Stories are the way that we all learn best. Professor Koehn has provided six meticulously detailed ones about brand development by 18th and 19th century entrepreneurs (Josiah Wedgwood, H.J. Heinz, Marshall Field) as well as 20th century ones (Estee Lauder, Howard Schultz, and Michael Dell). Almost any reader will learn details new to her or him from these cases. Each example focuses on how important brands got started on a shoestring. The book has a major weakness in that the financial details of the six businesses are too sketchy to really help understand the economics of what the entrepreneurs did.
Wedgwood improved the quality of earthenware, and changed the way that the products were used by the wealthy and the aspiring. He courted the visible elites and royalty to inspire emulation by those who could afford the products.
H.J. Heinz offered quality and convenience at a time when most preserved food products were shoddy and women did most of their own preserving.
Marshall Field courted the carriage trade who could afford to pay top dollar for top quality goods and service.
Estee Lauder provided high quality cosmetics at more affordable prices.
Howard Schultz introduced most Americans to the latte, taking coffee from being a source of caffeine to a tasteful experience.
Michael Dell changed the business model for how corporations got their computing equipment, customizing for each one just-in-time.
Having been educated in both history and in business, it is clear that Professor Koehn comes at the problem more from the historical discipline than from the business one. As a result, the book will be most appealing to those who are interested in the origins of one or more of these brands, companies, or entrepreneurs. At this level, the book is five-star entertainment.
Business readers will find that relevant details are often missing. For example, Wedgwood staged very expensive exhibitions of his wares. You wonder how he could afford to do this, and finally learn near the end of the study that the company had enormous profit margins. H.J. Heinz is described as being very successful in a predecessor company, yet he goes bankrupt. Some information about his margins would probably have revealed that he had low margins. The information is not included. There are bits and pieces of ratios and annual revenue numbers, but the financial side of these examples is clearly underdeveloped. That's a shame, since they all built up important enterprises on a shoestring.
The choice of cases seems flawed from a business perspective. Five of the six are consumer products and services. Of the five, all appealed initially to high income people when good products and services were largely unavailable. Forming brands in such an environment is no great trick. Readers would have learned more about brand building from cases where the competition was fierce from people who were providing exactly the same choices.
As a result, from a business perspective, this is a three star book. I averaged the five and the three star ratings out to reach my four star conclusion.
After you read this book, you should think about how you decide which brands to trust, and how you go about establishing the trustworthiness of brands that you represent. What else is important before trust can be earned? In particular, pay attention to the significance of establishing improved business models (something that all six entrepreneurs had in common).
Make your brand stand alone in its desirability in the eyes of all who see it!