Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are By Rob Walker Random House; 291 pages
So there you are, sitting in your favorite armchair, smugly clicking the remote for your TiVo, sure that you've outrun those pesky advertisers. But have you? Despite all the ways Americans try to skip over ads and get to the good part, "we live in a world defined by more commercial messages, not fewer," proclaims Walker, the New York Times Magazine Consumed columnist and author of this fascinating new book. What's worse, he argues, most of us are unwitting participants in our own personal Truman Show. "We can talk all we want about being brandproof, but our behavior tells a different story."
The iconography of brands is Walker's specialty. With a compelling blend of cultural anthropology and business journalism, he makes us fess up about our dependence on brand-name products and explains our nearly irresistible urge to use what we buy to broadcast our identities. Marketers spend millions, Walker says, to attach a story to every object they sell. "If a product is successfully tied to an idea, branding persuades people--whether they admit it to pollsters or even fully understand it themselves--to consume the idea by consuming the product," he writes. "A potent brand becomes a form of identity in shorthand."
To seduce consumers, companies resort to elaborate feats of marketing sleight of hand. Walker draws back the curtain on the pioneering branding campaign that created a mystique around the energy drink Red Bull, which was introduced in the U.S. in 1997. As the corporate saga goes, Red Bull was invented by Dietrich Mateschitz, an Austrian entrepreneur who "supposedly came across a syrupy tonic favored by rickshaw drivers in Thailand, called Krating Daeng." Rather than rely on a traditional TV ad campaign, the company mounted an expensive stealth-marketing campaign, enlisting extreme-sports enthusiasts to ride wind-powered kiteboards to Cuba and host elaborate electronic-music workshops and parties--and of course provide cans of Red Bull, conveniently at hand. (Brandweek estimates that Red Bull spent $100 million annually to launch itself in the U.S., a number the company disputes.) In any case, it was money well spent. Red Bull has annual global sales at more than $1.5 billion and an army of hip young devotees.
Walker does his best to help us wise up, but don't feel too bad the next time you enjoy your iPod or gulp down a Starbucks Frappuccino. You just can't help it.
Good Guys & Bad Guys By Joe Nocera Portfolio; 292 pages
Some collections of columns are a lazy effort to wring a few more bucks out of dated material. Not this one. Nocera, a business columnist for the New York Times who spent a decade at FORTUNE, energetically updates some of the biggest business stories of the past two decades. Warren Buffett, T. Boone Pickens Jr. and Henry Blodget, among others, get the close-up Nocera treatment, which uses their stories to explain the intricacies of business to readers. His smart writing and keen insight are a treat for those who find Steve Jobs a more compelling celebrity than Britney Spears.
High Performance With High Integrity By Ben W. Heineman Jr. Harvard Business; 198 pages
Do good as you do well. That's the message of this wise book by the former general counsel of GE. Heineman's goal is to keep CEOs out of the Hall of Shame--no one wants to be the next Jeff Skilling. "The generals will be held to even higher standards than the troops," Heineman warns. But even if chieftains follow his comprehensive blueprint for integrity, Heineman believes that perfection, alas, is unattainable: "We don't need, and won't get, saints in our corner offices." But CEOs, he argues, must learn to walk the walk, as well as talk the talk.