C Marketing News

Marketing News
Feb. 1, 2007
RESEARCH ● Crack the code
Model behavior
The Da Vinci Code offers lessons to marketers on how
to formulate well-written, readable case studies
rags-to-riches case study
that marketing researchers
can look to and extract literary lessons from?
Yes, indeed there is.
ase studies are the
Cinderella of marketing research.
Despite their perennial pedagogic prominence,
and the recent rapid rise of
case study-dependent qualitative methods (such as
ethnography, grounded theory and participant observation), case studies are still
widely regarded as Tom
Thumbs at best and ugly
ducklings at worst. As professor Robert Stake reveals
in his detailed discussions of
case-based research, the
method is consistently dismissed as exploratory, preliminary and the intellectual
equivalent of fairy tales.
Like Cinderella, case studies are underappreciated.
The “show-me-the-Manova”
(multivariate analysis of
variance) marketing
researchers might question
their scientific credentials,
but good case studies are
nothing less than miniature
works of art. Like all compelling narratives, they draw
us in, suspend our disbelief
and satisfy the storytelling
propensity that underpins
the human condition. Moreover, they work in a synecdochic fashion, insofar as
the part stands for the
whole. They might represent
a “sample of one,” but akin
to poet William Blake’s
“world in a grain of sand,”
cogent ones encapsulate
everything that needs to be
said about the subject under
scrutiny. They contain the
universal in the particular.
If case studies have a failing, it is not in their fairy tale
status. Rather, it is in the
narrow range of narrative
templates that case study
writers typically employ. The
vast majority of published
cases in marketing research
comprise variations on the
Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches archetype. They tell onceupon-a-time tales about ugly duckling brands (or companies, campaigns, executives or whatever) that turn into
best-selling swans—often thanks to the magic wand of
marketing research—and, suffice it to say, live happily ever
Powerful though that archetype is, it is only one of
numerous narrative alternatives. According to journalist
I know what you did
last supper
Consider Dan Brown.
Since his breakthrough
book—The Da Vinci
Code—was published, the
ex-schoolteacher and
failed rock star has sold
more than 40 million
copies worldwide. The Da
Vinci Code has been so successful that it is now a cultural phenomenon, on a
par with Harry Potter.
Books about Brown’s book
sell like hotcakes, even a
Da Vinci diet book:
Stephen Lanzalotta’s The
Diet Code. Grail trails
around the locations mentioned in his theological
Rennes-le-Chateau, Rosslyn Chapel and elsewhere—have been pulled
together and are proving
extremely popular, much
to the clergy’s dismay. And
there is a big-budget, Ron
Howard-helmed movie
(starring curiously coiffured Tom Hanks as
Robert Langdon). Best of
all, Brown’s three previous
books—which were battered on publication—
have taken off retrospectively and sit alongside
The Da Vinci Code, atop the
world’s best-seller lists.
So, what are the secrets
of Brown’s success? And
what, if anything, does the
The Da Vinci Code case
mean for marketing
Christopher Booker’s monumental study of the Western
narrative tradition, there are seven primal plots (comedy,
the quest, overcoming the monster, voyage and return,
tragedy, rebirth, and inevitably rags-to-riches), although
he refers to others such as the mystery and the thriller. If
Booker’s analysis is correct, then the question must be
asked: Where are the marketing thrillers, mysteries and
comedies? Is there a thrilling, mysterious, comedic and
Secret No. 1: Razzledazzle ’em
When the The Da Vinci
Code case is studied for
meaningful marketing
lessons, four key factors can be discerned. The first is
“entertainment.” For all its alleged literary flaws, The Da
Vinci Code is a rattling good read, a veritable roller-coaster
ride and a classic example of that imperishable critical category “unputdownable.” Even its sternest critics acknowledge that Brown’s blockbuster is an unforgettable, thrills ’n’
spills-filled story—a great piece of escapism.
Furthermore, the entertainment is not confined to the
Marketing News
book. The author’s meteoric rise from
remainder bin to best-seller list is inherently entertaining, as are his famous behavioral quirks. Apparently, Brown rises at 4
a.m., does sit-ups on the hour and hangs
upside down from the rafters—courtesy of
a pair of gravity boots—while dictating his
books with the aid of bespoke voice-recognition software. It is also rumored that he
rings his Doubleday editor several times
per day for reassurance, and is hopelessly
stricken with post-Code writer’s block.
