I don't normally give books bad reviews. This is because I only have time to read books about subjects that interest me, and there is nearly always something worth praising in the efforts of an author who has gone to the trouble of writing a book about a shared interest. A book has to be pretty awful before one feels the need to say, `This is awful; don't buy this book.'
I feel the need to say, `This is awful, don't buy this book.'
The trouble is, this book is so awful that I couldn't bring myself to finish reading it - so there may be many brilliant aperçus lying in wait for the seeker of wisdom after page 11 (which is where I lost the will to live, or at least the will to read further) but I wouldn't bet £14.99 on it, if I were you (as I did, in WH Smiths in Marylebone Station, thinking that the book might offer me some interesting thoughts about marketing. It didn't.)To be honest, I struggled to get to page 11. I nearly gave up before I got to the end of the Introduction. Let me tell you why.
In the Introduction, Martin Lindstrom (`among the globe's foremost marketers') tries to persuade us that he went on a `brand detox' for one year. For a whole twelve months, he tried not to buy any new brands. Did you really, Martin? Are you sure that you're not just saying that to try to inject a little interest into the otherwise banal introduction to your book? Are you sure that you're not trying to promote the carefully cultivated image of yourself as a wild and wacky (yet oh so percipient)thinker-outside-more-boxes-than-you-would-find-outside-the-back-of-a-shoe-store? Let's see.
Martin can no longer buy brands of breakfast cereal and stuff, so he starts to eat an apple for breakfast. OK. Let's assume that he buys his apples loose from a greengrocer. But does he drink tea or coffee? If so, does he buy his tea loose from a tea chest in his local greengrocers, take it home in a paper bag and empty it into a tea caddy? Does he buy his coffee beans the same way? Does he get his milk from a churn at the end of a farmer's lane? Does he bake his own bread? If so, does he get his yeast in a bowl from a baker?
Martin, sadly, can't buy a round of drinks or gift for a friend because of his brand detox. He fears that `my friends secretly thought I was being tight-fisted, that my brand detox was just an excuse to be cheap.' Nah - no real friend would think that, Martin. But why not give everyone apples as a birthday present? Or the lovely (but unpasteurised) milk from that churn at the end of your farmer's lane? Or paper bags of tea from the greengrocer?On the matter of standing a round at the pub, why not give the money to somebody else in the group and ask them to buy a round of drinks without telling you what brand they chose? At least you might get to keep a few of your presumably scarce friends.
This oh-so-amusing conceit of Lindstrom's is simply stark nonsense. What, exactly, did the Lindstrom family eat for this year? What did he wash himself with? What, if you'll forgive me, did he wipe his bottom with? (And, in case you're wondering, he wasn't allowed to buy newspapers either.) And on board an aeroplane (Lindstrom is very keen to let us know that he is a jet-setting consultant who lives on planes and in hotel rooms) he cannot order a brand by name. This little subterfuge apparently gets round the whole 'brand detox' rigmarole: he has to ask for `a cola' (even presumably, if he is flying with Virgin Airlines and he can be absolutely certain what brand of cola they will serve him).
Btu then, I found myself thinking: which airline is Lindstrom flying with? And what hotel is he staying at? Aren't those brand choices? Lindstrom point is that it is virtually impossible to escape from `brands' in the modern world. He is, in fact, right about this, but his silly `brand detox' nonsense strongly suggests that he doesn't actually understand what he thinks he is enlightening us about.
Despite these, uh, reservations, I was prepared to allow Lindstrom his detox nonsense as a dramatic conceit that was trying to make a serious point, until I got to the passage where he explained how he had fallen off his brand detox wagon. After yet another exhausting flight around the world delivering high-powered marketing seminars (or whatever), Lindstrom finds himself without a clean shirt for the next day's presentation. He's only got the sweaty old black T-shirt that he has travelled in. Now, call me old fashioned, but I wouldn't pay an especially high consultancy fee to an allegedly world-class marketer who can't plan ahead sufficiently to pack a clean shirt for the presentation that I have paid him handsomely for. But that is not the point. Having only the one sweaty black T-shirt that is currently clinging to his back, Lindstrom is forced to buy a new, white T-shirt from a local store (Lindstrom finds himself on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus). This T-shirt bears the slogan `I Love Cyprus.' Lindstrom has, he wails, broken his brand detox, `and all for a dreadful T-shirt too'.
My point is this: a T-shirt bought in Cyprus bearing the slogan `I Love Cyprus' (or even `My parents went to Cyprus and all they bought me was this lousy T-shirt') is NOT A BRAND. This is about as far from a brand as it is possible to get. What are the brand values of this T-shirt? If you fell in love with any of its qualities, how would you buy another one and still be certain that it had the same qualities? An `I Love Cyprus' T-shirt is about as undifferentiated as coffee beans or pork bellies. The many millions of `I love Cyprus T-shirts' in the world will be made to different standards and from different materials. The particular `I Love Cyprus T-shirt' that Lindstrom happened to buy does not offer him any brand qualities that would enable him to repeat that experience, even if he wanted to. "I want an `I Love Cyprus' T-shirt" he would be reduced to gibbering. "No - not that one, one like the one I bought in that store in Cyprus. It was a nice one. It had certain indefinable brand qualities that I am struggling to put into words, but I would happily pay you more if you could offer me an identical T-shirt experience."
I'm aware that I am starting to foam at the mouth, but having just spent £14.99 on a book by `a marketing veteran who lists McDonald's, Procter & Gamble and Microsoft among his former clients' and having discovered that this veteran has no idea what a brand even IS . . . well, I was a little disappointed. (And whatever you're paying him, Procter & Gamble, Microsoft etc . . . )
I did try to read the first chapter, really I did, but then I came to another carpet-chewing moment. Lindstrom is trying to persuade us that advertisers (wicked, sinister, manipulative etc etc) are trying to influence babies in the womb. Well, I can put up with that as a bit of sensationalism if Lindstrom has any kind of solid point to make. But then we are offered the opinions (I use the word lightly) of Minna Huotilainen, research fellow at the University of Helsinki. You must have heard of her. No, me neither. She talks about the effect of music on unborn babies in their mothers' womb. `When the mother frequently listens to music, the fetus will learn to recognize and prefer that same music compared to other music.' I don't mind that; that might well be true. But sadly, the world-famous Ms Huotilainen goes on to say this: `The fetus will build the same musical taste with his/her mother automatically, since all of the hormones of the mother are shared by the fetus.'
So now hormones are meant to be carrying sound memories from mother to child? Forgive me, but at this point it seemed pointless to read further. This book, I would hesitantly suggest, appears to be meretricious nonsense that will use any dubiously-sourced pseudo-science to advance its shallow, sensationalist and self-promoting cause. But I could be wrong.
One last thing. Lindstrom (embarrassingly) tells us that he always wears black (hence the horror of being forced to end his brand detox by buying a non-branded, white `I Love Cyprus' T-Shirt) because (and this is the cringe-worthy bit)`James Bond always wore black'. Now, this is not only one of the saddest statements I have ever read by a best-selling author, but it is also false. Even a cursory search on the web will show that James Bond's `trademark' outfit was a dark blue (not black) suit. And even if all you know about James Bond has been learned from the world-famous films, you would be hard-pressed to miss the fact the Roger Moore incarnation of Bond spent a lot of his time on screen dressed in a ludicrous (but not black) Safari suit. Do your research, Lindstrom! I think that you may be thinking of the man in the Milk Tray TV advertisements. And, since you seem to be a bit confused about the issue, Cadbury's `Milk Tray' really IS a brand, but any old `I Love Cyprus' T-shirt is not.