Book Review: Brains on Fire

Gratitude is due to Brains on Fire as a company, as they inspired us to launch this blog. (And as they’re all about listening, get Spike to write more often: a little spikiness livens up a dish.) They’ve now given us a book - one that risks being misinterpreted, and which I suspect plays less well in the UK than it does on its home turf. There’s a lot of talk within its covers – and even on them – about passion, love, powerfulness and what some will consider other qualities that qualify as ‘the usual suspects’. The book actually explicitly mentions cheerleaders more than once, and some people this side of the Atlantic may choke a little on their sherry reading it. (They would have better objections, but I’ll come back to them.)

The misinterpretation that I fear with this book is that – despite the clear statements it contains to the contrary – some will reject it, before or after reading it, as being mostly about social media. (It isn’t: it goes out of its way to – quite rightly – remind its readers that 90% of the world’s interaction still happens offline, although I’d say that percentage is dropping.) It’s headlining of the idea of ‘movements’ also left me wondering if its pitch would work as effectively in the UK as in the US: having now read the book, I felt it was mostly actually about forging closer and more loyal customer relationships and about – to use the word Ford’s Head of Social Media uses in a back cover blurb – ‘humanization’.

The book works the reader through a series of ten lessons, all of which reference that central motif of ‘movements’. Personally, I found some of the book’s sub-headings more useful, not least the very first one that crops up in the Introduction: “It’s About People, Stupid”. Business ultimately comes down to one set of people selling things to another set of people; the better (and the better informed) the dialogue, the more likely the sale. And the possibly the better the product gets, as the company listens to the customer(s) to understand what they really want, need or value. One of the book’s key lessons is to listen: while you can’t turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, you can make use of a company’s ears to keep the silk purse a little fuller.

Though this is a book of undoubted enthusiasm and brio – words I suspect its authors would enjoy hearing being used about it – I reached its end wondering if it might not have served its own cause more effectively by boxing a little more cleverly. Those the book will see as most in need of persuading – budget holders, marketing officers schooled in capturing metrics and measuring ROI – will probably find the least here: heavy on encouragement, the book is light on facts, figures and hard evidence. (If you’ve been reading our accounts of MBTI, this is not a book for your organisation’s ISTJs.)

The authors’ approach is through case studies, although their case would have been better presented had they had the modesty to include examples of ‘movements’ that were not the product of their own initiatives – if you’re going to write at length about “word of mouth marketing”, it might be worth checking that you’re not committing one of the concept’s most important faux pas: talking about yourself. Nor is this the only valid criticism, but I think the comments of Tom Moradpour, International Marketing Director at Pepsi, need little introduction beyond flagging his job title before you read the extract from his review:

That said, I was frustrated by the lack of significant metrics of success in the book. Don’t get me wrong, I am not in the camp that thinks marketing initiatives are only validated by the sales lift they generate; but I don’t think either that a kitten dies each time you say “Social Media ROI”. You decide what success looks like when you set targets and objectives, and then evaluate actions against your own criteria, be it sales, awareness, equity, loyalty… Up to lesson 10, nothing tangible in Brains on Fire, and really even that “results” chapter feels very light. That makes it hard to agree fully with, and decide to divert resources to WOM movements (unless you are already convinced). But even then: how much should you invest?”

In reflecting on the book after I’d read it, I noticed another interesting dichotomy. Being the kind of person I am, I like companies that use their eyes and ears to provide excellent service and to hone their offering – I don’t like feeling like my role as consumer is simply to be on the receiving end. As an individualist – and all purchases or commitments are made by individuals, without whom there is no authentic passion to commit – I’m left uneasy by the sense that ‘movements’ are some kind of holy grail to which we must all belong.

