Deaf to the publicity buzz BC - before cyberspace

The Anatomy of Buzz
October 12, 2001

When I first began to read business books, some three decades ago, I often wondered who they were written for. They were replete with truisms, platitudes and statements of the blindingly obvious that any management trainee with half a brain would surely have grasped within weeks of starting work. In recent years things have improved. Many of today's business books, happily, contain new ideas, insights and advice. Emanuel Rosen's The Anatomy of Buzz: Creating Word-of-Mouth Marketing is, less happily, a throwback.

The book's thesis is that if you can get people talking about your goods or services, that is buzz. And where there is buzz there are sales.

This would hardly have been profound news to businessmen a century ago. Thomas Barratt, who built Pears Soap into one of the world's great brands in the 19th century, was a publicity maestro. His use of Sir John Millais's painting Bubbles in one his posters set tongues wagging and soap sales soaring. And the Victorian grocer Thomas J. Lipton won himself immense word-of-mouth publicity by, among other things, employing elephants to draw gigantic cheeses through the streets of Glasgow to his shops. He then offered one of the cheeses to Queen Victoria. She was not amused. She could not, she sniffed, accept gifts from people to whom she had not been introduced.

Sadly, Rosen's knowledge of marketing history seems not to go back much beyond the 1970s. Maybe that is because he lives in California and has spent most of his business life in the computer and information technology industries. "History is bunk," famously opined Henry Ford (who knew a thing or two about generating buzz himself). Californian IT geeks go further than Ford. For them, history in the BC era - the era before cyberspace - hardly exists.

As a consequence, The Anatomy of Buzz contains much that is sensible, and much that is right, but almost nothing that is new. It correctly pinpoints the importance of opinion leaders, but everyone in marketing has known about opinion leaders since the dawn of time; it correctly insists you cannot create buzz unless you have a good product that people will recommend to each other, a maxim Procter and Gamble bosses have believed since they were in knee-pants; it records how Federal Express built its business by whizzing high-pressure sales teams into towns to make them buzz, a marketing technique nearly as old as the Roman hills.

None of this would matter if The Anatomy of Buzz purported to be a textbook, a students' guide to word-of-mouth publicity, the buzzy equivalent of Inorganic Chemistry . But it purports to be a new analysis of the phenomenon of gossip marketing; and as such it is less than enlightening.

This is partly because most of Rosen's examples come from the new electronic industries. It is relatively easy to get word-of-mouth publicity for technological innovations. Naturally people talked to each other about the hand-held palm computers when they first arrived, and naturally they talked to each other about EndNote, the software developed by Rosen's own company that is now used in universities around the world. Getting buzz buzzing for products such as that is a doddle. It is a great deal harder to get buzz for long-established, well-known goods and services. But it can be done, as Barratt and Lipton showed.

In the style of many modern business books, The Anatomy of Buzz is easy to digest, with lots of summary panels breaking up the text, and it is pleasantly written. But a pleasing style is no substitute for strong content. That is why I cannot see The Anatomy of Buzz creating much buzz.

Winston Fletcher is chairman, The Royal Institution.

The Anatomy of Buzz: Creating Wird-of-Mouth Marketing

Author - Joan Morrison and Robert K. Morrison
ISBN - 0 00 257104 8 and 653160 1
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £19.99 and £8.99
Pages - 303

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