Not 'Buying In': Rob Walker's First Marketing Book Falls Short

New York Times Magazine Columnist Fills Tome With Stale Case Studies and Too Few Brand Insights

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For the past few years, Rob Walker has been one of the most original observers of how brands emerge from the noise of culture. His weekly "Consumed" column in New York Times Magazine is among the smartest takes on marketing in the general-interest press because it begins with the product, not the advertising. His website,, is a funny and often surprising curation of brand-focused writing and photography.

So it only goes to follow that the publication of his first book-length treatment of the marketing business would be an occasion of Gladwell-ian proportions, the sort of thing that's read by everyone from the brand manager or junior account executive right up to the CEO and that's inescapable in conferences or PowerPoint presentations. I'm disappointed to report that "Buying In" is not that.

In the move from column to hardcover, Mr. Walker's lens hasn't changed. He still takes the right position in respect to the logic of branding -- that brands are shaped through complicated, chaotic ongoing conversations between corporations and ordinary people. It's a complex, almost evolutionary process that at times has very little to do with the practices, wishes and desires of chief marketing officers or ad agencies. As such, Mr. Walker is good at deconstructing the enduring myth of the hidden persuader, the gone-in-the-teeth, paranoiac understanding of marketers as puppetmasters who easily bend the will of consumers.

Mr. Walker's coinage for how marketing really works is "murketing," which in his words is a "shorthand description of the process of certain brand managers to blur the rules of the traditional sales pitch -- to make marketing more murky." Mr. Walker goes on to point out that murketing doesn't apply to the practices of the company that sells the product but reflects a dynamic, ongoing relationship. As a theoretical framework, murketing is just about unassailable. His examples -- from Pabst Blue Ribbon, a down-and-out beer resuscitated by the unlikely customer segment of bike messengers, to hip-hop culture's adoption of the workman boot brand Timberland -- are all good illustrations, nicely analyzed.

The problem with "Buying In" is that it doesn't really go beyond case studies -- albeit really well-written, narrative case studies -- of brands that operate on the fringes of marketing and shun the shotgun approach of your average Top 50 advertiser. In 2008, the details of how Red Bull or Toyota Scion go to market is no longer news; these cases feel slightly musty. There are some omissions as well. On the matter of online social media, a topic I'd love to read Mr. Walker weigh in on, readers get slim pickings. Leaving one of the marketing business' biggest questions almost wholly unaddressed makes for a large hole in his presentation.

If you're the kind of biz-book reader who seeks application as well as insight, there's not much here for you. But of course, that's probably part of the point. Many of the best brands emerge without much marketing activity or perhaps despite the activity that does go on. There's no 12-step program that will get you there. Still, as a takeaway, the notion of murketing -- however present it may be -- isn't enough to make this 260-page book worth the time.


The coinage of new buzzwords is undoubtedly a publishing imperative today. It's a wonder Rob Walker, Consumed columnist for The New York Times Magazine, didn't title his latest book after one of his crafty neologisms, like "Desire Code" or "Murketing."

Walker writes in the opening chapter: "We all want to feel like individuals. We all want to feel like part of something bigger than ourselves ... And resolving that tension is what the Desire Code is all about." At first glance, the Desire Code seems a rather pedestrian insight. But "Buying In" offers readers a valuable whirlwind tour of how consumers' hunger for inclusion plays out in some of today's most penetrative brands -- from the Red Hat Society to Pabst Blue Ribbon.

It's a worthwhile read for marketers working in the trenches who are eager for inspiration on how to navigate the murky task of marketing a brand today. Provocative insights and interviews with real consumers pepper the text. Dov Charney, CEO of American Apparel, makes a notable appearance -- albeit naked from the waist down -- in the best profile of this controversial brand I've ever read.

If you don't have time to read the entire book, take a close look at Chapter 12 and its exploration of "murketing ethics." Walker dives into a trio of brand case studies -- Timberland, Method, American Apparel -- that invert predominate marketing strategy by "making ethics central to the product, but not to the product's image." American Apparel, for example, now relies almost solely on sexy imagery to sell its utilitarian designs rather than focusing, as it did in its early days, on its L.A.-based manufacturing facilities and the living wages paid to workers. The chapter also explores the timely dilemma of attracting enough customers with an ethical message to "transcend niche status." --Mya Frazier
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