No less newsworthy are the carnival
sideshows surrounding his megahit. These
range from accusations of plagiarism and a
torrent of copycat thrillers—which are
known in the book business as “Brownsploitation”—to debates about Tom Hanks’
aberrant hairdo in the movie. There have
even been several in-depth analyses of the
likely plot of his next, as-yet-unwritten,
In short, The Da Vinci Code has become a
marketing soap opera (much like Michael
Jackson, Kate Moss or Martha Stewart), in
which every development—however
bizarre, implausible or off-the-wall—
increases the phenomenon’s hold on public
consciousness, adds to the ongoing conversation and ultimately contributes to the
bottom line. In this regard, The Da Vinci
Code epitomizes today’s experientially orientated entertainment economy: our fastmoving, hit-driven, fad-fuelled world of
show-stopping and knock-’em-dead next
big things—where
building, sustaining
The Da Vinci
and exploiting buzz
might not be the be-all
Code has
and end-all, but is cerbecome a
tainly enormously
marketing soap important. If, as many
conopera, in which commentators
tend, there is no busievery possible ness without show
business nowadays,
then Brown is the hot
increases the ticket on the Broadway
phenomenon’s of contemporary busihold on public ness life.
Secret No. 2: Try,
try again
The second factor is “determination.”
Brown didn’t give up even though his first
three books were dismal failures, as were
his previous career choices. He failed in his
attempt to crack the music business, largely
because of his reluctance to perform live.
He failed in his previous literary incarnation as a writer of novelty/joke/gift books,
which sank without a trace. And as his
unofficial biographer Lisa Rogak records,
Brown has repeatedly shown fortitude in
the face of failure: at school and at home,
where his high-achieving parents set professional benchmarks that took some beating. “Dan Brown,” she observes in the preface of The Man Behind The Da Vinci Code,
“was not one to go after a task halfheartedly or to give up before he had proved to
himself he had given it his all.”
In this respect, it is noteworthy that
Brown’s never-say-die attitude is the
default setting among very high achievers.
Business history shows that those who persevere despite repeated, abject and heartwrenching failure are those who win
through in the end. Thomas Edison, Henry
Ford, Walt Disney, Ted Turner, Steve Jobs,
James Dyson, Oprah Winfrey, Martha
Stewart, Mary Kay Ash and so on epitomize
this ethos of unshakable resolve: the mindset that distinguishes the victorious from
the vanquished, the hotshots from the
have-nots and the entrepreneurial wheat
from the corporate chaff. Indeed, Brown is
an embodiment of a personal philosophy of
Samuel Beckett’s, the Nobel Prize-winning
Irish playwright who urged us to “fail better”—that is, to accept failure, learn from
failure and eventually overcome failure.
Brown failed better!
To be sure, Brown didn’t fail alone. Musically, he might have been a solo artist, but
careerwise he has never been a one-man
band. Brown’s persistence owes much to
his educational background, where Phillips
Exeter Academy in New Hampshire
instilled a self-improving ethic of accepting, embracing and overcoming rejection.
It owes just as much to his wife Blythe
Brown: a music industry executive who
took the would-be troubadour under her
wing when he was trying to swim in the
singer-songwriter piranha tank, and has
since steered his career. Not only has she
worked on everything from press releases
to script doctoring, but also—as a trained
art historian—her technical input into The
Da Vinci Code was an integral part of its
phenomenal success.
However, of all the influences on
Brown’s extraordinary achievement, his
longtime editor Jason Kaufman is perhaps
the most important. When Kaufman moved
Feb. 1, 2007
from Simon & Schuster to Doubleday in
2001, he insisted that his hitherto unsuccessful protégé come with him, which was
remarkable given Brown’s less-than-stellar
sales figures. More importantly, Kaufman
held out for a massive $400,000 advance,
which allowed Brown to write his make-orbreak thriller and ensured that Doubleday
would pull out all the promotional stops to
recoup its investment. It was Kaufman’s
determination, as much as Dan and Blythe
See DA VINCI / Page 36
Feb. 1, 2007
Marketing News
DA VINCI / From page 35
up attention
Pique readers’ curiosity to
generate, attract interest
Brown’s, that turned the literary zero of Brown’s Deception Point into a best-selling hero of today.
been urged to keep
their propositions
crystal clear. There
Secret No. 3: Dumbfound, delight, “demaris no room for ambiket”
guity, equivocation
The third factor is “obscurity.” As Stephen King
or anything other than
Author Dan Brown increased
rightly notes in his post-pulp novella The Colorado Kid,
absolute lucidity. Howappeal for his books by
humankind is characterized by congenital curiosity.
