FEATURE1 June 2009

Shelf life

Impact Retail UK

Michael Warren presents the latest in our regular roundups of must-read books for market research and consumer insight professionals.


Author: Rob Walker
Publisher: Constable

I’ve always been ambivalent about advertising and, more recently, branding. They’re exciting, intellectually fascinating, often entertaining and they help to sell things that people need and enjoy. But at the same time I’ve always been troubled that they may have a corrosive effect on social morality. But this book cheered me up no end. It’s an enthralling review of the developing relationships between consumers and what they consume.

One of the author’s starting points is that these days most products are ‘pretty good’ and, unlike fifty years ago, they’re not likely to break down. Also, we’re now coming to the end of an 80-year era which started with the growth of radio in the 1930s – ‘never before in the history of the world had five, ten or fifty million people listened to the same sound at the same time’ – and which is now fragmenting under the influence of the web, mobiles and texting. And at the same time there’s a tension in all of us between two contradictory things – we want to feel like individuals and at the same time we want to feel part of something bigger than ourselves.

From these and other observations the author explores what’s going on around us, what the driving forces are and what the implications might be for our industries and our future. His conclusion challenges the cynics’ view of the consumer culture. We are not ‘what we surround ourselves with’. On the contrary, we surround ourselves with what we are. You may not agree with everything in the book, and you may find some of it too simplistic, but try it. You’ll enjoy the ride.


Editor: Neil Dawson
Publisher: Warc/IPA

Years ago, when the first of this series of books was published, someone – probably Jeremy Bullmore or Harry Henry – suggested that it should be called Advertising Works!, complete with exclamation mark. Here at last was an authoritative volume that proved what the industry had always hoped but never quite been sure about, that all that time and money had a real and constructive impact.

Sixteen volumes later and the series is increasingly impressive. Twenty-three award-winning papers from the 2008 IPA Effectiveness Awards are presented in this latest edition, and the quality of the book (which has a CD attached), its illustrations, graphs and charts, could hardly be improved. The papers cover products and services ranging from whisky, crime prevention and KFC to Dove, Waitrose and road safety.

What’s interesting about this substantial book, however, is that from the New Learning section – a series of brief articles discussing overview findings from the awards – it’s clear that there are still significant gaps in the data that’s being presented. There’s a useful discussion – it’s almost a rebuke to some of the authors – on what is, and is not, ROI. And in particular, media effectiveness remains a bit of a void. There’s plenty of creativity in the choice and interlinking of the media used, and work to prove that advertising drives business success but, to quote one of the authors, ‘virtually nothing that validated media’s contribution to that success’.

Assessing media impact was difficult enough in the old days when an ad campaign might suddenly and by chance become a news story. The overall impact was good for the advertiser but the relative impact of the paid publicity and its free spin-off was hard to differentiate. So maybe it’s not surprising that in these days of multimedia campaigns, online complexity and a near-manic speed of change, assessment methodology hasn’t yet caught up.


Author: Liz Moor
Publisher: Berg

Back to another book on branding, but this one’s a bit different. It’s a history of the phenomena of branding, which widens its range as it moves into the extraordinary developments of the last 30-40 years to look at a few broader questions that have been raised. There’s the impact on our surroundings (from Disney stores to sponsorship to local authority logos), the implications for intellectual property rights and, of course, global branding.

Starting with the history, the author provides a brief but entertaining guide to what has preceded us. There are ownership marks on items from ancient Greece and Rome, there was the branding of people – slaves – during the European conquests of the Americas, the rise of packaged goods from the 19th century and, more recently, branding as corporate and national identity. The increasing importance of design is emphasised, not least in rationalising the styles of all the various bits of a major company that the public sees.

The only problem with this book, I think, is that it has emerged from an academic background but has not quite managed to become entirely accessible to the non-academic reader. The author, for example, talks about the “materiality of communication, and … its tactile and immersive qualities”, and wonders whether branding, being a ‘conceptual abstraction [is perhaps also] a form of political and economic virtualism’. I suspect that this latter point may be important – after all, our current problems are to some extent the knock-on effects of financial virtualism: a lot of that money simply didn’t exist – but the arguments, for me, could have been a great deal clearer.