The 3 Most Influential Branding Books

Still influencing today

Three books, all written over a half century ago and published within a three year period in the mid-sixties, may have influenced my thinking with respect to marketing and branding strategy more than any other books written since. The authors are Peter Drucker, Ted Levitt, and Alfred Sloan.

Managing for Results

by Peter Drucker

In my view, this is the best single book on management in the market, and it’s still remarkably relevant today. The book states that executives should exploit opportunities rather than solve problems, and then allocate resources accordingly. It really paved the way for brand strategy as an anecdote to short term profits.

It also identified identifying and actively managing results as a key role of management. A key result area could be anything that drives success, such as the leadership position for a product, superior technical staff or efficient distribution. Drucker also stated that business can be categorized into nine types including: today’s breadwinner, tomorrow’s breadwinner, investment in managerial ego, justified specialties, and the has-been to name a few. Each type should be managed and resourced differently.

Years later, BCG popularized the growth-share matrix, which was a simplified version of these ideas. The book states that a firm wins by leadership, rather than competence, and any leadership position is transitory. My thinking on developing customer must haves” that create new subcategories flows from this idea.

Drucker showed a remarkable understanding of the importance of the customer. In fact it starts with his famous “The purpose of a business is to create a customer.” He notes that you need to understand both the customer and the non-customer, looking at what products, services and activities are competition for their money and attention.

Marketing, he explains, is more than sales but gets at product design driven by market research and distribution. And branding involves more than obvious attribute characteristics to end-benefits such as saving time and earning prestige. Drucker was a rare business strategist that really captured the power and complexities of the customer.

I had the good fortune to attend a Coca-Cola retreat in the mid-90s alongside the top three executives at Coke and six branding gurus, one of which was Drucker. He blew us away with his penetrating and spot-on analysis of the emerging beverage market and Coke’s strategy options. The author of some 39 books, half in management and the rest in economics and subjects like Japanese art, he single-handedly advanced the practice of management.

Innovation in Marketing

by Ted Levitt

This book changed the way executives looked at their firms. One idea that came from his “Marketing Myopia” article, published in HBR and drawn upon in the book, said that firms lose growth opportunities and even risk decline by viewing themselves as product-makers rather than customer-servers.

He argued that firms need to broaden their view of business by moving up the customer’s value chain. Thus, railroad firms should be in the transportation business, petroleum firms in the energy business and movie companies in the entertainment business. Expanding the business vision dramatically changes strategy and opens up innovation and growth. This concept led me to focus on the value proposition that goes beyond functional attributes when defining a business strategy or a brand.

There was a time in which it appeared that there would be a Nobel Prize in marketing. My nominee was Ted Levitt. His ideas did more to change marketing than any other of his generation. I was once walking on the Harvard campus as a very young, very quantitative professor and Ted saw me, invited me into his office and spent over an hour discussing my work (dreadfully boring) and my ideas about the future of research in marketing (I didn’t have a clue). Amazing person.

My Years with General Motors

by Alfred Sloan

Sloan was a top executive at General Motors from 1917 to 1956, and his account of path-making decisions are instructive and interesting. He, unlike some modern GM executives, had a brilliant brand strategy. He created tiers of brands with different price levels, target markets and product designs. The modern version would be laddered from Chevrolet to Pontiac to Oldsmobile (now dead of course) to Buick to Cadillac. He asserted “A car for every purse and purpose.”

A companion innovation was to make all these divisions completely autonomous. In fact, he said that “the responsibility of each operation should be in no way limited.” However, he used a series of organizational devices to promote cooperation and optimal resource allocation among the divisions. His ability to manage innovation and the changing marketplace is also innovative and instructive.

He is indeed the father of the modern organization. How amazing that these three books and their authors had so much influence on the management of brands and businesses of modern times. And with insights still relevant, they are well worth reading today.

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