ever, marketing practice
consumers’ love
The appeal of puzzles, mysteries, enigmas, secrets,
(as opposed to marketof
and puzzles.
quizzes, codes, ciphers and all the rest (everything
ing theory) has always
from crosswords and sudoku to the baffling brainfound room for the crypteasers of quantum physics or superstring theory) is
tic, obscure and ambivalent. Consider the secret
deeply ingrained in the human psyche. Many maintain
recipes that help sell all sorts of fast-moving consumer
When it
that it is the very mainspring of civilization, a foothold
goods, consider the promotional quizzes and puzzles
comes to controversy-based pubon the ascent of homo sapiens. This might or might not
that accompany every other sales push, and consider
licity, Brown is way, way beyond sufficient. A
be so, but there is no doubt that The Da Vinci Code—
the increasingly ubiquitous—if rarely studied—teaser
rainbow coalition of critics has descended on his
with its arcane amalgam of esoteric symbology and
advertising campaigns. Similarly, successful brands
thriller, thereby immeasurably adding to his pot of
cranky conspiracy theory—tapped into this deep-seatincreasingly combine mutually incompatible proposigold. Contributing their two cents’ worth on the suced desire for the deliciously perplexing (as did the tietions: JetBlue Airways offers outstanding customer sercessful best-seller are: affronted Roman Catholics, who
in online contest to crack the codes embedded in the
vice and rock-bottom prices, Target sells exclusive
object to Brown’s heretical assertions; outraged affilibook’s U.S. cover, which attracted 40,000 eagle-eyed
products to a mass market, and the Toyota Yaris claims
ates of Roman-Catholic prelature Opus Dei, who
grail hounds). Furthermore, the first movie trailer
to be a big car in a small car’s body. The old idea of a
deeply oppose Brown’s depiction of the organization;
incorporated a cryptic competition involvone-and-only-one image, strategy, proposition,
disgruntled art critics, who are appalled by Brown’s
ing intriguing anagrams. And to build prepositioning, attribute or function is—if not
abyssal ignorance; incensed literary critics, who deem
release anticipation, the distributors
quite toast—definitely warming under the grill.
Brown’s book to be utterly abominably written; offendeschewed established movie-marketing
In a world of monovalent marketing messages,
ed representatives for the differently abled, who take
practice by nixing advance screenings for
plurivalence provides a source of competitive
exception to Brown’s depiction of albinism; infuriated
the press—thereby revving up the “intrigueadvantage. As Brown acknowledges in his witauthors of earlier books on the Holy Grail, who believe
opposed to
ness statement for the The Da Vinci Code legal
Brown has ripped off their ideas to the point of plagiaBetter yet was Brown’s abrupt withdrawcase, he chooses a subject that is “not black and
rism (but have failed to prove it in court); and
al from public life at the very height of his
white, but rather contains a grey area. The ideunhinged peddlers of even wackier conspiracy theotheory) has
post-publication fame. Since January 2004,
al topic has no clear right and wrong, no defiries, who think Brown got it wrong and the truth is
he has resisted media interviews, shunned
nite good and evil, and makes for great
stranger still. In doing so, they further fan the marketalways found
public appearances, spurned the trappings
ing flames.
room for the
of literary superstardom, and—court cases
Admittedly, this cauldron of criticism got completely
cryptic, obscure Secret No. 4: Shock sells
excepted—studiously avoided the limelight.
out of hand and developed an unstoppable momentum
Perversely, the outcome of this action has
The fourth and foremost factor is “controverof its own, especially when the Vatican got involved
and ambivalent.
been an increase rather than decrease of
sy,” which proves vital. These days, there’s
(manna, surely, from marketing heaven). However, the
media interest in the recluse. It has added to
nothing like a little controversy to attract attenbasic idea of stirring up headline-grabbing, column-inch
his appeal, and made an already intriguing
tion. A lot of controversy is even better. In a
generating and book-sales stimulating controversy was
author even more irresistible. As actress Greta Garbo
ferociously competitive situation, where more and
an integral part of the The Da Vinci Code marketing plan.
demonstrated long ago, and author J.K. Rowling
more marketers are shouting louder and louder, and
It was a tactic that Brown had used previously, most
demonstrates today, there’s nothing more newsworthy
consumers are paying attention to less and less, it is
notably for his first thriller Digital Fortress, which was
than a news-wary celebrity.
vital to cut through the cacophonous commercial clutsold on a “guess who’s reading your e-mails” promotionInterestingly, obscurity poses a dilemma for the marter. And—as Eminem, Madonna, Donald Trump and P.
al platform. It was further prompted by Brown’s discovketing research mainstream. From advertising pioneer
Diddy demonstrate daily—there’s no better or cheaper
ery that the most controversial aspect of his book Angels
Rosser Reeves’ famous “unique selling proposition,” via
way of standing out from the clamorous crowd than by
& Demons, the one that generated affronted reader feedmarketing authors Al Ries and Jack Trout’s “positionstirring up controversy. It’s no longer a case of good or
ing” paradigm, to contemporary proselytizers for
bad publicity, but the more the merrier—regardless of
See DA VINCI / Page 38
brand “essence” or “identity,” marketers have long
the controversy’s temper or tone.
