2015 Top-Drawer Business Books

Welcome to the 8th edition of Top-Drawer Business Books

Too many business book lists are 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.” The Top-Drawer list is less traditional and duplicative to others. That is why the list includes, and is sometimes dominated by, books not categorized purely as “business”.

Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 12.55.48 PMWe always 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 all tossed aside when one experiences the blunt adversities found in actual commerce.

There are no shortcuts or magic panaceas in business. We have to do the work even when reading. As John Locke stated, “Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.” We encourage you to read the selections here and make the Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 12.57.16 PMknowledge yours.

The list includes books released in 2015 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. We love sharing the Top-Drawer list because so much of success in business is predicated on great storytelling and these selections exemplify that skill.

This year 13 make our list, 4 more than last year, and are presented in no particular order. For the first time, fiction efforts are included for the amazing lessons they carry if one is open to the education. For fun, we have included a separate list of 8 timeless business novels.

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. Access the list here, TopDrawer2015Final.

Sonos: The Brand and the Business

This article originally appeared in Sparksheet.

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Still hungry after thirteen-years, Sonos focuses on innovation, originality and desirability. But in an increasingly connected world, the brand wants to go beyond background music to become the central nervous system of your house. Talk about subversive.

Earlier this year, Sonos contemporized the look of its brand with a new visual theme representing amplification. This was just another step in a long-term plan. Sonos has long been sought after as a purveyor of wireless speakers, but now the company is aggressively pursuing something much bigger. Sonos not only intends to disrupt the entire music business, it aims to be indispensable in how you run your home.

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Why Most Brand Launches Fail

This piece originally appeared in Brand Quarterly.

In the old days of branding, and I am talking of just ten to fifteen years ago, there began a very predictable playbook for launching a corporate brand or rebrand. It borrowed a great deal from traditional public relations. It called for some combination of a press release, an unveiling of a new logo at a largish and often garish event, a fresh website, and a mousepad for each employee. Not much has changed in the interim except the mousepads have been replaced with coffee mugs or USBs.

Make no mistake, a brand or a rebrand is a deep, invasive and jarring intervention in the life of a business Needless to say, this is all very vacuous, fleeting, often expensive, and delivers limited real results. Make no mistake, a brand or a rebrand is a deep, invasive and jarring intervention inWhy-Most-Brand-Launches-Fail-Q1-1 the life of a business. If a company discovers it needs branding, I equate that to a serious call for help. Yet, most continue to launch brands in the most predictable and pedantic ways. It is analogous to conducting complicated surgery and then immediately throwing the patient onto the street. Here are the reasons why the approach is wrong:

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Marketing’s New Myopia

The marketing and advertising world is full of lore. These stories often take on a life on their own and grow with each telling. Many revolve around famous campaigns. DDB’s 1960’s ad, “Daisy”, has been given credit for helping Lyndon B. Johnson defeat Barry Goldwater. It also landed Maxwell Dane, a partner in the agency, on Richard Nixon’s infamous “Enemies List”. This political ad, like the “I Love New York” cam paign have many claiming outright authorship or at least participation i-love-ny-t-shirt-whiteon the team.

New York’s iconic tag line is often attributed to Milton Glaser who is said to have creatively borrowed and built upon the idea from a Montreal radio station. It turns out that CJAD Montreal’s campaign titled “Montreal, the city with a heart” was of great influence and represented the creative spark. Mary Wells of Wells Rich Greene also lays claim in her book to this forty year old, highly successful bit of place branding.

Absolut Vodka made a fairly indistinct bottle one of the most recognizable in the world. The original campaign, which featured print ads showing bottles “in the wild,” was so successful that they continuted for 25 years. It is the longest uninterrupted ad campaign in history and comprises over 1,500 separate ads. When the campaign started, Absolut absolut-vodka-absolut-peak-1207had 2.5% of the vodka market. When it officially ended in the late 2000s, Absolut supplied half of all imported vodka in America.

A few years back while working at Interbrand I heard a grand story about Peter Arnell of the Arnell Group. Both businesses were part of Omnicom. Peter was a noted character and larger than life. In fact, he was quite large in stature and took it upon himself later to lose a significant amount of weight. He was also known to be an exceedingly tough boss but most agree he possesses a brilliance for positioning products and services.

This particular story involved a prospective pet food client who was bemoaning the lack of growth in their industry. They presented Peter with undeniable evidence that pet food was a stagnant market. They could at best hope to steal a couple of points from aggressive competitors. Peter’s eyes may have glazed over looking at the pie charts and bar graphs. At this point, he is said to have made a dramatic pronouncement along the lines of, “I know how to double your market and revenue.” Read more

Warby Parker: The Brand and the Business

This originally appeared in Sparksheet.

Jeff Swystun looks at how Warby Parker is disrupting the eyewear industry by blending online and in-store commerce, even while the company struggles to profit.

Brands can become verb-worthy. In my father’s day it was the Cadillac, a car synonymous with luxury and status. If you had a Caddy you’d arrived.

Today, brand-verbs have taken on extended meaning. Start-ups and businesses seek to emulate certain brands: companies aim start the UBERization of their industry. We also hear that whole industries are being “Warby Parkered.” This is funny given Warby Parker was once called “the Warby-Parker-Eyewear-LogoNetflix of Eyewear” in GQ.

The affordable, hipster-chic eyewear company has risen fast but is yet to make much money. In an April 30th article in The Wall Street Journal, Warby Parker admitted it was not profitable. Dave Gilboa, co-founder and co-chief executive, did not share revenue performance but claimed annual sales were picking up.

The Category

Warby Parker founders set their sights on an industry with bloated costs and one dominated by just a few sleepy players. The business model cut out the middleman to work directly with manufacturing. The designer eyewear was then sold online to cut retail costs.

