Brand About. A Seriously Playful Approach for Passionate Brand‐Builders and Merchants

David Bishop (Department of Marketing, University of Otago, New Zealand)

Journal of Product & Brand Management

ISSN: 1061-0421

Article publication date: 20 September 2011




Bishop, D. (2011), "Brand About. A Seriously Playful Approach for Passionate Brand‐Builders and Merchants", Journal of Product & Brand Management, Vol. 20 No. 6, pp. 500-502.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This is one of those books that makes you think as you read it. It gives snippets of information that you have probably never heard or thought of and looks further into key topics. Unlike many texts on branding, Brand About looks beyond branding by manufacturers and includes those people who merchandise brands. Syverson coins the term “Merchketeers” to reflect this wider viewpoint.

How does the concept of “brand about” work? The author has travelled the world and was impressed by the aborigines of Australia who “go walkabout”. That means, put simply, that they gain experience of their world by visiting it, thinking about it. Syverson suggests that brand managers need to do more of that: to get out of their comfort zones and take a closer look at the world.

She started life in Colorado. This reviewer's only experience of Colorado is having looked out of plane windows from 30,000 feet at a dry, desolate place – dotted with areas of civilization here and there! The plane analogy seems a good model for a description of this book. People who only take high‐level views miss out on so much! Brand About takes you down to look closer instead of flying over.

Ten chapters cover a number of broad issues, some more absorbing than others. The overall experience, returning to the analogy of a transcontinental flight, was like sitting next to and talking to a fellow passenger who is knowledgeable and easy to listen to. Occasionally something of a missionary feeling comes across, and occasionally you feel you are back in junior school when an interesting series of points culminates in questions starting “How can your … ” or “How will you … ”, which can get annoying after a while! But this is a comfortable and worthwhile flight!

An early chapter urges readers to “Play” in their brand. Do not take things too seriously, try to think outside the normal bounds of brand management. Many people need to “think outside of the box” but are too busy to do so! Maybe we just need to do it, and Syverson cites successful marketers who have. The second chapter encourages us to ask questions, often of ourselves, and be “insatiably curious”. The need to think outside of one's home state or country is emphasised: Fortune magazine is quoted as reporting “to help prepare promising leaders for the future, companies are forcing their employees to take on new global risks” (p. 39). Like the aborigines, we learn not just by looking but also by listening. Chapter 3 gives hints on how to listen properly, especially to customers. In this chapter, a beachball is suggested as a metaphor for an organisation. Beachballs are made up of a number of segments in different colours. Each segment is like the divisions of a company where people “naturally work all day, every day in their particular colored stripe (Accounting, marketing, customer service, operations or merchandising)” (p. 58). They need to see the entire beachball, talk with others, especially customers and intermediaries. “Listen, watch, share stories. Only when we feel our customers' culture viscerally can we bring them what they want” (p. 66).

Risk taking is encouraged. Chapter 5 talks about learning from past successes and failures as this is often where the seeds of future success may lie. Dare to think new things about brands and take risks even if being ordinary appears a safer way to go. Richard Branson is quoted: “I'm not the sort of person who fears failure” (p. 80) People who manage brands, both in large corporations and one‐person businesses, often fear failure. But being too cautious may be as damaging as being reckless. A number of very successful businesspeople encourage risk taking. The founder of McDonalds, for example, said “If you're not a risk taker you should get the hell out of business” (p. 81). But, to keep the argument balanced, a reader should remember that history is written by the victors. Managers in Fannie Mae and Lehman Brothers took risks!

Brand managers are encouraged to morph in to “merchketeers”. Do not be bound by the 4Ps. Think like a marketer but also act like a merchant. “It is the job of the merchketeer to be sure that every product is ‘on brand,’ focuses on the customers' needs and desires, and creates a solution to make their lives simpler, easier or better in some way. In addition, merchketeers add the surprise and magic that brands need to delight and wow their customers” (p. 95). Chapter 6 gives many examples of how this might be done with the merchketeer acting as a herald, someone who announces important news to the world, does. People often switch on the TV to catch up on latest the news, without actually knowing what the news might be. This is just natural inquisitiveness. Some brands become so interesting to their consumers or even observers from the sidelines, that people “can't wait to see what they do next!” (p. 110). That only happens when marketers think outside of the 4Ps and take a few risks.

People should be encouraged to think of brand management as an art and what they do as a craft (chapter 7). Brand managers and brand champions should both be mentored and mentor others, much as artisans have worked with apprentices in traditional crafts. Co‐creation, especially via the internet, may have buried the traditional connections between producer and consumer, but good merchketeers can see new opportunities to get closer to consumers rather than more remote! Chapter 8 suggests ways that modern communications have taken brand managers away from markets of millions to millions of markets. Like any good book, from time to time, a comment was made that makes the reader's mind wander. On page 151 the writer tells us how “nearly impossible it is to find a cup of high‐quality decaf black tea.” Her point is that mass marketing means that individual tastes could not be catered for well. But now they can! This reviewer started to wonder: What do decaf beverage manufacturers do with all that caffeine?

Chapters 8 and 9 emphasize the need to think of people as individuals, and chapter 9 discusses Amish communities as a model of something that seems to work and can be expanded on where marketers work more closely with customers. Above all marketers should have fun but not be silly or reckless, and aim to get back to the simple life of connecting in person, adding value to people's lives and reaping the rewards in return.

A lot of questions are asked by the author. Possibly the most important one is left to page 174. “When did we lose sight that first and foremost our customers are complicated human beings just like us?” People have been through “high tech” and now many are looking for “low tech.” We need to be close to our customers to understand how future brands need to realize that modern marketing technology allows one‐on‐one better than any media since the old days of face‐to‐face marketing.

This may seem like a dream to marketers who are hitched to a grindstone of cutting costs, building sales, boosting profits, but in chapter 10, Syverson encourages readers to maybe dump things that no longer really add value to a brand and “dream” what might be possible. This may be the first step to a new reality for brand management.

This book is worth reading. It takes about as long to read as a flight from coast to coast in the USA. It will not give you answers but will encourage you to think about what might be possible. It might even encourage you not to rush from where you are to where you want to be but stop off in places, take time out to think about things that you may only otherwise see for a few fleeting seconds from far too high up.

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