Marketing With Meaning! Is There Any Other Way?

Bob Gilbreath's Road Map to Brand-Building Begins With Providing Value

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A confession: I've been cheating off Bob Gilbreath for quite some time.

The bad habit started in 1997, when Mr. Gilbreath was leader of the word-of-mouth subcommittee on Procter and Gamble Co.'s Future of Advertising Summer Intern Task Force (FAST), a group I supervised. You could put hundreds of influential blog entries about social media and word-of-mouth in a blender and they'd barely rival his spot-on thinking back then.

When he was promoted to P&G brand manager, running the successful, rewrite-the-rules-of-marketing Mr. Clean Auto Dry -- notching up word-of-mouth, request sampling, smart product demonstrations and early incarnations of social media -- again I found myself looking over his shoulder, taking notes.

Mr. Gilbreath's new book, "The Next Evolution of Marketing: Connect With Your Customer by Marketing With Meaning," revolves around a three-tiered Hierarchy of Meaningful Marketing: solution, connection and achievement. Serve well, and you'll reap the dividends of selling. Think Charmin providing toilets in Time Square, or Samsung's One World airport charging stations that rescued me while en route to ESOMAR in Switzerland earlier this month.

The book is a critical, timely and enriching read for anyone looking to succeed in a world of consumer control, media fragmentation and content co-creation. It's an honest diagnosis of advertising and marketing pains, but also a practical road map to digging ourselves out of our own hole.

Mr. Gilbreath presently serves as chief marketing strategist of Bridge Worldwide, a Cincinnati-based firm that's mushroomed from a handful of geekish digerati in the early '90s to a fast-growing, 250-plus fully-integrated WPP unit. His landscape of client experience, from health care to consumer product goods, paints a diverse and richly penetrating canvas of the "new marketing."

Curiously, Gilbreath openly concedes he's a walking contradiction: an ad creator by day, but an ad cynic by night. He speculates whether "advertising is killing social networking." He rails against marketing interruption, and as a dad worries about marketing intrusion and privacy. I mean, who allowed this guy to step into Don Draper's office?

And yet, who doesn't relate to this tension? Indeed, his somewhat schizophrenic self-diagnosis helps the book charge ahead quickly and thoughtfully with "dissonance reduction" prescriptions. It also provides a refreshing overlay of sincerity and authenticity we rarely see in most hubris-laced marketing books. He's even doubled down on the sincerity factor by developing an impressive iPhone app to compliment the book's themes and extend its conversation.

Not all the lessons or case studies in Mr. Gilbreath's book are new -- he revisits Dove Real Beauty, Nike "Word-of-Foot," Home Depot's education programs, Partnership for a Drug-Free America and Yahoo Answers -- but they are wrapped in critical context to help us see scalable potential beyond the "siloed experiment" zone. Importantly, he puts long-overdue perspective on the primacy of request sampling in brand building, and he nicely illustrates the role of service and support as a core marketing activity.

Yes, there are a few flaws. Some of the brands he cites selectively exercise "meaningful marketing" principles while perpetuating bad habits and tricks elsewhere. (Burger King is painted as an innovator, but I still can't give the brand basic feedback on being "meaningful.") He could have upgraded "listening" as a mission-critical starting point for marketers, and I remain dubious about most "cause marketing" succeeding vs. backfiring for brands.

Still, he's right on track and so wonderfully well-timed. While Bob Garfield's "Chaos Scenario" tempts us to hide under a bunker, find a new profession or outright throw in the towel, Mr. Gilbreath throws us -- I daresay -- a "meaningful" lifeline, one we can grab, hug, reference, stay afloat longer with and perhaps even ride upon happily through the choppy currents of media fragmentation and consumer control.

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Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000. He is also chair of the National Council of Better Business Bureaus. His biweekly column for Ad Age looks at the relationship between marketing and customer service in the age of consumer control.