Book Review: “Buying In”

by Chris Wendel

The world of marketing seems to be constantly adjusting to changing mediums, ad leery consumers and technology that allows us to more easily ignore messages altogether. It is a well accepted notion that through the years we as consumers have become hipper to those selling us brands and products.

It takes someone like Rob Walker to tackle the nuances of this topic with his recent book Buying In. Walker authors a regular New York Times column entitled Consumed. It only makes sense that he would take much of that work and more closely examine consumer behavior in a more developed format. The end result is a book reads more like a detailed college dissertation than a popular business book but with observations that will defy common beliefs and expectations.

Walker sets the tone by combining “murky” and “marketing” to coin the term “murketing” . Murketing describes the unconventional ways a brand can advance in a more permission based fashion.

Walker explores some of the unlikeliest sources of his murketing, using modern success stories, including the resurgent companies: Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer and iPod, and the upstart product lines: Red Bull, Ecko, Hello Kitty, and Scion.

One of Walker’s best case studies is Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR), that was given up for dead the early 2000’s until it reemerged as the hipster counterculture beer of choice in towns like Philadelphia, Richmond (VA), and Portland. Walker goes unfer cover in Portland to tell the story of PBR resurgence as a cheap $1 beer by hard scrabble bike messengers who were seeking a cheap replacement for the defunct Blitz brand.

The PBR brand continued to thrive as a counter culture brand that succeeded without any traditional mass media advertising. One PBR marketing person describes turning down a plea from the musician Kid Rock’s lawyer to be the brand’s spokesperson. Fearing the label of being a “sellout” by its reverent community, the bare bones marketing staff choose instead to throw small amounts of money at sponsoring ground level events like bicycle polo events and having advertising specialty items available for PBR drinkers that sought them out.

The PBR example shows how subtle the advertising process has become. Shout your messages from the mountains for all to hear and it will likely be ignored. Give consumers the tools to spread the word themselves, make the brand part of the consumer’s chosen identity, and your product or service may actually have a better chance of thriving

The traditional belief was that mass marketing used reliable methods such as radio, newspaper, and television that sent out targeted messages to an audience hungry for cues directing them where to go and what to buy. Walker describes in detail how some but not all of this is true with over 11 pages of detailed footnotes following the 240 page narrative.

The other prevailing idea is that over time, we as a society have become overloaded with the messages, became hipper to these subtle and not so subtle intentions, and in the case of many young consumers, resisted to the point of rebellion. The advance of digital video recorders, mp3 players, and the internet allowed us to be more selective about the messages we listen to, or to ignore the marketing effort altogether (we thought).

Buying In quickly focuses in on what has become an increasingly counter-intuitive world of marketing, where mass appeal is like capturing a genie in a bottle. Walker uses another term, the “Desire Code”, that describes the battle consumers face today between the desire to fit in, remain unique, while still be part of something bigger and greater than ourselves. “Buying In” uses great examples of how we seek and adopt brands and products to identify who we are: (i.e. Timberland, Livestrong, and American Apparel).

There are no quick summaries or pithy lists to take away from Walker’s work. Instead you will relish the care and detail that “Buying In” ultimately offers up. Although its history lessons will take time to read through, it’s a great journey that provides plenty perspective for any business owner, executive, or student of marketing.

Buying In• Paperback: 320 pages • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks (January 5, 2010) • Price: $15.00

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