Baskin Strays From Herd, Asks Brand Marketers to Rethink Strategy

'Branding Only Works on Cattle' Calls for Fresh Approach to Consumer Behavior

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Jonathan Salem Baskin's "Branding Only Works on Cattle" is the anti-"Hidden Persuaders." A book that not only raises serious questions about many of the methods used by today's marketers, but actually argues that branding as most people think of it is bullshit and that its proponents couldn't get us to tie our shoelaces, much less reprogram our subconscious to buy their stuff.

The central argument here is that for all marketers' talk, man-hours and budgets, they waste a lot of time on things that don't change consumer behavior. "If we could get someone else to do things, everyone would be thin, nobody would believe in UFOs and the Soviets would have won the Cold War. And our kids would do what we want them to," argues Mr. Baskin. He goes on to punch huge holes in the textbook idea of branding, especially as he forces the reader to look at the (often conveniently overlooked) gulf that exists between all those puffy surrogate measures -- awareness, recall, likeability and so on -- and the actual decision to purchase.

This is thought-provoking stuff and better than the other tracts I've read that riff on marketing's flaws. Unlike others, Mr. Baskin doesn't conveniently heap all the blame on a particular medium -- you know, "it's all the fault of the 30-second spot." Nor does he promise the ad world a silver bullet -- "just make your products smell nice/hire our agency and everything will be OK." Instead he simply asks brand marketers to confront some home truths about the intangible and sometimes pointless nature of some of what they do -- to confront, frankly, the things that other people in their organizations probably already think about them -- and to change their notions of what brand and branding are.

The downside of "Branding Only Works on Cattle" is that Baskin, by his own admission -- he ends the book with the statement "We're just getting started" -- wrecks more of the marketing establishment than he rebuilds. And where he does propose solutions they seem to live in a fantasy-business realm. For example, many of his suggestions to marketers seem to involve marketing and all other operating units converging into one entity, or at least being perfectly aligned since he essentially believes that reality -- the product, and a corporation's behavior -- equals the brand. That's like pointing out that we'd have a shot at world peace if only everyone in the Middle East got on.

Clearly Mr. Baskin's onto something, and it's something big and important, probably most easily defined as the need for the marketing world to stop hiding behind fluffy notions of "brand" and start showing what it can do in more tangible terms. But I also have a sense that Mr. Baskin can express his ideas more clearly and constructively than he does here, and could have borne a tougher editor. This is worthwhile reading and will spark debate, but I want something just a little cleaner, crisper and more actionable from this guy. I think he can deliver it, too.