Playing easy to get could cost you

Free Gift Inside!!
May 7, 2004

If you abhor the amassment of assorted, aggressive and affected alliterations, and find periphrastic, polysyllabic prose pretentious, stop reading now. This may seem a trivial way to start a serious review, but Stephen Brown's literary style is extraordinarily intrusive. As he boasts at the start of Free Gift Inside!! , he has a thesaurus and he is not afraid to use it - incessantly. Hardly a page escapes his invasive, interminable, inexhaustible wordplay. At first this is quite entertaining. It is indeed unusual to read a marketing textbook written by a professor with a well-thumbed thesaurus. But after a while it became, for me, totally, tediously tiresome.

This is a pity, because Free Gift Inside!! has a serious and original thesis to propound, although the thesis probably justifies an article rather than a book, and it often seems as though the author's orotund style is deliberately deployed to pad out the length. Indeed the book is based on a Harvard Business Review article titled "Torment your customers (they'll love it)" that the HBR anointed as one of its six "breakthrough ideas of 2002".

Brown's breakthrough idea is that modern marketing chases customers too zealously. The vast majority of companies are so in thrall to the countless customer-focused mantras - the customer is king, the customer is always right and so on - that like over-attentive waiters in a restaurant, they end up harassing the very people they want to attract. Would-be lovers who try too hard become pests, while unattainable lovers retain their intrigue.

Businesses, Brown believes, should likewise play hard to get. They should "bait the mousetrap" - tempt customers to come to them.

The key to baiting the mousetrap is scarcity: everyone wants things that are difficult to obtain. This is the obverse of current marketing practice, which generally involves marketers foisting onto stores and consumers as much of their product as they possibly can. Brown demonstrates the value of scarcity with numerous examples, from Gucci to De Beers, from Hermes to Ford Thunderbirds. He frequently refers to artists of all kinds - Damien Hirst, J. K. Rowling, Madonna and Liberace, to name but a few - who have all, in his view, skilfully exploited scarcity to create demand.

Naturally, not being able to obtain something will not work unless people know what it is they cannot obtain. Brown develops an acronym for his marketing principle - more wordplay - Tease: trickery, exclusivity, amplification, secrecy, entertainment. To develop desirable exclusivity, marketers should employ adroit trickery, secrecy and entertainment. And they must amplify them, so everybody knows about them. Richard Branson is, predictably, an archetypal Tease marketer. But Brown's real hero is the great US showman P. T. Barnum. He admits that every idea in his book Barnum thought of first.

And this is the difficulty with Tease, with scarcity and with Brown's breakthrough idea. It can work for showmen, entertainers, artists and select high-ticket products. But most of the goods and services people use every day depend on low-cost production and delivery. This means production-line quantities and economies of scale. It is unclear how the marketing of detergents or laptops or supermarkets could benefit from trickery, exclusivity or secrecy - though they employ amplification and sometimes entertainment for all they are worth. Brown allows, towards the end, that Tease marketing will never apply to everything. The truth is that, almost by definition, it can apply only to a tiny minority of things.

So, as a breakthrough idea, Tease seems rather limited. But that would probably not disturb Professor Brown. Any idea that applies only to a few things is obviously pretty exclusive.

Winston Fletcher is visiting professor in marketing, Westminster University, and chairman, Royal Institution.

Free Gift Inside!!: Forget the Customer? Develop Marketease

Author - Stephen Brown
Publisher - Capstone
Pages - 294
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 1 84112 546 6

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