Top-Drawer Business Books 2017

It is that time again. For years, Swystun Communications has been sharing its annual “Top-Drawer” business book list. Other rankings are too narrow in definition. As Robert Weider said, “Anyone can look for fashion in a boutique or history in a museum. The creative person looks for history in a hardware store and fashion in an airport.”

Our list is less traditional. Often it includes, and is sometimes dominated by, books not categorized as “business”. We avoid books promising four-hour workweeks because they are fables, over-simplified and prescriptive how-to works that are vacuous and dangerous, and so-called inspirational books that are trite, lite and ineffectual. These are tossed aside when one bumps into the blunt adversities in actual commerce.

The list includes books released in 2017 that are top-of-mind, notable, relevant, well written, applicable, thought-provoking, and innovative. Our last bit of criteria makes the selections tougher to determine and that is timelessness of content. Remember, life is too short to drink cheap scotch or to read books that are not Top-Drawer. So keep these selections within easy reach for repeated reference.

The One Device by Brian Merchant

The iPhone X is out and geeks salivate at its new features. Meanwhile, more and more studies show that smartphones are influencing and changing our behaviour in ways that concern sociologists, the medical profession, and parents of teens glued to the device (many adults are adhered as well).

Merchant’s book will appeal to phone lovers and those who wonder where this tech will lead. The book is an analysis of both the enormous cultural impact of the device and a history of its manufacturing process. It was on the shortlist for the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Books of the Year.

Supposedly, the book was ten years in the making. It strays too much to celebration but is still excellent. We recommend turning off your phone and reading the hardcover version just to be retro-analog for a short time.

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Money is not Wealth

Alan Watts was a fascinating character. His profession was philosophy. I often wonder about that as a chosen field. When applying for a mortgage or car loan are you instantly denied if you state that as your occupation? Apologies, I digress and so early in this missive.

Watts once asked, “What would you do if money was no object?” It is an invasive, uncomfortable question. Our answers reveal who we are, what we want and what we need. It lays bare where our head is at and where we are on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

The notion of wealth plagued Watts and, in my opinion, it ended up killing him. He wrote 25 books between 1932 and 1973 before dying in 1974. Five of the books have “Zen” in the title. Watts popularized that tract of Mahayana Buddhism to Western audiences. Other titles of his books include The Meaning of Happiness, Psychotherapy East and West, and Does It Matter?: Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality.

Why I believe such exploration led to his demise is because Watts drank like a fish and died from alcoholism. He sought a nirvana and implored readers to pursue a life of common sense, one not driven by money and materialism. Yet, he lived a lie. He was trapped in a commercial world.

Eschewing rampant and conspicuous consumption is something I too have wrestled with. Still, I am a Costco member, possess all the latest technologies, and am high-up in three frequent flyer programs. I know how to spend and I do. Watts wrote and lectured. He collected his pay and drank it away. That is hardly a Zen life but it is one that endears when you acquaint yourself with it.

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Buy Canadian

Recently at a client offsite I entered into a very familiar conversation. That is, the differences between America and Canada; Americans and Canadians. Up until the last U.S. election, those differences were more subtle and nuanced. Often they degraded to the stereotypical whereby Canada and Canadians were identified as being nice and the nation was overrun with canoes, beavers and Mounties (insert your own joke here).

There have been many humorous takes on the difference including, “A Canadian is merely an unarmed American with health care.” And this from Edgar Friedenberg. “Canadians are more polite when they are being rude that Americans are when they are being friendly.” Then there is John Robert Colombo, “Canada could have enjoyed: English government, French culture, and American know-how. Instead it ended up with: English know-how, French government, and American culture.”

All kidding aside, Canadians are more fiercely proud and patriotic than other nations could imagine. Perhaps it is our niceness that keeps that fiery side under wraps. Where you see it expose itself is in our history and culture. We love to exhibit, wear and share our own icons.

