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Best Books on Marketing

Updated on February 13, 2019
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Heidi Thorne is an author and business speaker with over 25 years of experience in sales, marketing, advertising, and public relations.


The best books on marketing are those that remain relevant years after they've been published. The following 10 books are at least five years old and one is several decades old. Regardless of their age, they belong in every small business owner's and marketer's library and tool kit.

As well, none of the featured books are textbooks. Many are written by real world marketing professionals sharing their expertise and experience.

Selling the Invisible

This little book (literally), Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing by Harry Beckwith, is packed with marketing wisdom in memorable bite sized chapters. Most principles are presented with analogies to everyday situations and short little stories, most less than a page long, making it easy to understand for even new business owners or non-marketing personnel.

Beckwith's tips on branding and market positioning are simple and clever. For example, there's the "Information-Per-Inch Test" for your company name. Take your company name and ask how much valuable information does it provide to customers about who you are and what you do.

There are more than 150 of these marketing lesson-ettes in this gem. They are thought provoking, instructive and effective exercises for understanding how today's customers think and react.

Purple Cow

Have you ever seen a purple cow? Of course you haven't. But wouldn't it be memorable if you did?

Like Selling the Invisible, Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable, by one of the greatest marketing minds of our time, Seth Godin, is a physically small book with a mere 142 pages that is jammed full of marketing tidbits and tips to make a company and its offerings remarkable and worth talking about, not just "very good."

Godin argues that in today's overcrowded marketplace, people and businesses are just not as needy as they used to be. They have myriad alternatives for just about everything. If a product or service is unlikely to fascinate a buying public in the future, it's time to take the profits and pump them into building something remarkable that attracts a group of early adopters who must have the latest and greatest and are willing to spread the word to the lagging others.

Then you milk that cow for all its worth... and begin working to invent a new "purple cow" to replace the one that is now trailing off into the marketing life cycle sunset.

Free Prize Inside

Another gem from Seth Godin! Free Prize Inside: The Next Big Marketing Idea further discusses how to be remarkable by adding a "free prize" to whatever you do. Though it could be, this is not just the addition of a promotional giveaway to your marketing program. It is adding some sort of innovation that makes people want to buy what you're selling.

Free prizes that Godin provides as examples include:

  • Lincoln-Mercury introducing Bose stereo systems as an option in their cars. Customers actually went for this ultra expensive addition which cost not too much less than the car!
  • Chef Boyardee adding Tyrannosaurus Rex noodles to their canned kids meals. Kids and their parents ate 'em up (pun intended).
  • Apple iPod's beautiful design and pride of ownership keeps customers coming back for more, even though other competitors' products have more capacity at less cost.

Godin suggests that innovations like these can be done by anyone. As well, these free prizes are found at the edges of one's industry and the process of finding these innovations is referred to as "edgecraft." He then offers nine categories of edges that can be pursued to create new and remarkable free prizes.

Book Yourself Solid

Written primarily for small business and independent consultants, Book Yourself Solid: The Fastest, Easiest, and Most Reliable System for Getting More Clients Than You Can Handle by Michael Port, is a roadmap for people who want to be in business, but are overwhelmed by the sales and marketing functions.

Port offers seven core self-promotion strategies to build a business without resorting to heavy handed sales tactics. These self-promotion strategies include: networking, direct outreach, referral, web, writing and keep-in-touch.

One of the most important concepts in the book is the Red Velvet Rope Policy. Like the velvet rope and stanchions for which it is named, this policy helps filter out customers and prospects that do not fit an ideal profile. Smaller businesses are often prone to taking every piece of business that comes along, even if it is difficult, unfulfilling or even impossible, to service.

Increasing Revenue from Your Clients

Where Book Yourself Solid's "Red Velvet Rope Policy" helps filter out the wrong clients before they even get into a business' sales loop, Increasing Revenue from Your Clients by Dick Connor helps you evaluate client performance after they're already in.

Client performance? Yes. Small business owners are often so thrilled to get any clients that they often give every one of them the same level of service, regardless of how profitable it is to do so. Connor goes through the process of classifying clients by their value and potential to the business: mega, key, A, B, unknowns, C and, at the undesirable end of the spectrum, D.

