In an older post, I claim most marketing books suck. I stand by this; Most marketing books are garbage, rehashing other, older books, written to convince big companies who can hire consultants, to hire the authors.  In that post, I quote Play Bigger: How Pirates, Dreamers, and Innovators Create and Dominate Markets — because it’s the most recent marketing book fitting my description that has crossed my path.

The premise of Play Bigger is that you have to define a category to be successful. The authors of the book attempt this in their work by rebranding old marketing concepts. Positioning by Al Ries and Dr. Philip Kotler is a far better book. Positioning came out nearly 40 years ago and is relevant still.  By contrast, Play Bigger was published in 2016 and feels outdated.

Play Bigger is written by four people (Al Ramadan, Christopher Lochhead, Dave Peterson, and Kevin Maney), and it feels like it. The book is written with multiple, distinct voices, some of whom own a company that offers a “…standardized category design process that is tailored to meet the needs of companies of all stages.”

This is not the worst book I’ve read on marketing. Also, the authors seem to be well read; I respect that. Many of the books referenced by this book are worth reading; This one isn’t.

It Reads Like an Infomercial for Something I Already Own

Not unlike an infomercial showing a crappy version of a product you already own, the book stretches reality a bit with some claims to make its point. Bing in 2017 held 18% of the search market share in the US earning 3.2 Billion in revenue (1.3 billion in profit), but it’s a failure because it doesn’t define its category.

Another example. This book gives a possible explanation of why Apple’s iPad was a success while Microsoft’s tablet PC’s failed. The reason, Apple defined a new category sitting between a laptop and smartphone. Microsoft just made a tablet that ran Windows XP. I inferred from the book the Tablet PC was also an unholy abomination to both god and man.  But the book is steadfast that products don’t matter, its all about positioning… I mean “category design”.

The creation of a new category was the reason for Apple’s success and Microsoft’s failure. The cult of personality surrounding Steve Jobs, the fact iPads were a better product (at the time); Apple being very much a status symbol, closer to a luxury brand than a tech company, etc. Those weren’t factors, it was all about the category. Maybe Microsoft should hire the consulting firm behind the book?

Selection Bias

As with most marketing books, companies analyzed in Play Bigger are (almost all) already on top. If you pick the biggest companies in a market segment, are they the “category king” because they defined the category at the start, or do they currently define the category because they are the top dog?

To the credit of Play Bigger, they do provide analysis that proves their points. However, the probes into the success of Google, Facebook, Salesforce & Apple at the very least, feel to me like a bad marketing report. In a bad report you:

  1. Create a narrative
  2. Find examples that support that narrative
  3. Ignore nuanced arguments against the narrative you created
  4. To seem fair, address strawman arguments that contradict your narrative

The author defined categories major companies occupied are also a substantial fudge factor influencing the book’s conclusions. Bing, could be a non-successful search engine, or the first ever “decision engine”, dominating the space it is in with 100% market share. DuckDuckGo, a profitable but small company, could be called a failed search engine, or the dominant player in privacy-conscious search. I could category define all day, and crown nearly any company a “category king”.

Who Likes This book?

The best thing I’ve found said about this book was said by Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce a company consistently praised in the book. Benioff said “Every entrepreneur looking to alter the landscape and every CEO looking to reimagine their business can learn from this book. Play Bigger provides inspiration and a framework for building companies that transcend gravity.”

Of course, Benioff loves the book “Salesforce” and “Marc Benioff” are mentioned 80+ times in this book. If I and my company had been praised on this level; I would give highlighted copies to all the stakeholders, my mother, and all relationship prospects. I may even have hired its authors as consultants.

And now; Now you have the information to understand why most marketing books are crap.

I’ll Now Defend This Book, a Little

The book isn’t all bad. The advice is something any savvy company will think of as market positioning. Every single company that isn’t doomed to fail has to think about positioning. Many companies will create new categories, but it’s not an automatic failure when a company doesn’t create a new category. I’m sorry, that’s just a flawed idea.

A point this book raises, validly, I’m sad to say. Is that markets seem hungry for one major player in each category. That’s true, in part driven by access to capital. VC’s seem less willing to invest in ideas when a hugely successful company already dominates a category. And, Investors will sell stock in publicly traded companies, the second Amazon sends out a press release hinting the giant may step into an industry.

The handful of insights, like the one above, aren’t worth slogging the swamp of self-promotion. If you want those kinds of insites you’re better off reading The Four by Scott Galloway.

At one point, the “players turned coaches” bemoan the days before “category design”. The days they speak of, are days when positioning, and market placement were taught in business schools.

Final Thoughts

The authors of this book did not create a new discipline. The book teaches little or nothing new. Certainly nothing so original that you couldn’t find it elsewhere. It suffers heavily from bias analysis and it reads like a sales pitch. Play Bigger isn’t the worst book on marketing, but it’s still an archetype of a bad marketing book.

P.S. 
This is only my opinion. It’s possible for knowledgeable and intelligent people to disagree with me, but I think most won’t. The idea that people don’t have to agree with you, is something Play Bigger would have done well to acknowledge in the book; Instead, it takes the hard-line stance that anyone on your team who doesn’t buy into the concept of positioning (as defined by this book) should be fired from the team.

The above, almost cult-like stance is especially odd since most of the examples in the book touted as success did not follow the category design prescribed by Play Bigger. I’ll combat this book one last time. Elvis isn’t necessarily the king of rock and roll because he created a new category, a solid case can be made that he stepped into a spot Chuck Berry created.

Did Elvis dethrone a “category king” rather than creating a new category? I don’t know, but I also didn’t write a book claiming that category creation is the only way to succeed.

Header Image by Editor B