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The 23 Best Marketing Books Of All Time
DAP takes great pride in being one of Chicago's top B2C marketing, B2B marketing, and SEO companies. But we didn't become marketing experts overnight. We’re constantly reading, attending conferences, and webinars, constantly honing our strategies to reflect the current landscape and bring key trends into an actionable marketing paradigm.
Marketing took off as a profession with the boom of the middle class and the surplus of income that led to a demand for new consumer products. The internet significantly expanded consumers’ access to information and products, making marketing an even more important discipline of ever-expanding complexity.
Whether laying out bedrock principles or charting new terrain, the following books are mind-expanding exercises in marketing virtuosity. These books are on our shelves and kindles, required reading for the DAP team, and belong in the toolkit of anyone hoping to master the marketing game. Here are our picks for the 23 best marketing books of all time.
1- The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin
An inductee into the Marketing Hall of Fame and author of multiple bestsellers, Godin evokes a famous Greek myth in this book, but turns the usual lesson taken from the myth on its head.
In the Icarus myth, Icarus and his inventor father Daedalus escaped captivity using mechanical wings bound together by wax. Daedalus famously instructed his son not to fly too close to the sun, lest the wax melt and the wings fall apart. Thrilled by flight, Icarus didn’t listen and flew too close to the sun; the wings melted and he fell to his death. It’s often taken as a metaphor to stay in your lane or as an allegory for the dangers of overreaching.
The deception of Godin’s central metaphor calls into focus a lesser-known aspect of the myth—Daedalus actually warned his ill-fated son against flying too low as well as too high. Though there’s danger if you fly too close to the sun, the “safe road” is nowhere near as safe as it looks. Godin’s book is a call to arms for creatives—the “safety zone” has risen higher, and now is the best time in history to treat entrepreneurship of all stripes as an “art.”
2- Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal
Forget dealing drugs—Instagram, Snapchat, and Netflix taught us that all you need to sell an addictive product is a smartphone and some code. Say what you will about the ethics of it all—consumer attention is big business, and hooking users is the new frontier of brand success.
Eyal flies with this entrepreneurial current by breaking down the habit-forming properties of a product into a four-step “Hook Model,” which popular products use to create a “hook cycle” that keeps customers and users coming back for more.
Based on years of research and consulting, Eyal has written the book he wished he had as a startup entrepreneur, filled with actionable steps that can be applied to both product features and marketing to make them more addictive. (We’re all going to Hell.)
3- Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition by Robert B. Cialdini
First published in 1984, Influence remains firmly in the canon of marketing books because its advice is evergreen. The digital revolution did not decrease the importance of Cialdini’s “Six Principles of Influence”—1) Reciprocation, 2) Commitment and Consistency, 3) Social Proof, 4) Liking (does that ring any bells in the digital age?), 5) Authority, and 6) Scarcity.
Spoiler alert, right? Did we ruin the ending? Definitely not, because Cialdini, a Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University in Psychology and Marketing, delves deep into the mechanics of each of these pillars of influence, plumbing the theory as well as proposing actionable steps to put them into practice and become more influential, ethically.
Cialdini’s real insight is that no one wants to work too hard to make decisions. The six pillars of influence are things people look at to make quick decisions. By fortifying products and ideas with those six pillars, marketing experts can essentially make buying decisions for the customer. What marketer wouldn’t want that superpower?
4- The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis
The Undoing Project is a history book that examines a collegial partnership whose work revolutionized the field of Big Data, among others. Lewis’ subjects are Israeli behavioral psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, whose work laid the groundwork for the entire field of behavioral economics.
The “flaws” that Kahneman and Tversky exposed in human thinking have played key roles in artificial intelligence and social media marketing. This partnership, its dissolution, and its after-effects are critical reading for anyone who wants to master web marketing.
5- Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell
Marketing is ultimately the study of why people do what they do, with the ultimate goal of getting them to do what we want them to do. Best selling pop psychologist Malcolm Gladwell draws attention to the very act of decision making, especially the kind of decision making that happens in an instant.
He explores why some people have good instincts, others lousy instincts; why some people can make snap decisions and others struggle to make even the most basic calls. He introduces the notion of “thin-slicing”—the art of instantaneously sorting the salient details from the extraneous details to make a sound decision from a seemingly complex set of variables.