All of this was wrapped in a strong brand predicated on being hip and fresh that delivered superior quality and customer service. Warby Parker felt that by greatly improving the buying experience they would make traditional competitors irrelevant. This approach has rocked the complacent category.

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Storytelling is Problem-Solving

“Storytelling is not what I do for a living – it is how I do all that I do while I am living.”

Donald Davis, Storyteller and Author

Life throws at us a never-ending stream of challenges and opportunities. Much of our success and happiness depends on how we greet them. This is illustrated in a quote from Ashleigh Bright, “I try to take one day at a time, but sometimes several days attack me at once.” Or this one from Howard Norberg, “Life is a cement trampoline.” Both are clever but as Voltaire once said, “A witty saying proves nothing.” There is also the fact that how we view and address life matters most.

Our lives are incredibly complex and require life-long, daily problem-solving. Stories help us because they document prior experience and future potential. By reading or hearing the stories of others, we find the strength and insight to help address our own problems and pursue new opportunities. This has never been home-in-line-image-3more true than in our times. Maarten Schäfer noted the reason why, “In this time of ‘information overload’, people do not need more information. They want a story they can relate to.”

Great stories are unquestionably most valuable when they lead us to real decisions. Stories help us make sense of who we are and the world in which we live. They propel and aid us through life. They do so much for us.

Stories help us find a mate, become craftsmen, spurn adventure, convince us of a point-of-view, and challenge us to connect through empathy. They are a basic, yet rich, building block of human interaction and societal construction. And they are incredible problem-solvers.

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The Value of a Ski Lift Ticket

Ski areas and resorts claim a broad range of differentiators. Competition in the industry is fierce and leisure dollars more elusive so it requires creativity and innovation to fill chairlifts. Most ski resort executives will tell you it is all about snow,as_ski_ticketprices576 snow and hopefully, more snow. This assessment is not inaccurate but it is the equivalent of saying everything in real estate concerns location. Much, much more goes into ski resort marketing.

A visit to any ski area website will reveal effusive superlatives detailing the variety of terrain; the speed, comfort, and number of lifts; competing boasts of groomed corduroy and natural bumps; a plethora of ski school programs; après fun; and children’s activities. This gets more complicated as ski areas can either cater to day-trippers or be longer stay vacation destinations. The latter emphasizes accommodations and related infrastructure to get heads-in-beds and skis-on-slopes. Read more

The Welcome Return of McLuhanacy

Professor Marshall McLuhan is a fascinating fellow. His notable ideas: “the medium is the message” and “the global village” continue to inform and to prompt debate regarding their real meaning. Pundits argue that McLuhan predicted the World Wide Web thirty years before it was invented. His ideas covered metamedia, media ecology, figure and ground media, tetrad of media effects, and hot and cool media.

Born in Edmonton, educated in Winnipeg, and notable while a Professor at the University of tumblr_lmoz8xyPe11qais7sToronto, McLuhan passed away in 1980. He was a celebrity intellectual and as The Globe and Mail points out, “For most of the 1960s and part of the 1970s, McLuhan seemed to be everywhere – on radio, in print, in film (most notably with a cameo appearance in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall) and especially on television. The latter, ironically, was a medium he considered pernicious, a certain harbinger of the eventual demise of print culture. He distilled his genius, including phrases that became and remain part of the daily lexicon, such as ‘the medium is the message,’ into sometimes puzzling aphorisms, an early form of the sound byte.”

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The Evolution of the TV Tray Table

Remember those gaudily decorated, cheap metal fold-out trays? With the advent of a television in every home in the 1950’s, families soon needed a way to hold food and beverage items while watching one of the three available channels. The TV tray table quickly became a must-have. Their IMG_2165design and ubiquity make them an undeniable pop culture icon.

So what came first the TV tray table or the TV dinner? National advertising for TV tray tables first appeared in 1952. Two years later, C.A. Swanson & Sons introduced the frozen TV dinner, marketing it as an easy-to-prepare, fun-to-eat meal, with a disposable tray that reduced clean-up time. The TV dinner tapped into excitement over television and the tray table was there to literally lend support. By 1960, nearly 90% of American homes had a television and a similar percentage had a TV tray table set.

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David’s Tea: The Brand and Business

This originally appeared in Sparksheet.

Tea is gaining grounds in North America’s coffee culture and David’s Tea is looking to expand and modernize the millennia-old industry. Jeff Swystun examines the standing power of this bold brand as it steps onto the stock exchange and transitions from niche to mass market.

The bold sign, in cheerful teal and green, draws your attention. Curious, you peak inside and are greeted by a clean, bright environment and pleasing aromas. The aisles and displays resemble a cosmetic store. The goods are presented as precious keepsakes; the packaging suggests there is an item among them uniquely for you. A fresh-faced staffer attentively waits to answer any questions.

Welcome to the new world of tea.

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David’s Tea was founded in 2008. A newcomer to the centuries old tea business, but one confident that it could make the product relevant to the modern consumer. The opportunity is great, but the company also faces significant challenges. It must convert coffee drinkers, have smart distribution, and battle a competitor with deep pockets while keeping investors happy.

The Category

Tea has been a beverage of choice for centuries, since its origins as a medicinal elixir in Shang Dynasty China. The British famously popularized tea production for the western drinker and through trade took it global. The East Indian Tea Company was so successful it became a synonym for “monopoly”.

Tom Standage, author of The World in a Glass: Six Drinks That Changed History, writes, “Englishmen around the world could drink tea, whether they were a colonial administrator in India or a London businessman. The sun never set on the British Empire—which meant that it was always teatime somewhere.”

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