention.

David Vinjamuri said...

Hi Rich,

I love your challenge of my "rules" of Accidental Brands.

You say that I "find conclusions that are not strong enough to unseat traditional teachings ... "

That is entirely true. As you have correctly surmised from reading the book, I was primarily interested in the stories and giving a more vivid portrayal of the real business of building a brand from scratch than we normally see.

So the "rules" in my book are a lot more interesting as conversation starters than as a definitive commentary on the bankruptcy of modern marketing techniques.

I spent a good deal of my early marketing career - particularly at Johnson & Johnson - as a hard numbers guy. Before I would engage with a brand I wanted to see the Usage & Attitudes study, the segmentation study and all of the Nielsen or IRI data.

The longer I spent in corporate marketing, the more I came to the conclusion that we were making the mistake of measuring the things that we could, not the things that were important. Unfortunately, I was not convinced that even with advanced techniques like ethnographic research we really understood what was important.

When I went into this exercise I didn't know exactly what I would find. So I literally did not pick the cases to prove these rules because I didn't formulate the six rules until I had finished all of the research and written all of the case study chapters in the book. Chapter 2 was actually the last chapter I wrote in the book.

Kevin's comment and yours about building mythology are interesting because I don't really know the answer of how corporate marketers are supposed to build them. The people I studied mostly did it intuitively. All of them are very gifted storytellers with the possible exception of Craig Newmark who is more like the Wizard of Oz, remaining behind the curtain while the brand builds itself.

I agree with Kevin that it is likely to be a very difficult process to build a great myth - like writing Haiku or poetry.

My only disagreement with you here is that I'm not sure that a proper mythology can hurt the brand. I think in the modern era we get caught up with the idea that a myth is somehow untrue or contains fantastic or unfactual elements. In truth, myths should be entirely true, but a carefully pared-down truth which transmits values as well as a story.

Anyway, I have to say that I appreciate your intelligent criticism even more than straight praise. Nice work,

David Vinjamuri

Kevin Goodman on 4/15/08, 11:28 AM said...

I hear a lot of talk about measurement, metrics, and statistics. I would speculate that most successful iconic marketing campaigns were based on a creative premise that was original and immeasurable. It is refreshing to see an academic admit the fact that something’s can’t be taught, that some accomplishments are intuitive, and some accomplishers are talented (in vice of learned).

Though I am a firm believer that success can be emulated – You can bet ‘Accidental Branding’ will sit on my bookshelf.

Rich on 4/15/08, 3:40 PM said...

Thank you both for the substantive comments.

Creating and perpetuating myth is a difficult but doable prospect, even if it is lead by a marketer (but not a numbers marketer). However, it requires some discipline to maintain it and, as noted, you don’t want it to run away from you.

A myth, provided it is grounded in truth as David suggests, is a matter of being able to properly manage a message. For an artist it’s easier because ultimately, they alone are responsible for the myth as well as their brand.

The story, or a core message as I sometimes call it, is generally unexpected in that it demonstrates a significant contrast or significantly compelling story. As you mention Kevin, Warhol did it by doing the unexpected and forcing us to look at art differently thereby increasing the value of the art because of his method.

You don’t have to be a luxury brand to become a legend. Ray Kroc did fine, for example. So did Leslie Wexner, Frank Purdue, J.W. Marriot, Edwin Land, David Paker, etc. (the John Peterman, Craig Newmark, and Roxanne Quimby of their day). Have all these brands lived up the mythos that proceeds them? I think the results are mixed. In as much time as it took to establish the mythos behind those stories shared in David’s book, not all may live another 20.

JetBlue, Starbucks, Dell, Whole Foods, WallMart and others have all had their myths challenged recently or continuously, with mixed results. I believe that most of these companies had the right myth, but most of them have proven to be unsustainable to some degree, even if they were grounded in truth. On slip, even if cause by an act of God, and people seem almost eager prove that the myth is to fantastic or unfactual, as you mention.

Your “rules,” David, have absolutely succeeded as conversation starters. I also think you are absolutely right that the measurements have become flawed, perhaps not because measuring is bad, but because of the propensity to measure the wrong thing and then believe our own biased observations based on those measures.

Somewhere in the middle is the truth, I imagine. I’m equally happy to see you’ve taken the criticism as intended. Straight praise has become so commonplace in social media, I believe that it requires people who teach — like you, me, and others — to demonstrate it adds value to the conversation provided it is not diatribe. It means I’ve thought about what you’ve written much more than the ability to write “good job.”

You definitely have earned a fan here because your primary goal has been accomplished. You share some excellent stories and give people a reason to think. I expect your students feel the same.

Best,
Rich

Kevin Goodman said...

Your right Rich – Many brands other than luxury brands have been built on myth. I must have bumped my head on that one – I had the high dollar art market on my mind. I remember when Wal-Mart came to town, everything was made in the good ole U.S. of A and priced for us good hardworking folk. LOL, if you pardon my French but WTF happened and now walmart is the evil of America? Just a thought.

I started reading the Story Factor by Doug Lipman today. I purchased it about two years ago, read the preface and that was it. After reading a few chapters today it has become a very engaging read and I imagine that it ties into the myth making concept nicely.

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