From examinations of prejudice to “analysis paralysis,” Gladwell probes the depths of decision-making, uncovering profound insights for behavioral economists along the way.
6- Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger
What a perfect title for a marketing book in a time when the gold standard is to “go viral.” Any outsiders who think that things are popular because they are advertised will be disabused of that notion when UPenn-Wharton professor Jonah Berger picks it apart in pursuit of what makes something “go viral.”
Berger spent ten years tracking the life of a rumor and making a map of the phenomenon word-of-mouth, in search of patterns that savvy marketers can tap into. He came out of his study with six basic principles of why things catch on—not just products, but ideas, policies, rumors, YouTube videos. His conclusion? It all becomes popular because people talk about them. Anyone who has ever wondered how to get people talking about something needs to catch Contagious.
7- Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant
Wharton School psychology professor Adam Grant writes an ode to the holders of unpopular ideas or before-their-time opinions that go on to change the world. How is it that some people are so ahead of the curve, running against the grain—and often in the face of popular scorn and corporate body-blocks—to go on and change the world, with everyone suddenly agreeing with them after the fact.
Are they psychic? Foolhardy? Grant envisions a framework under which new ideas—that is, new good ideas—can be recognized, nurtured, and allowed to flourish, even in institutional environments like governments and corporations, without squelching them in their infancy, or subjecting the visionary—the “origina”—to possible career suicide.
8- Red Team by Micah Zenko
If you’ve never sat in a corporate boardroom pondering a big initiative, you might not be familiar with the concept of the “red team”—essentially a “no team” tasked with tearing the argument in question apart. It’s supposed to help test the strength of the idea and tease out weaknesses.
Across a range of case studies, however, Micah Zenko red-teams the very idea of a red team, showing when it produces effective results and when it actually does more harm than good, knocking out an idea that doesn’t need to be knocked out or overcomplicating a potentially effective strategy. All marketing brainstorming sessions could benefit from the insights Zenko unearths.
9- Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics by Richard H. Thaler
Nobel laureate and father of behavioral economics Richard Thaler slays all the sacred cows of his own profession in “Misbehaving.” Economists attribute all sorts of highfalutin’ governing factors to economics—itself a monumental feat of paycheck justification. Thaler hosed all of that chaff out of the way with the notion that people are the prime actors in economies, that their actions are flawed, predictable, and far from the benevolent superorganism of the fevered imaginings of professors and politicians.
Misbehaving is an entertaining read even for non-economists and non-marketers, especially those who love to see the pretentious get a richly-deserved skewering. From clock radios to mortgages, Thaler tracks human buffoonery in the economy through a madcap web of bad decisions that, funny as they are, have very real consequences to very real people. An invaluable perspective for any marketing pro to imbibe.
10- Win: The Key Principles to Take Your Business from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Frank I. Luntz
At least the goal is obvious from the title. Republican pollster, messaging expert, and political media impresario Frank Luntz should know a thing or two about the power of communication to produce wins. In fact, for Luntz, effective communication lies at the heart of the success of brands and people you wouldn’t necessarily expect, including athletes like Larry Bird and hotel magnates like Steve Wynn.
Building on his experience winning whole populations over to a desired messaging plan, Luntz shares with readers seventy “words that work” that can be used one-on-one or in public to gain advantage, as well as more than forty takeaway lessons and nine “Ps” of winning: People-Centered, Paradigm-Breaking, Prioritizing, Perfection, Partnerships, Passion, Persuasion, Persistence, and Principled Actions.
Okay, that’s a lot of “Ps.” Another “P” attached to Luntz is “Polarizing” because of “Politics.” But love him or hate him, don’t you want to know how he did it? Especially if you have a brand or message of your own to publicize?
11- Shoe Dog by Phil Knight
If you want to absorb hard-won wisdom about marketing, you could do worse than to immerse yourself in the story of how one of the most iconic brands in the world was created. Now a behemoth of the shoe world, brand founder Phil Knight takes us back to the days when he was a 20-something with a dream, importing Japanese-made shoes on a wing and a prayer and selling them out of the back of a truck.