This fact was proven to me when I came across the CBC’s Shop. If you do not know CBC stands for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Its logo is a darling among Canadian citizens. Their shop links to a bunch of designers and retailers who focus on the Canadian aesthetic, if such a thing exists. Author Douglas Coupland certainly believes it does. If you want to learn more buy his books Souvenir of Canada and Souvenir of Canada 2. And you should also read his fiction works, among them…Microserfs, JPod, and the wonderful, PlayerOne. The latter should be adapted as a stage play.

To give you a flavour of what I found consider Shelfies. A creative marketplace where most of the goods have a print design covering their entire being. Not only do they have the treasured CBC logo represented, they have Moosin’ Trudeau and Poutine covered garb.

For a more authentic and less tongue-in-cheek experience, visit Granted. This is a bespoke maker of thick sweaters that look very Canadian. It is interesting to note that their website operates in English and Japanese. I imagine shipping containers of these made-to-order artwears finding their way to Tokyo. Regardless, it is a clear endorsement. Granted Clothing even gets the CBC logo on one design.

Red Canoe sounds oh-so Canadian. Their goods pop-up in airports across the country. Its original source material was the Royal Canadian Air Force. Red Canoe‘s product line has extended betraying a strategy of wanting to go after Roots through leather goods and ubiquitous silk-screened shirts.

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We Compare All Brand Experiences to Just a Few Brands

Have you noticed the same handful of businesses lead every brand ranking, are mentioned repeatedly at conferences, and are consistently referenced in books and articles? One cannot escape testimonials to Apple, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Harley-Davidson, and Disney. It is if there are only a handful of successful brands on the planet.

Now it seems consumers believe that to be true. Wunderman and Penn Schoen Berland surveyed 2,000 people aged 18 to 65 in the US and the UK, and the findings were consistent across generations, geography and gender. Here is an amazing finding: 87% of US and 85% of UK consumers compare all brand experiences to those they consider the best, such as Netflix, Amazon and Starbucks.

That means when we pick up our dry cleaning, rent a bicycle, or buy a shirt we are judging the experience as compared to ordering a venti cappuccino from Starbucks or streaming Better Call Saul.

After working with tons of brands and consulting to agencies who work with an exponential number of brands I am confident I know what consumers truly want from brands. They demand a solution. A solution that makes their lives easier and more enjoyable. Netflix, Amazon and Starbucks do that.

All that other brand stuff involving authenticity, consistency, and transparency are in the next consideration set. Those considerations are important for sure but when you boil it down consumers consume. Sure, some vote with their wallets if a brand does bad or badly but we buy to satisfy our very selfish needs and wants.

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Creativity: The Rituals and Routines

Recently my stepdaughter shared an article called Rise and Shine: The Daily Routines of History’s Most Creative Minds. She is entering the creative and competitive world of acting and writing in film and television. In sharing she could not help but note that I am well practiced in the routines of coffee, long walks, and inebriation (aren’t I the greatest influence?).

All family kidding aside, I struggle with the discipline and creativity required by writing. Writing is so much of what I do now. Branding and marketing requires conveying relevant and different ideas so I have always honed this talent. Now I am writing fiction and screenplays, as well as, ghostwriting for others. I like to think I am getting better at the craft but that does not mean it gets any easier.

Oliver Burkman’s article is a review of Mason Currey’s book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. In it Currey notes that Joyce Carol Oats worked the morning, took a big break and cranked up again in the evening. Anthony Trollope set the goal of 250-words per quarter-hour. Meanwhile, Friedrich Schiller could only write in the presence of the smell of rotting apples (for me it’s fermenting grapes).

I like background noise and always have. Since studying in high school and university, the tunes or television have been on. As I type this blog on my computer, one earbud is in place hooked to my tablet where Better Call Saul is in rotation.

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Too Cool? Men’s Fashion Brand Naming

A fun day in my life was when I happened across the brand Scotch and Soda. Originally launched in the 80’s, the brand was revamped in 2001. My affection was, and is, for the name. If I had the gumption to start a clothing brand then “scotch and soda” would be a gutsy moniker I would be proud of.