Marketing News
Feb. 1, 2007
DA VINCI / From page 36
Pay close attention to writing skills
back, was his impious description of St.
ing research suggested that there was little
Teresa in the throes of sexual ecstasy. He
or no demand for a book that challenged
concluded, rightly, that a carnal angle on
religious orthodoxy, especially in the postreligious matters was certain to prove con9/11 climate of spiritual revival. However,
tentious. And by suggesting that Jesus marthe ex-schoolteacher tapped into the subried Mary Magdalene, who bore children,
conscious religious uncertainties that many
Brown was deliberately dropping the conpeople feel in our post-religious age, where
troversy-bomb. He admits as much in the
the world is increasingly polarized into
novel, where Robert Langdon’s editor is
devout agnostics and deranged doomsayhoping the Harvard symbologist’s edgy new
ers. Brown stumbled into the Happy Valley
book on the “sacred feminine” will prove
of Literary Success, only to discover that
extremely controversial and benefit with an
everything isn’t so happy after all. There’s a
ensuing sales spike. In fact, the plot of
moral in there somewhere, or a sequel at
Brown’s entire novel hangs on
the back-cover endorsements
Although there’s no doubt that
that Langdon’s editor is assemgood fortune played an important
bling for the tie-in marketing
in the ascent of Brown, the The
Just as great part
campaign. Brown’s book is as
Da Vinci Code phenomenon wasn’t
books suspend solely attributable to commercial
much about marketing as the
outcome of marketing.
kismet. It was the result of both
luck and hard work. Make no misdisbelief, so too take; the product was carefully
The marketing codex
Brown’s success is attributdo great brands planned, as was the publicity, the
able to controversy, obscurity,
distribution, the in-store support,
determination and entertainand indeed every element of the
ment—or CODE for short. But
accompanying marketing camalthough CODE is key to The Da
paign. Moreover, Brown wasn’t
Vinci Code, it is not the The Da
moved by his inner muse—much
Vinci Code whole key. For all its
less divine inspiration—or a romanundoubted significance, CODE
tic desire to suffer for his art. On
doesn’t explain everything
the contrary: He set out to write a
about the The Da Vinci Code case, even
book that would sell, and sell well; prove
when sum-of-parts synergy is taken into
controversial, and thereby attract the
account. The author’s unprecedented sucattention that’s necessary nowadays to
cess owes at least something to the inexstand out in a crowded marketplace; and
plicable, the inscrutable and the incalculaappeal to as many market segments as posble X factor. Brown got lucky. The planets
sible, not just female readers—who are
aligned. He was in the right place at the
much bigger book buyers than men (but
right time, with the right product—purely
remain immune to the appeal of boys-withby chance. Prior to publication, the markettoys thrillers). The author’s embrace of the
sacred feminine was a calculated stroke of
marketing genius, one that paid prodigious
dividends. These dividends, to be sure,
were far beyond what Brown and Doubleday anticipated; not in their wildest dreams
could they have predicted the ensuing
demand for all things Brown.
Far from being a never-say-die guy who
finally got lucky, Brown is perhaps better
described as an “authorpreneur”—a writer
with an exceptionally strong sense of what
the market wants. Granted, Brown hasn’t
been trained as a marketer. But he is blessed
with an innate marketing sensibility. In this
regard, he is the latest in a long line of
authorpreneurs: Charles Dickens, Alexandre
Dumas, Mark Twain, L. Frank Baum, Edgar
Rice Burroughs, Norman Mailer, and more
recently, James Patterson.
Brown, however, is more like an authorpreneur and a half. He has discovered the
Holy Grail of modern marketing, the commercial chalice that contains the secret of
business success. Brown has found that
marketing aspires to the condition of literature. Just as great books suspend readers’
disbelief, so too do great brands suspend
consumers’ disbelief. Today’s marketing-literate consumers disbelieve much of what
marketers state; thus, the key to superior
performance is making them willingly suspend that disbelief.
