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Zen and the art of marketing mastery

One book, five lessons learned and a goal finally reached

I’ve finally done it. It’s been on my list of things to do forever, and now I can tick it off. No, it’s not climbing Everest, or appearing on Britain’s Got Talent, or running a marathon.

It’s reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig.

It’s 40 years since this quirky blend of mechanics and ideas first hit the headlines, and became the bible of the cool generation. Four decades and five million copies later it’s still going strong.

As I’ve been working my way slowly through it (it’s 400+ pages, and gets very heavy sometimes) I’ve realised some of the things that have have made it successful, and how they’re directly applicable to marketing. And I’ve also learned a few lessons about human nature, and why we do what we do.

  1. Motivation is important.  If you want people to take action, you’ve got to give them a reason to do so. In my case, I persevered with Zen because I’m part of a book club that meets monthly over Sunday lunch and discusses a book we’ve all read. You don’t have to have read the book, but if you haven’t, you’re automatically on the sidelines of the discussion. So it’s peer pressure, plus a sense of involvement, plus a deadline – if I don’t finish it by this weekend, I’ve missed an opportunity.
  2. Headlines matter. Undoubtedly one of the reasons I’ve had this book on my reading list for so long is that it’s got a crazy, catchy, memorable title. Just the other day, I struggled to remember the name of a book I’d really enjoyed when I was chatting with a friend. Though the book was memorable, the title wasn’t. Zen, on the other hand, I hadn’t yet read, but had no difficulty recalling its title. It’s funky and playful, and trips off the tongue.
  3. Testimonials are worth their weight in gold. The first person who mentioned the book to me, years and years ago, was a biker friend who was doing a PhD in philosophy – no surprise he liked it, then. And since I liked him, I trusted his judgement. You’ve got to read it, he said over and over. Every time I saw him, he asked me whether I’d got round to it yet. And every time, I said no. Now, that’s about to change – and in no small part because of his recommendation. And several other recommendations I’ve had in the meantime.
  4. Telling a story is critical. There’s lots of heavy stuff in Zen. Not least Zen, but also Aristotle, Plato, Heidegger, Hume and a slew of other philosophers. At times, it gets quite deep, and you really have to slow down and concentrate – otherwise, you realise you’ve read several pages and taken in nothing. The process, appropriately enough, is Zen-like. But what makes it easier is that Pirsig alternates between the heavy philosophical musings and the road trip that the first-person narrator takes with his son Chris. That variation lightens the intellectual load, and provides a narrative that readers can latch onto.
  5. First impressions count. The edition I’m reading is a special 25th anniversary one that came out in 1999 (see above). It’s got a bright-blue cover with chunky Austin Powers-like lettering in red. It’s like the visual equivalent of an acid trip. It adds to the fun and funkiness of it all, and makes me want to be one of the cool people who’ve read the book and are in the know.

So what are you getting right on your marketing road trip?

  • Are you giving your readers a reason to read what you’ve written? To care about your content? To engage with you?
  • Are you grabbing them with a headline that keeps them reading?
  • Are you following up with satisfied clients to get testimonial quotes and asking them to recommend your products and services to friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances?
  • Is your copy tightly structured with a beginning, middle and end?  Do you tell a good story?
  • And when people land on your site or see your brochure for the first time, are they instantly captivated?

We may not all be interested in motorcycle maintenance (count me out) or philosophy (I think I’m getting hooked) but we can all learn something from Pirsig’s left-of-field take on life, that’s as applicable now as when it first appeared 40 years ago.

I certainly have. And now, I can finally tick Zen off my to-do list.

I’d better start training for that marathon.

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What does success mean to you?

Career crises, job snobbery and… philosophy.

Imagine you’ve published a string of highly successful books, that have been acclaimed as both profound and accessible. You’ve presented tie-in TV series that did very well in the ratings.

You’ve got a big house in a fashionable part of London. And as if that weren’t enough, before you even started to climb the ladder of success, you had a trust fund of £200m (that’s more than $300m), thanks to your banker father.

You’re happy, right?

Not if you’re philosopher Alain de Botton.

In his presentation to TED Global 2009 in Oxford in June, he confessed that the gap between his hopes for his life and the reality are so divergent, he ends up weeping into his pillow – usually on a Sunday evening, as the sun goes down.

Sound familiar?

De Botton’s talk, A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success, is humourous, entertaining and highly practical. In a world that spins ever faster, with success seemingly forever beyond our grasp, he injects a welcome note of reality into our frenzied lives.

It’s 16 minutes long, and you’ll feel better after watching it. I guarantee it (or your money back).

If you’re reading this in an email message, click here to view the talk.

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Big business makes big mistakes

And the bigger they are…

big business mistakesIt’s that time of year again: Christmas is a distant memory, you can’t shed those extra pounds and the credit card bills are rolling in.

Luckily, there’s always someone else with bigger problems. And Fortune magazine has assembled the 101 Dumbest Moments in Business to cheer you up.

It’s a romp through the lows (some of them very low indeed) of last year.

In case you haven’t got time to check out all 101, here are my personal favourites:

  • (10) Diebold, who put a picture of the key for their electronic voting machines on their website – just enough detail for somebody to cut a real one.
  • (15) Bindeez, an Australian toy made from beads. When sucked, the beads released the date-rape drug GHB.
  • (16) Microsoft, whose PR agency compiled a 13-page dossier on a journalist – then emailed it to him by mistake.
  • (38) The 409 people who clicked on a Google Adwords ad that said ‘Drive-By Download. Is your PC virus-free? Get it infected here.’
  • (48) The European Union, whose campaign to promote European cinema, Let’s come together, raised (at least) an eyebrow.
  • (50) The US Defense Department, and the case of the $969,000 postage stamp.
  • (51) Apple, who slipped up on customer service – with a nine-year-old iPod fan.
  • (67) McDonald’s, who took on the Oxford English Dictionary over the word ‘McJob’.
  • (81) Data-centre operator 365 Main, who set the bar high – then fell at the first hurdle.
  • (93) British Airways, who put the body of dead economy passenger in the seat next to a sleeping first-class one  – and told him to ‘get over it’ when he woke up and complained.
  • (97) Blogger, whose own company blog was flagged as spam and promptly disabled.

There. You’re feeling better already, aren’t you?

I know I am.