There is a great scene from The Simpsons where Homer is reading a book titled “Advanced Marketing.” Then it shows that book in the trash and Homer is reading “Beginning Marketing.” Then that’s in the trash and Homer picks up a dictionary and looks up the word “marketing.”
It cuts to him waving a shotgun in front of the bowling alley he’s promoting, shouting “Come get your bowling.”
It’s a decent question. What is marketing? How exactly are you supposed to learn how to do it? In the course of research my book on growth hacking, I came up with a pretty simple definition: Anything that gets or keeps customers is marketing. That’s it.
So when when I get asked “What are the best books to read about marketing?” my list is somewhat unusual. Because I don’t really think marketing is a thing and often times the people writing about or working in marketing know the absolute least about getting and keeping customers. They know how to look like Don Draper and that’s about it.
And before the pretentious literary people say something about those people who read books about marketing, I’ll say that there is absolutely no shame in reading and learning how to grow your brand or business. The world would be a better place if artists, entrepreneurs, executives and creative types got better at explaining and selling what they do. More great stuff would break through in this attention economy we live in.
Below is a list (not in any particular order) of what I think are the best marketing books to help you do that. They’re books that have shaped my career, taught me to land many huge clients, spread messages, and ultimately helped acquire and keep many customers who spent many millions of dollars. I hope you like them too.
1. Purple Cow by Seth Godin
You wouldn’t tell anyone that you saw a cow. You would tell them if you saw a purple cow. Seth wrote this book many years ago but it’s a classic because it says something basic, timeless and important. Make remarkable things, do remarkable marketing. It’s the best way to grow. It’s the best way to sell. Even Jay-Z has recommended this book–to Oprah no less! As a marketer, the clearest takeaway from the book is: Represent people who stand out, it makes it easier to do what you do.
2 & 3.Confessions of an Advertising Man & The Unpublished Ogilvy by David Ogilvy
Not only is Ogilvy is a master at advertising and copy–but he’s a great writer and you could almost say business philosopher. Confessions is a bit overstated as a title because Ogilvy doesn’t exactly confess to anything. He just shares his wisdom. Surprisingly, most of the best lessons in this book are not about advertising but about leadership, client management and presentation. In my opinion, out of print business books are actually some of the best books you can read. You can easily parse out the timeless from the temporal, for starters. More importantly, the further you go back the less likely the author was to be attempting to position themselves as a guru or for a line of lucrative speaking gigs. They were writing a book because they had something to say. This book is the perfect example of that.
4. Contagious: How to Build Word of Mouth in the Digital Age by Jonah Berger
I am a big Jonah Berger fan. In terms of business books, this is one you can trust because he is legit. I based more than a little of Trust Me I’m Lying on the research he has done on what does and doesn’t spread, which I read early when they were published as academic papers. The book is more accessible than those pages and unless you’re already a high level marketer, this book has real practical lessons you’ll want to learn. Some critics of the book have pointed out that it doesn’t tell how some recent things went viral like Gangham Style or Harlem Shake. Well…welcome to book publishing. The book was wrapped before those things happened—but as a mark of its value, it correctly predicts how and why they would have. Consider this your requisite business/marketing book for the year.
5. The Brass Check by Upton Sinclair
You probably don’t know this, but in 1920 Upton Sinclair self-published arguably the first ever structural expose of how the media industry works. Not only did he self-publish it—at the height of his fame no less—but he refused to copyright it, hoping to pass through the complete media blacklist a book like this faced. Sinclair deeply understood the economic incentives of early 20th century journalism and thus could predict and analyze the manipulative effect it had on The Truth. Today, those incentives and pressures are different but they warp our information in a similar way. In almost every substantial charge he leveled against the yellow press, you could, today, sub in blogs and the cable news cycle and be even more correct. That’s why you need to read this book.
6. Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal and Ryan Hoover
This book picks up where Growth Hacker Marketing leaves off. It’s very tactical and has a lot of specific case studies from all sorts of tech companies. If you’re building or growing a startup, I suggest reading this. It will help you bake marketing (or hooks) into your product–which is what the best marketing does. Originally the book was self-published but became such a cult resource inside the tech companies that it was picked up by Penguin. Ryan Hoover, the co-writer, went on to found ProductHunt.com which has recently blown up using a lot of the principles in the book.
7. 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene / 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene
Of course, I am biased because I trained under Robert. But if I had not, these books still would have given me a priceless education (as they have for millions of other people) in how to acquire and build influence. Robert is a crack researcher and storyteller – he has a profound ability to explain timeless truths through story and example. I promise you will leave not just with actionable lessons but an indelible sense of what to do to make your work seen, respected, and authoritative. It might seem weird that books about power and war could do this–but they are campaigns like any other. Robert explains how the historical greats have found patrons, captivated the public, commanded fear or deference and ultimately succeeded at what they set out to do. Related to these books is another favorite of mine: Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky. It’s great for anyone marketing a cause or building a movement. Alinsky was also a die hard pragmatist, a man who had ideals but also a sense for working with and through the system to get what he needed. In fact, his best examples in the book is actually how to use the system against itself to get what he needed.