Brown suspends our disbelief and then
some. His books not only are about the
Holy Grail, but in a world where consumption has replaced religion as the predominant ideology, also are the Holy Grail.
Literary lesson
So, what can case-study writers take from
The Da Vinci Code case? Well, first, it can be
construed as a classic example of the familiar archetype (struggling author makes
good). Second, it can be viewed as a good
old-fashioned morality tale (never, ever say
die). Third, it can be read as a marketplace
mystery, an inexplicable throw of the literary dice (hack writer hits the jackpot). And
fourth, it can be seen as a slash horror
bodice-ripper, a calculated exercise in stir-itup sensationalism (scandal always sells).
The real lesson of The Da Vinci Code is
much more mundane, however: Namely, we
marketing researchers need to pay greater
attention to our own writing. Writing is a
crucial research skill, something that permeates everything from e-mails and consultancy reports to corporate mission statements
and case studies. We are what we write. But
much of what we write either isn’t worth
reading or unthinkingly adheres to hackneyed, time-grooved templates. For all his
alleged literary faults, Brown is extremely
readable and we should strive to be readable, too. When was the last time you read a
thrilling marketing article? Marketing
Research excepted, how many marketing
journals are unputdownable? Isn’t it time
we “did a Dan”?
Stephen Brown is a professor of marketing
research at the University of Ulster’s School of
Marketing, Entrepreneurship and Strategy in
Jordanstown, Northern Irelend.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of Marketing Research magazine and was edited for style and length before
being reprinted. For more information on subscribing to Marketing Research, please call
AMA at 800/262-1150.
NATION ● Rumble in the tummy
Muhammad Ali lends
name, image to snacks
uhammad Ali left the boxing ring
for the last time 26 years ago,
before most of today’s college
students were born.
These days, Ali is lending his name, image
and reputation as the “Greatest Of All Time”
to a snack food aimed at 18-to-24-year olds.
It’s the former heavyweight champion’s first
foray into marketing his image since selling
most of the rights to his name and likeness for
$50 million last year.
The snack food is produced in conjunction
with Mars Inc., through a company called
“G.O.A.T.” It stands for “Greatest Of All
Time,” and the snacks hit bookstore shelves
at five college campuses, in January, coinciding with Ali’s 65th birthday.
“He transcends generations,” says his wife,
Lonnie Ali. “On a global basis, Muhammad is
better known than most athletes.”
The snacks will first go on sale at Ohio
State, Georgia Tech, Texas A&M, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale. The snacks
could go on sale at 20 more colleges by the
beginning of February, with new flavors
rolling out every few months, says Peter
Arnell, founder of the Arnell Group, which
helped create the snacks.
Marketing experts say the product is a form
of “persona branding,” using Ali’s image,
name and reputation to induce customers
into buying a product. Other celebrities,
including Elvis Presley, stuntman Evel Knievel and civil rights icon Rosa Parks, have made
similar moves to set up a continuing stream of
revenue for themselves and their families.
“Elvis has been dead since the ’70s, and the
revenue still pours in,” says Larry Bisig, chairman of the Bisig Impact Group, a marketing
and promotions company in Louisville, Ky.
Charles Sharp, a professor of marketing at
the University of Louisville, says college students may not be aware of the controversies
that surrounded Ali over the military draft
and his conversion to Islam during his career.
Arnell says Ali’s image as a world-class athlete and humanitarian, as well as a resurgence of interest in him spurred by television
specials and a book,
give the snacks a
“cool factor” other
brands can’t match.
The response to Ali
is off the charts when
marketing surveys
are taken, Arnell
“You can’t escape
the power of his
brand,” Arnell says.
Muhammad Ali has reemerged as a heavyweight brand.
“He is just so current
in so many different
fle and Jabs. The snacks are shaped like boxAli, a Louisville native who now lives in
ing gloves, medicine balls, ropes, speed bags
Berrien Springs, Mich., sold 80% of the marand body shields.
keting rights to his name and likeness in April
Arnell and Lonnie Ali wouldn’t say what
to CKX Inc. The deal allows Ali, who suffers
else G.O.A.T. may produce in the future. Bisig
from Parkinson’s Disease, to retain 20% interpointed to Knievel’s new line of motorcycles
est in the business.
to show the possibilities for future sales of AliThe snacks, which include fruit crumbles,
backed merchandise.
crunchy mixes and flavored crisps, are given
—Brett Barrouquere for The Associated Press
boxing-related names such as Rumble, Shuf-