Monday, April 21, 2008

"Greater Good": a good, but not great, book on marketing and democracy

"Greater Good: How Good Marketing Makes For Better Democracy" is a book that promises a lot. Inside the front flap it charges that "marketing is more democratic than politics." Its co-author John Quelch is a renowned expert on consumer marketing and professor at Harvard Business School, the author of a thoughtful and incisive blog on marketing. By aiming at dissecting and improving democracy, Quelch and co-author Katherine Jocz seek to elevate marketing to a level currently held by economics--i.e, a discipline that can drive progress of entire nations.

And, while it has many virtues, the book doesn't deliver on that promise. Partially this is because of the very broad topic it takes on. Its scope is the strength and weakness of the book. The book's first part, "Marketing as Democracy" is as good a survey of consumer marketing--its aims, faults and practice--as you could fit into 150 pages. But this means that there's four pages on fairness, six on advertising. As a result, it's a great book if you want to teach people all about marketing at a high level, but not so great if you want to galvanize readers to make their democracies more effective and citizen-focused.

There are sections of the book (for example, the chapter on consumer engagement or the one on marketing government and NGO programs) that could become strong books themselves if they dove more deeply. There are also some important insights, such as this:

...Coke and Pepsi don't sling mud at each other, because if they did, consumer purchases would eventually shift away from both of them to alternative colas and beverages. Both brands want to enlarge the market, not reduce it. However, in politics, market share, and not market size, matters. Negative campaigning may turn off a sizable number of the electorate, but if George Bush sicceeds in making John Kerry marginally less acceptable to the voters who show up on Election Day, Bush comes out ahead. (p.171)

Quelch and Jocz are onto something in terms of using what marketing's good at to improve democracy. While "Greater Good" isn't a home run, I hope they don't give up on the topic. There's more there to study, and, even more interesting, to try out.

If you want a comprehensive introduction to consumer marketing, buy "Greater Good" and read the first 150 pages. If you want to fix what's wrong with democracy, you'll have to wait for another book.

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