Fall Reading: Two Great Marketing Books That Inspire My USC Students

By Jeffrey Hirsch

I’ve always felt that if you’ve got a limited time to read, your career will be better served by prioritizing newspapers, magazines (The Atlantic Monthly, not People), novels, history and biography over business books.

Isaacson’s biographies of Einstein and Jobs, a thoughtful New Yorker essay, novels from great contemporary writers like Gary Shteyngart or classics like The Brothers Karamazov will actually teach you a lot more about marketing –and life – than glorified “how to” books which all too often are simple ideas stretched into 300 page tomes when 3-5 pages would do.

Perhaps The University of Southern California would let me teach a course on the marketing lessons of Shakespeare and David Foster Wallace, but as a professor of branding, they prefer that I stick with more traditional business fare. The good news is that there are exceptions to the rule, business books well worth your time. Two of these are Jim Stengel’s Grow and Youngme Moon’s Different, must-reads that we’ve assigned to our graduate Communications Management students at USC for the past few years. This year, I’ve added two books that are also well worth your consideration.

Everything I Know About Business I Learned from the Grateful Dead by Barry Barnes has been a student favorite. While virtually none of them have ever heard of the band, they are fascinated about by how much of their success can be attributed to business tactics that were well ahead of their time that are now considered best practices.

In addition to embracing an inclusive, flat management style, they understood “social media,” “how to go viral” and the importance of building community well before the Internet existed. Understanding that their recordings – which never sold well – could never convey the wild, improvisation driven experience of their live shows, they broke a cardinal rule of the music business by actually encouraging concert goers to record their shows and share (not sell) the tapes with other Deadheads.

And in order to compensate for the lack of revenue from recordings, they relied on touring and merchandising. That’s now the accepted business model for the industry as few artists can rely on streaming revenue to make a living.

Yes, their product was music. But they understood what they were truly selling: An ecstatic, shared community experience. As a result, they built an incredibly strong and enduring brand that has outlived its most important member, guitarist and singer Jerry Garcia.

Hit Makers by Derek Thompson is a brilliant effort aimed at explaining the unexplainable. A collection of fascinating stories breaks down the phenomena of a wide variety of pop culture “hits,” starting with Braham’s Lullaby, written in the 19th century, and continuing forward through time with other break-out success stories, including the first major rock & roll hit record, Rock Around the Clock along with properties such as  Star Wars and Fifty Shades of Gray.

One of my favorite chapters focuses on the iconic mid-century designer Raymond Lowey and his MAYA theory: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. The idea is that most people can’t relate to something too avant-garde. Anything completely new runs the risk of alienation, so innovations must be rooted in something that is familiar, or acceptable, on some level.

This helps explain why Hollywood films and TV shows are never pitched as entirely original, breakthrough ideas, but as mashups between already successful properties. A film called “Princesses” was recently pitched as “The Avengers meets fairy tale princesses.” FOX’s “Scream Queens” was pitched as “American Horror Story” meets “Glee.” In other words, crafting something entirely new from something already well known.

While the good news is that Thompson offers some tangible insights for all of us trying to create “hits,” whether they be successful brands or TV shows, songs or movies, the bad news is how capricious the entire enterprise can be. As in the case of “Rock Around the Clock,” the difference between success and obscurity is often just dumb luck.

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