8. 22 Immutable Laws: Violate Them at Your Own Risk! by Al Ries and Jack Trout
It’s a short quick read and but I think you’ll come away with one or two key lessons that with stick with you. Personally, I found the valuable lessons were a bit front loaded (the first couple laws are the best). In short: turns out the best “marketing” decisions you’ll make come long before the paint is dried (or even applied) to the product. Forget the notion that marketing is something that is applied after the product is completed and aim to achieve Product-Market Fit. As I write in Growth Hacker Marketing, the single worst marketing decision you can make is to work on a product that nobody wants. Two quick notes: I have heard better things about the old version of this book so consider that before getting the “updated” one. It also seems to me that the dumb subtitle on this book violates a couple of the laws.
If you don’t know how to build permission assets and you don’t encourage your clients to build them (or build them for yourself) you are bad at what you do. It’s that simple. If marketing isn’t building a list, directly or indirectly, it’s a waste. This book changed and influenced my thinking a lot over the years. It’s what motivated me to build my own reading list email six or seven years ago which now has some 30,000 subscribers, and has become one of the most valuable assets in my career as a writer. Start building yours today.
10. Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear by Frank Luntz
Frank Luntz is an expert in influencing and leading public perception through image and words. It actually matters whether we’re talking about illegal immigrants or undocumented workers, or whether we describe the problem as climate change or global warming. A lot of people hate this guy but that doesn’t mean he isn’t very smart and very good at what he does. Marketers need to understand the power of language and framing–it doesn’t matter how right you are, if you lose this battle it can be impossible to rally people to your cause. A related (and more political book on framing) is Don’t Think of an Elephant. Read them both.
11. Unlabel: Selling You Without Selling Out by Marc Ecko
One of the best business memoirs and books on branding I have ever read. I’d recommend it if I hadn’t worked on it or consider Marc my friend. Marc left pharmacy school and hustled to build from scratch Marc Ecko Entreprises, what is now a billion-dollar empire and later founded Complex Media, which now boasts over 90 million unique views per month. Marc knows how to create compelling spectacles (tagging Air Force one), knows how to use celebrity, knows how to design products people like and is an expert on what they call convergence culture. This is an underrated book–but only because it’s relatively new and not enough people have discovered it.
12. Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne
The best law in the 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing is “invent your own category.” Well, Blue Ocean Strategy is entirely about that. It’s about competing where there is the least amount of competition. It teaches you how successful businesses focus on being different, about carving out a new space for themselves. This book will help with marketing and every other part of business life.
13. Gonzo Marketing: Winning Through Worst Practices by Christopher Locke
Marketing, according to Noah Kagan, “has always been about the same thing – who your customers are and where they are.” Traditional marketers have limited this understanding to shallow demographic and geographic data. Christopher Locke urges you to stop treating your customers as abstract data. Instead, you should start fostering genuine relationships by tapping into your people’s online communities. Written years before social media, the book is still one of the best guides on how to engage with your audience online. As I’ve said before, the most effective tool in marketing is relationships.
14 & 15. All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren / The Harder They Fall by Budd Schulberg
Fiction can teach you about marketing too. These are two classic American novels, each with a disillusioned PR/marketing man as it’s protagonist. One is a media fixer for a fictionalized Huey Long, the other for a crooked boxer. They are full of all sorts of self-loathing and introspection. My favorite line from Fall is the one about “thinking we can deal in filth and not become the thing we touch.”
16. SPIN : How to Turn the Power of the Press to Your Advantage by Michael Sitrick
I don’t know if this book is still in print but it has some great insight into the art of media narratives and press management. Sitrick is a major crisis management/publicist (his co-writer Allan Mayer is the co-chairman of the board of American Apparel–which is how I found the book) and he explains how you turn a bad reputation into a good one, as well as how people squander good reputations through spin. I think you can read this book and be as qualified as the average media consultant.
I wanted to end this column with a few other recommendations. The books I mentioned above are excellent, but obviously not conclusive. There are all sorts of great insights that never became books that will shape you as a marketing. Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans piece, for example, is absolutely critical. Andrew Chen’s piece on growth hackers as the new VPs of marketing will open your eyes. Tim Ferriss’s blog is one of the best resources for marketing advice: how to create a trailer that spreads, the lessons learned marketing his bestselling The 4-Hour Body and how to launch a product on Kickstarter are a must read. Two pieces of mine that I strongly recommend are How to Market a Boring Business and The Right (and Wrong) Way to Market A Book. I urge you to read James Altucher’s piece on self-publishing, where a lot of the principles discussed come into play: building permission assets, building relationships, thinking early on about marketing, etc. To understand how to get media coverage, read How To Get Press for Anything and supplement with Why Most Startups Don’t Get Press.
And finally, you can check out Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing & Advertising, which is now out in paperback. It was heavily influenced by the books and articles mentioned above.