‘Top-Drawer’ Business Books 2012

It is that time of year again when media is flooded with predictions for the coming year and retrospectives on the year ending. A related practice is to put together a ‘top ten’ or ‘best of category’ list.

Through the years, I have contributed “best” business and marketing book list for various websites and magazines. Those opportunities were flattering but I was never completely comfortable labelling any book “best”. So in recent years, I assemble my own annual list.

I call my book selections ‘Top-Drawer’. This tongue-in-cheek title is meant to describe books that are top-of-mind, notable, relevant, well written, practical, thought-provoking, and innovative. Many are ones you may not have connected directly with business and that is the ultimate benefit of this list.

Life is too short to drink cheap scotch – equally so there is precious little time to tolerate books that are not ‘Top-Drawer’. Last year 13 made the list while this year 12 did with one to look for that will be published on December 31. Enjoy and I look forward to feedback on the selections that follow in no particular order.

Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit by Joseph Epstein

Epstein has a great style and is a prolific writer based on his observations of human behaviour. He makes the case that 3OUTLINE REVISE MAY GOSSIP JACKETGossip has impact both negative and positive and it will never be eradicated. After reading I made the case to colleagues that gossip is important to businesses and marketers because it is a ‘channel’ of communications that can be harnessed. There are risks associated with this idea but it is definitely worth examining. If you do not buy the business angle, then read the book solely for the enjoyment of this peculiar human practice.

Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love by Fran Hawthorne

Consumers “want an affordable, reliable product manufactured by a company that doesn’t pollute, saves energy, treats its workers well, and doesn’t hurt animals—oh, and that makes them feel cool when they use it.” But do hip companies really deliver against these often competing objectives? The author examines six brand favourites: Apple, Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, American Apparel, Timberland, and Tom’s of Maine. Can a brand be hip, ethical and profitable … and remain relevant? If so, have we been led to believe they are awesome but they are in fact not too different from the vast majority of businesses that are simply mediocre. The book delightfully explores what is fact and what is marketing.

The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting (and Why it Still Matters) by Philip Hensher

When was the last time you sat down and penned a handwritten letter? It has been a long time for me partly because of my ghastly penmanship. But I did so after reading this book and the result was a messy looking communication but one that was incredibly expressive, far more so than the sterile and forced e-mails I type day after day. It caused me to slow down, think about my words, what those words represented, and what I was truly intending to convey.

The author says, “Writing this book, I’ve come to the conclusion that handwriting is good for us. It involves us in a relationship with the written word which is sensuous, immediate, and individual. It opens our personality out to the world.” For me, it confirmed that handwriting is an amazing form of self-expression that we have lost due to technology and speed. I contend that if you write your next business or marketing plan out long-hand, it may be messy but it is going to be incredibly well thought-out and robust in content and intent.

[slogan_normal]Creamy and Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food by Jon Krampner[/slogan_normal]

Mark Kurlansky seemingly created a new history sub-genre with his work on Salt and Cod. Now comes Peanut Butter and that seems like a good idea for a book given 75% Americans consume it. The book is a fun romp through almost every possible angle: diet and nutrition, allergies, advertising, cultural impact, recipes and peanut butter etiquette. Readers just have to get past the fact that despite their name, peanuts aren’t nuts…they’re legumes.

How They Got Away with It: White Collar Criminals and the Financial Meltdown edited by Susan Will, Stephen Handelman, David C. Brotherton

book_editYears ago I read Diane Francis’ Contrepreneurs and forever have been amazed by brilliant people who could have made money in very legal ways but go another direction. It seems as the 2000s have been rife with these types of folks and their corporate shenanigans (even though this period is not unique in history…unfortunately). This book is actually a collection of essays from an international team of scholars with backgrounds in criminology, sociology, economics, business, government regulation, and law who examine the historical, social, and cultural causes of the 2008 economic crisis. I would like to have learned more about individual motivation because assigning it solely as greed is relevant but oversimplified.

Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing by Douglas Van Praet

Why we buy what we need and desire is fascinating stuff. Author Van Praet is Executive Vice President at Deutsch LA, where his responsibilities include Group Planning Director for Volkswagen amongst others so spends his days thinking about just that. His stance is controversial—that consumers make the vast majority of their decisions quite unconsciously, and, ironically, the vast majority of marketing practices ignore this cognitive truth. The book is worth it because he takes campaigns and screens them against his theory so this is not a dry treatment. I do not recommend branding and marketing books lightly because most offer nothing new. Why this book works is because it talks about the behaviour of both consumer and marketer.

Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer by William Knoedelseder

I am a big fan of business biographies and this one delivers on its promotional promise of “The engrossing, often scandalous saga of one of the wealthiest, longest-lasting, and most colorful family dynasties in the history of American commerce—a cautionary tale about prosperity, profligacy, hubris, and the blessings and dark consequences of success.” Basically the iconic company really lost its way for some very familiar reasons…less than capable family members and something specific…being purchased by InBev. It delivers as a business lesson and as entertainment.

Man vs. Markets: Economics Explained (Plain and Simple) by Paddy Hirsch

This reminded me of a book from a few years back called The Economics of Everyday Things. Every once in awhile economics and business is tackled by an author that wants to clearly explain what all the mumbo jumbo means. The author does so in a refreshing and witty way without dumbing down the subject. He takes complex topics like Swaps but uses Jell-O to explain these financial instruments.

Custom Nation: Why Customization Is the Future of Business and How to Profit From It by Anthony Flynn and Emily Flynn Vencat

One size used to fit all and you could have a car in any colour you wanted as long as it was black. The authors examine the practices of Chipotle, Zazzle, Nike, and Pandora to see the benefits and the investment required to make mass customization happen. Companies now allow customers to get what they want, at a reasonable price, and have it delivered amazingly fast (you can customize your own Ford Mustang on the website’s “customizer”). It is an interesting strategy that has application in all businesses.

Uncorked: My Journey Through the Crazy World of Wine by Marco Pasanella

image.phpWe often get caught up thinking only large companies and brands when so many lessons come from entrepreneurs and mom & pop businesses. Marco Pasanella decided at age 43 to open up and wine shop. The book is inspirational for that bravery, educational for the myriad of challenges he faces, and illuminating of the industry. Pasanella is the proprietor of Pasanella and Son Vintners, which opened in the South Street Seaport area of Manhattan in 2005. The shop has been included in top-ten lists in New York magazine and The Village Voice, and has received praise in Food & Wine, Elle, and Blueprint.

Designing Brand Identity: An Essential Guide for the Whole Branding Team by Alina Wheeler

This highly visual 4th Edition advocates “a proven, universal five-phase process for creating and implementing effective brand identity”. You do not have to buy into the prescribed process as the 30+ case studies are meaty enough for great ideas and include the impact of social networks, mobile devices, global markets, apps, video, and virtual brands.

Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man by Mark Kurlansky

Kurlansky is one of my favourite nonfiction writers and he has chosen an engrossing subject this time around. As the New York Times review stated, “He specializes in the mix of showmanship and small-bore scrutiny that gives minor-sounding material the patina of great relevance.” This is a biography of Clarence Birdseye, a small, mild inventor and businessman who died in 1956 after leaving the world with the means for freezing food and ensuring the oxymoron “fresh frozen” entered popular culture.

Happy reading!

1 reply
  1. Tom Listner
    Tom Listner says:

    Every year you nail it. Much better than the standard business book lists because they are too narrow in their classification. I appreciate your reviews and interpretation of how certain content applies to business. I have just downloaded Gossip – thanks.


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