In the context of social campaigns – and there’s no doubting the worthiness of Love 146 (campaigning against child-sex slavery and trafficking) or Rage Against The Haze (an anti-smoking lobby in Virginia), to cite two examples of the book – I might or might not join: I’m more likely to donate, or tell others who I think might be interested. But in the absence of enforced legislation, their aims require movements. In the case of a product – even a product that plays a role in a treasured pastime – I suspect I’m either cynical or media-savvy enough to draw the conclusion that marketing it isn’t my job. The whole ‘movements’ thing – which struck me as an adaptation of Seth Godin’s “tribes thing” – makes me a little itchy as soon as there’s even the faintest whiff of being commandeered for someone else’s purpose. I’m no more keen on being whipped up than I am on being whipped. Movements may or may not be replacing campaigns as the latter fails in response to the increasing marketing awareness of a an advertising-saturated population, but that same awareness makes me wonder how long movements can sustain their position as the new rock’n’roll. (The book is, to be fair, scrupulous in pointing out the importance of transparency and authenticity: however captivating the top-note of passion, commitment and enthusiasm that may scent a fledgling movement, the faintest suspicion of a base note of bullshit can turn up the noses of potential new recruits in an instant.)

From my other roles in web and social media development, I’m more than aware of the potential for tapping into the enthusiasm of customers. One non-Brains on Fire client mentioned in the book manufactures an internationally known lubricant and cleaning product, and indeed has an active web-based fan club. Having worked with them on several of their national websites, I’m also familiar with a potential peril. Post the world’s tweets that mention your product on your home page, and some of the world will obligingly suggest uses for your products that will make some reader’ hair or toes curl in shock. Those suggestions will also make the more ‘command and control’-oriented of your colleagues suggest the company steps away from social media before someone – or someone’s reputation – gets hurt. (Given its doubtful the person who tweeted even knew their words would wind up on a company website, it’s wasn’t even a case of them setting out to cause palpitations.) These kind of tensions – or a wider variety of them – are easily triggered where one part of an organisation wants to fully embrace their ‘fans’ and another part wants to put their arms around them only so that they can be sure exactly where they are. This is a point that book rather skips over:

And what about that “What if someone says something bad about us?” question? We’ll let Jay Gillespie of Fiskars answer that one: “It’s okay to hear the bad things, because now you can fix them.” And that’s as brilliant as it is simple. But it does take courage.”

Well, up to a point, but … if the bad things aren’t fixable, or the bad things are about a third party or are libellous (in the case I’m remembering, they were both libellous and obscene), it takes more than courage to deal with it. It can take legal departments and very quick-fingered IT support staff. Giving customers genuine ownership raises questions that go beyond marketing messages: it strays into areas where the legal department (a Brains on Fire bête noir, it seems) will get a little antsy, where product development may feel a little undermined, and where key stakeholders will start coughing about the return on their investment.

It also strikes me that word of mouth marketing may not ‘be for everyone’ in other ways. By all means do your best to find out why a customer might care, or what speaks to them best (I can’t help but notice I’m being too English to talk in terms of sparking the passion conversation), but there are situations where a customer just wants to buy the thing and have done with it. Sometimes it really is just toothpaste, and I want to brush my teeth rather than join the fanclub and have a half-hour chat with fellow devoted brushers. Given how rarely we nowadays buy direct from the manufacturer, and how prevalent chain retailing (and the faceless-by-design online retailing) has become, attempts to inject this approach into all arenas seems too hopeful. Let me illustrate by going back to that point about rock’n’roll …

While that’s hardly the kind of music I enjoy making, or even listening to, I do buy guitars. (Colleagues at ASK will mutter quietly about ‘understatement’.) One of the case studies in the Brains on Fire book is Best Buys, and their Mi11 initiative to introduce high-end musical instruments in selected stores and empower staff to engage with local buyers and so on. I noticed that this case study was less developed than others, although the authors argue that it’s an incomplete initiative in its early days. Judging by a recent online Job Ad, the programme is now rolling out across the country, even if searching their website for ‘Mi11’ draws a blank.

