Marketing Rebellion book review

Book review: Marketing Rebellion by Mark Schaefer

Mark Schaefer is an author I’ve come to know through his Marketing Companion podcast. His new book on customer-centric marketing is Marketing Rebellion: The Most Human Company Wins. Rather than critique the entire book, I’m going to focus on two of Mr. Schaefer’s main tenants:

  • Brand storytelling is not as important as amplifying your customers’ stories.
  • Brands need to take a stance on social issues, as that’s what their customers expect.

The story of a brand

Storytelling has been a big topic in marketing over the past couple of years. As content marketing has proliferated, storytelling has been seen as a way to be more authentic about your brand and your mission. It’s also a way to get current and potential customers to be more emotionally involved in your brand.

We’ve certainly seen many examples of this, such as the beauty brand Glossier, which started as a blog by founder Emily Weiss, sharing tips on the latest skincare products. Mr. Schaefer argues that it’s not a brand’s story that is key, but rather making your customer the star of his or her own story. A couple of the best examples of customer-centric marketing I’ve come across are from Nike, in their World Cup promotions that take their brand experience to the streets, and their store kiosks which allow people to customize their shoes and make their own fashion statement.

This appeal of this approach is understandable, if not easy to execute. However, the author at times runs counter to his own argument, as when he recounts a visit he made to a couples’ house. Commenting to them that he liked their guest soap, they enthusiastically talked about the background of the owner, who was a local, and the brand’s commitment to sustainability and natural ingredients. This couple were happy to pay a premium over a supermarket brand for this product. That certainly sounds like an effective brand storytelling strategy to me!

Social activism

Mr. Schaefer comes down strongly in the book that brands need to take a stand on social issues in order to be relevant to their customers. Most of his examples are consumer brands with young target audiences, such as clothing retailers H & M and American Eagle. This makes sense given the proclivities of Millennials and Gen Z, as both those groups seem to be motivated to make a difference in society. However, Mr. Schaefer doesn’t make much of a distinction between brands’ differing target markets, and suggests that advocating a position is necessary due to a combination of social pressures and customer expectations.

The responsibility that brands or companies have to social causes versus their own investors or shareholders is something increasingly being debated. It’s interesting that shortly after the book was published, Mr. Schaefer wrote a blog post that softened his stance, saying “Values-based marketing is not for everyone. It’s probably not even for most companies. This can be a very risky strategy without the proper research, especially if the brand stand is polarizing.”

I suggest that there’s a way to satisfy both needs, to be relevant to society and pursue the return objectives that investors or shareholders have laid out. That way is to be socially responsible within the specific context of the business mission.

Marrying societal and business missions

For example, BroadJump, the company I work for, has a mission to deliver transparency to healthcare expense management. This mission is socially responsible in that it aims to help healthcare systems solve the rising cost of healthcare in the U.S., which allows those systems to put money into patient care, or just keep the doors open. In our case, our “social position” is germane to a market, not society at large, although one could argue that it ultimately leads to a societal good.

Despite these inconsistencies, Marketing Rebellion is a thought-provoking book which challenges you to examine your own beliefs about marketing. I found it especially interesting when trying to take his B2C examples and look at how they could be applied to a B2B product or service. There are echos of this people-centric approach in Martyn R. Lewis’ recent book on B2B buying journeys. I wish I could tell you I came up with a “Eureka!” moment, but I haven’t so far. Reading Marketing Rebellion did, however, underscore the need to meet your customers and prospects where they are, their “island” to use one of the author’s terms, which as anyone who is trying to reach decision-makers in companies knows can be a daunting task.