Recently, I was surfing and shopping. You know, that time wasting trend of attempting to satisfy more complex needs through hollow and vacuous retail therapy. The activity turned out to be more rewarding and fulfilling than expected because of the men’s wear brand names I happened across.

Still, none of them made me buy more or switch my favourites. They did, however, catch my attention. Consider the first up: A Fish Named Fred. That name conjured a tinge of nostalgia for the John Cleese and Jamie-Lee Curtis movie. Overall, it was a foreshadowing of the extreme irreverence that these brands draw upon and strive for.

Then came ArboristBespoken and Cheap Monday. A tree trimmer, elite, and price sensitive offer all install different meanings. Next consider the brands called EmbellishFilling Pieces, and Fish N Chips. They sound like Michael Chabon or Irvine Welsh novels.

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TV Spots that are Spot-On

Where are those loud pundits in the ad industry who forecasted the death of the 30 second television ad? Here we are and video in all forms is stronger than ever. Check out five notable recent ads of varying length and why we like them.

Costa Rica: PSA

Sometimes what you think is happening is not. This ad reminds us of a fact and balances the direction of our compassion. The dog is a great actor as well.

Notes: Take Note

This kind of thing has been done before (what hasn’t?), however, the execution is engaging. It also gets a bit uncomfortable. Not all is peaches and cream in life. Even with communications there is miscommunication and that is why this will stay with you for some time.

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The Coming Difference in Brand Storytelling

“Thus I rediscovered what writers have always known and have told us again and again: books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.” Novelist Umberto Eco was echoing (all pun intended) Charles Dickens who previously spoke of life as a “furious plagiarism”.

This addresses the fun conundrum of brand storytelling. If every story has already been told then how can a plagiarism differentiate a brand?

Of course, the answer is that stories differentiate in their execution. Protagonist and antagonist. Character archetypes and fables. Three acts. These notions are important but are not at the core. The answer for brands lies in relevant and fresh approaches. Ones that are not one-way narratives but a dialogue and experience that influence changes in thought and behavior.

In the old days ad gurus would say, “Do not sell the mattress, sell the sleep.” Coke does not sell beverages, it sells happiness. AirBnb promises you will live like a local rather than making a hotel room the destination.

Michael Shermer believes, “Humans are pattern-seeking story-telling animals, and we are quite adept at telling stories about patterns, whether they exist or not.” Storytelling in marketing is constantly debated. Yet, the fact remains a banner ad, a poster, a 30-second television ad all tell stories. If they don’t the consumer makes up their own. If they do it well, a consumer inserts themselves into the narrative.

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What’s New in Storytelling

“Humans are pattern-seeking story-telling animals, and we are quite adept at telling stories about patterns, whether they exist or not.” So says Michael Shermer. Storytelling in marketing is constantly debated. Yet, the fact remains a banner ad, a 30-second television ad, a poster all tell stories. If they don’t the consumer makes up their own.

Here is a roundup of current thinking on the art and science of storytelling…

How Barbie is evolving its storytelling for the digital age

The Drum covers interviews Mattel’s chief content officer Catherine Balsam-Schwaber, to find out how the toymaker is evolving its approach to storytelling. We are living in a Barbie world.

How Equinox, Coca-Cola, American Express and Marcus use data for storytelling

This is topic worthy of further examination. Stories are only going to get more dynamic. Static tales may become a thing of the past. Brands need to recognize that.

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Inspired Slope-side Design

Architects Peter Pichler and Pavol Mikolaycha have vision. They took a piece of land at 2,000m in the Italian Alps and decided to do something different. The Obereggen Mountain Hut appears to grow out of the hill.

Set next to the Oberholz cable station, the hut is a modern take on the classic Stube. Those structures dot mountain ranges in Europe and get the name from the living room or parlour … the heated part of a traditional farmhouse.

The Obereggen Mountain Hut is houses a restaurant and is split into three main sections. Each window on the end faces a different mountain. The building is entirely wood. Spruce was used for the structure and interior, larch for the facade, and oak for the furniture. A sunken design ensures ensures fabulous views. We applaud the ingenuity and year round utility.

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