What interested me more was the reaction of the online guitar playing community. I’m a reader of The Gear Page, a large, internal (though heavily-US slanted) web forum of guitar players: it has a reputation for being at the ‘corksniffing’ (fussy, upmarket, particular and yes ok plain snobby) end of the musical instrument spectrum. The Best Buy programme is getting a mixed review, which ranges from ‘they’re really keen on pricing and I’m getting some bargains, although I’m worried the specialist stores will go to the wall’ to ‘we’re talking about musical instruments here and there’s no way I’d buy something so personal from a big box retailer’. (Its staggered roll out also means a lot of guitar buyers aren’t even aware of it.) The staff are also getting mixed reviews in different locations: some reviewers mention that they’re friendly and not too pushy, while others (to be honest, a larger percentage) are hugely disparaging about their knowledge. From 30 years experience of musical instrument shops, staff that are too cool or self-absorbed to interact with or even notice customers are something of a hazard, but far more so in the chain retailers.

The book’s assessment of the program is as follows:

In the case of Best Buy’s Mi11 musical instruments movement, it’s too early to tell about sales results. What we do know is that engagement is running deep. For example, 12 percent of employees in the musical instruments division applied for the leadership positions. That’s unheard of for a giant retail brand like Best Buy – considering the fact that a lot of those stores-within-stores were open only a couple of months at the time. Of course, there are many other things that will be measured. Best Bury Marketing Strategy and Communication executive Jamie Plesser weighs in: “A movement will help us land the awareness challenge. It helps deliver on credibility. A conversation is an experience in and or itself.””

What I’m sensing from the customers is that they are aware – mostly that there are some bargains to be had in unlikely territory, but the territory lacks any genuine appeal. (And 12% of people in low paid jobs applying for promotion doesn’t strike me as so remarkable either, although I don’t have any comparative stats on hand.) Mi11 would seem to have engaged the staff – so HR are probably pretty happy – but not necessarily the customer. Best Buy is challenging Guitar Center – the biggest US rival, but also a company rumoured to be on the brink of going bust. But from the point of view of the guitar buying community – and in the sense that they play together and hang around in bars boring each other’s partners talking incessantly about guitars, they’re a very vague form of community – one large chain is threatening another large chain that has already put many of the preferred option (small independent retailers with genuine expert knowledge) out of business. If Best Buy pulls out of musical instruments, there may be swatches of the country with no bricks and mortar retail option at all.

Ultimately, much as I enjoyed the book – it’s a breezy read that says a lot of surprisingly sensible things, especially when it focuses on being people-centric – I felt like I’d read a very long, carefully toned ad for the whole idea of movements (and, of course, the whole idea of their company). That left me pondering my qualm about the appropriateness of movements – fine if what needs solving is an incarcerated Nelson Mandela, rather more debatable when it comes to flogging guitars. At least from the buyer’s point of view.

I’m not convinced there’s anything inherently attractive about the idea of tribes – which conjures up associations of warfare, gang strife, sectarianism and the more worrying end of populism – other that they seem to be passingly fashionable. I understand the psychology of humans having a need to belong, and I can perceive the social atomisation that can so easily be encouraged by a culture that promotes self-interest, pseudo-personalisation and a watering down of social interaction by moving much of it online (I understand, for example, the book’s dislike of the easiness of clicking a ‘Like’ button – a point better made in Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion – read our review).

But I’m not yet convinced that the good people at Brain on Fire have sold me entirely on word of mouth marketing, as I’m not sure they’ve thought through all the nuances, the cultural change challenges for organisations, or the potential reactions of customers. Then again, I’m not entirely sure that they – and Mr Godin and many others – haven’t equally heavily oversold the rather more simple, less earth shattering and decidedly less sexy/mojo-laden/passion-ignited (delete according to cultural preference) ideas of talking and listening to customers and remembering we’re all people. The book captured my ears, but I’m waiting to see if the world’s reaction to it has captured theirs. If they have, their follow-up should be a cracker.

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