Knight’s journey is specific but also timeless. As digital marketing beckons with what appear to be shortcuts to brand strength, one of the most enigmatic major-brand CEOs in the world lays out the messy story of building the Nike brand, in all its imperfect glory. If nothing else, it’s an inspirational tale for marketers—there may be hiccups or whole missed breaths along the way, but with passion, the right team, and strong fundamentals, a good brand can rewrite the rules of whole industries over the long haul.
12- Top of Mind by John Hall
Google. Velcro. Xerox. Band Aid. Kleenex. All of these are brand names—and yet they might as well be the name of the product itself. The product is synonymous with its function. Each of them has competitors, but these brands have so thoroughly dominated their spaces that the brand names and the product classes are actually synonymous. This is the Holy Grail of marketing—to have your product be the only acceptable product that pops to mind when someone thinks of your industry.
John Hall, founder of Influence & Co., breaks down the secrets he learned as a dominant force in the digital market space to form the kind of relationship between your brand and your customer base, so that your brand is “top of mind”—the first brand customers think of when they even consider a product or service like yours. It’s a guide to becoming a synonym.
13- Outside Insight by Jorn Lyseggen
When organizations talked about making “data-driven decisions,” they meant lagging internal data based on the trails of breadcrumbs customers were leaving after they had already come and gone. Lyseggen’s book focuses on the petabytes of data scattered like breadcrumbs across the internet, waiting for businesses to use it to glean insights about their customers before they even arrive.
Companies, political campaigns, and more can access “outside insight” to tell them where their target market is right now—not just geographically, but in terms of mindset and behavior—rather than basing decisions on where their target market was a moment ago. In today’s fast-paced digital marketing environment, this may be the most important marketing book yet—especially for anyone interested in the predictive power of Big Data.
14- Designing the Brand Identity in Retail Spaces by Alina Wheeler
This descriptively-titled book is a must-read for retail marketers. Wheeler encourages retailers to think of the entire three-dimensional space of the retail store as the palette onto which the brand is painted, rather than letting the “brand” languish as a business name and a mission statement.
Wheeler’s book is a useful marketing book for non-retailers, too, in how it breaks down the way consumers interact with a brand. There are useful insights to be gleaned for any brand, even one that doesn’t live on the shelves of brick-and-mortar stores.
15- Made to Stick by Dan and Chip Heath
What could you gain from a marketing book that would be more powerful than the knowledge of what makes thoughts, ideas, memories enter our minds and just stay there, never to be forgotten? In Made to Stick, Dan and Chip Heath dive into the perplexing question of why we remember some useless bits of trivia or elaborate narratives, while simple or pertinent facts just fly out of our minds. What makes one thought “sticky” and another forgettable?
Their entertaining meander through a series of gripping case studies arrives at several actionable insights of interest to marketers, like “curiosity gaps” and the “Velcro Theory of Memory.” Required reading for brand marketers who want to make their brand “stick.”
16- The Life of P. T. Barnum by P.T. Barnum
No one was a better self-marketer than circus impresario P.T. Barnum—look, he even wrote his own biography. From live showman to journalist to philanthropist, there were always two sides to Barnum—the idealistic achiever and the cynical huckster. Reading about how he threaded the needle, perpetrating outrageous frauds, libels, and abuses but rarely suffering lasting damage is a jaw-dropping look at a marketing success story of ambiguous ethics.
More than just a tale of self-promoting exploits, The Life of P.T. Barnum is a self-promoting exploit in and of itself. It’s a remarkable exercise in how to build a legend, full of lessons you can copy if you read between the lines. Hopefully no one else closely mimics the charlatan career Barnum perpetrated on an unsuspecting American public—but in the age of Fyre Fest, it’s anyone’s ballgame.
17- Permission Marketing by Seth Godin
The old way was “Interruption Marketing.” There you were, happily watching your favorite television program, when up pops a commercial for cereal or male-pattern-baldness cream. You aren’t happy, but you have to sit through it or else you’ll never find out how this week’s The Office ends.
Marketing guru Seth Godin dedicates this volume to the notion that the wave of the future is not “Interruption Marketing” but the “Permission Marketing” of the title—a system of incentivizing consumers to volunteer to be marketed to, essentially giving companies permission to market to them. Some of his insights may be familiar, but Godin pushes the idea into new frontiers that any marketing professional will find useful to explore.
18- Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout
In a stimulus-rich environment, it’s harder and harder for a brand to break through. Flooded with information, no one really has gaps in their consciousness that are desperately in need of filling by a bold new product. Ries and Trout get sneaky with the concept of “positioning.” It gets complicated—but you need something a little bit complicated to break through. Running at the brick wall will just get you bruised.
“Positioning,” as Ries and Trout mean it, involves carving out a stable “space” in a consumer’s mind around your brand niche—not just for your brand or even mainly for your brand. You might want to carve out that space for a key competitor, allowing your brand to “coattail” off of it or strike up a marketing proposition based on your brand’s strengths compared to a competitor’s weakness. It’s a roundabout but brilliant approach to practical marketing.
19- Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay
One of the first “marketing” books, before the profession of marketing existed in any formal way, Charles MacKay wrote this study in 1841 as a survey of a phenomenon modern marketers would find perfectly familiar—mass delusion, groupthink, and follow-the-leader popular madness.
He delves into great bubbles like the tulip mania of 1637 or the Mississippi bubble of 1719; the Crusades, witch hunts, and the popularity of alchemy. These recountings aren’t quaint—they are fascinating explorations of very successful, often devastating proto-marketing campaigns that had the power to make or break fortunes and lives. The parallels to the marketing landscape of today are unmistakable.
20- Crushing It!: How Great Entrepreneurs Build Their Business and Influence―and How You Can, Too by Gary Vaynerchuk
In his follow-up to 2009’s Crush It, Gary Vee’s Crushing It! concludes that that wise sage Gary Vee was right back in 2009 and is still right today—a robust personal brand is more important to building a business than ever. This is no surprise to people familiar with Gary Vee, the profane patron saint of the Broletariat. But the entourage of mini-Vees that follow in his wake, earning fat incomes off personal-brand-based businesses like Gary’s, suggest that he’s really on to something.
It’s not hard to see the power of personal branding—just check Instagram. Vaynerchuk specifically addresses how to use social media as a platform to claim attention rather than let it claim your attention, tips that anyone from an influencer to an electrician can use to amplify their signal amidst the noise to accrue and monetize a personal following.
Buy Crushing It!: How Great Entrepreneurs Build Their Business and Influence―and How You Can, Too on Amazon Here.
21- Marketing Myopia by Theodore Levitt
First appearing in the Harvard Business Review in 1960, Theodore Leavitt poses a question just as applicable, if not even more applicable, in the Internet Age—what business are you in?
It seems like an easy question, but a surprising number of entrepreneurs get it wrong. They wind up failing to serve their customers properly and watch as their promising businesses flounder.
Levitt helps companies avoid that fate by dispelling four key myths of marketing and asking the tough questions that will get a company’s message on track for success and longevity.
22- The Anatomy of Buzz by Emanuel Rosen
Is “word-of-mouth” something that can be “created,” even “sustained?” Or do brands and products just get lucky and people start talking about them? In his marketing book, Emanuel Rosen cites examples and breaks down the repeatable strategies that get people talking and keep them talking.
A former VP of marketing himself, Rosen interviewed over 150 CEOs and marketing executives to discover how buzzy brands intentionally constructed and stoked their own buzz. In a marketing landscape dominated by what a consumer’s peers say about a product, nothing could be more fundamental than this.
23- The Cluetrain Manifesto by Chris Locke, Doc Searls, David Weinberger and Rick Levine.
The Cluetrain Manifesto was posted by the authors on the internet in 1999, containing 95 “theses” in cheeky reference to the theses Martin Luther nailed to a church door to kick off the Reformation and break the stranglehold of the Catholic Church. With the stranglehold of marketing orthodoxy in their sights, the Manifesto was one of the first marketing books to advance notions like “Markets are Conversations,” “Hyperlinks Subvert Hierarchy,” and to plumb topics around “Intranets.”
More than two decades later, it is still a fascinating read, a remarkable counterpoint that marketing professionals still struggle to wrap their minds around and accept, but a crucial perspective to understanding the landscape of Internet marketing.
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