After classification, a business can then develop "client service plans" tailored to each category to help better serve clients and serve the revenue and profit needs of the company.

The Age Curve

What caused the housing crisis that occurred about 2008 or so? Many think it was the financial missteps of just about everyone: bankers, brokers, businesses and buyers. While that certainly was a factor, demographics and generational marketing expert Kenneth Gronbach has another explanation.

What Gronbach suggests in his book, The Age Curve: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Storm, is that the significant drop in population for Generation X caused a resulting drop in the pool of potential buyers. How big a drop? Generation X is about 11 percent (9 million people) smaller than their Baby Boomer predecessors. In addition to housing, this precipitous drop in population has (and will have) a ripple effect on everything from labor to healthcare to Social Security.

In addition to great explanations of population issues, Gronbach offers case studies throughout to show their impact on marketing.

Predictably Irrational

For marketers and small business owners who are ready to tear their hair out because customers are not behaving logically or as as expected, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely is a must-read.

Ariely is a professor or behavioral economics at MIT. As you might expect from an academic with those credentials, the book is filled with findings from research into the subject of decision making.

One example Ariely offers demonstrates the concept of anchoring. Say a customer is looking for a new TV. He sees a price tag of $1,000 and eventually buys it. That $1,000 becomes a price anchor. Then every other TV that is considered for purchase from that point forward is compared to that anchor. This explains why when people move from an inexpensive region to a more expensive one, they tend to look for housing in the price range of what they paid in the old city, even if that's not appropriate for them.

Once the irrational behaviors are understood, marketers will have an easier time making rational decisions about pricing, packaging and promotion.

The Culture Code

As a companion work to Predictably Irrational, The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Live and Buy as They Do by Clotaire Rapaille, delves into the cultural differences that can explain why customers respond to advertising and marketing in a variety of ways throughout the world.

The book is divided into various archetypes and discusses how each culture interprets and responds to them. For example, in the United States, the archetype of HOME is very strong. Americans have no problem with guests gathering or entering a home through the kitchen, the center of a primary family activity: dinner. In France, the foyer, living room or dining room are the acceptable places to entertain guests. Pity the marketer who shows a gathering of friends dining in a kitchen in an advertisement in France.

Other archetypes discussed include food, health, youth, beauty, work and money.

For those businesses serving multi-ethnic communities or global markets, getting wise to the cultural code of the target market is essential. Reading The Culture Code is a good way to start.

Buying In

In Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, Rob Walker argues that brands are not dead as many have said. In fact, due to increased communication avenues, consumers are embracing brands more and in more ways than ever before. Consumers are expressing their devotion to brands in their daily interactions, blogs, in YouTube videos and on social media, essentially becoming word-of-mouth "agents" for brands. As well, through these same channels, consumers are creating their own brands.

Walker calls this new paradigm "murketing," a mashup of the words "murky" and "marketing." What is dead is the one way marketing days of old which went from brand to consumer. Today, consumers are active participants with brands, shaping the brands' future as they go along. A wealth of examples featured include Timberland, Converse, Hello Kitty and Pabst.

Tested Advertising Methods

Older readers may recall a famous magazine ad for a piano course that read, "They laughed when I sat down at the piano. But when I started to play..." This headline by advertising copywriting genius, John Caples, is noted as the ad that launched a new style of advertising referred to as first-person story appeal, where readers can put themselves into the story.

Caples body of work began in the mid-1920s and his principles still hold up decades later. Thanks to Caples putting his methodology into the book Tested Advertising Methods (in the Fifth Edition as of this writing), we can learn from this master of words and persuasion.

Chock full of lists and ideas, this book is a must-read for anyone in advertising, marketing and public relations. Some of the helpful segments include:

  • 35 Proven Formulas for Writing Headlines and Direct Mail Teasers
  • 32 Ways to Get More Inquiries from Your Advertising
  • Right and Wrong Methods of Writing Headlines

Surprisingly, all of these principles apply to online marketing and social media. In fact, he prophetically talks about using keywords. Ahead of his time.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2013 Heidi Thorne


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