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Feb 27, 2023 BY Andrew Buck Marketing

Five Excellent Books About Marketing That Aren’t About Marketing

Mighty Insights

Insights, delivered.

I love marketing because it’s a sandbox—a playplace where you can experiment, revel in your curiosity, and sit wide-eyed at the intersection of personal psychology and group behavior.

As much as I love books explicitly about the practice of organizational marketing and advertising—including “This Is Marketing” by Seth Godin or “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This” by Luke Sullivan—some of the most insightful marketing reads I’ve devoured aren’t about marketing at all. It’s only after I finished them that it dawned on me, usually in the daily practice of my work here at Mighty Citizen, that there were some deep, abiding marketing lessons woven throughout.

So here are my five favorite books about marketing that aren’t about marketing:

1. “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” by John Koenig

If marketing is most successful when it sparks some emotional response—and it is—then marketers ought to familiarize themselves with the more nuanced emotions.

For example: For many of our clients at Mighty Citizen, I deliver a training titled “How to Write Effective Web Copy.” In the hour-long presentation’s final section, I talk about emotion, and I begin the section by listing the Big Four Human Emotions:

  1. Mad

  2. Sad

  3. Glad

  4. Afrad

(The typo on #4 is on purpose because rhyming beats accuracy, usually.)

Every emotion you could name is, probably, a shade or combination of these Big Four. But in his superb book, “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” John Koenig goes a thousand steps further. He not only identifies a deep roster of nuanced feelings and sensations, he gives them names.

Of the many wonderful entries in this dictionary, my favorite is sonder. Koenig defines sonder as:

“…the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”

How is this helpful to a marketer?

Precision begets relatability. The more specific you are, the more deeply your readers will resonate with the point you’re making. “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” is chock full of specificity.

With a more sophisticated understanding of human emotional states, you can remove overly broad emotional appeals from your marketing—e.g., “This product will reduce your fear”—and replace them with more specificity—e.g., “This product will reduce your fear that if you don’t accomplish enough this year you’ll never catch up to your goals.”

You can purchase the “Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” here (non-affiliate link).

2. “One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America” by Gene Weingarten

Weingarten’s “One Day” started as a journalistic experiment. The two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize wondered whether, if he chose a date at random, he could fill a book with stories that happened on that day. But not just any stories and certainly not headline news; instead, Weingarten wanted to seek out stories giant and tiny, profound and fleeting, and then tell them.

The result is a book that isn’t just unputdownable, but an object lesson in how even seemingly ordinary moments, when rendered with empathy and superb prose, can leap off the page and into your mind.

How is this helpful for a marketer?

“One Day” demonstrates how concrete beats vague every time.

I recently came across an advertisement for a copy machine (or was it a printer? or a web server?) with the headline: “All New Capabilities. All New Possibilities.” OK OK, the alliteration built into the dual “-ilities” is cute, but otherwise: SNOOZE. The body copy beneath this headline was equally as bland, no-name, and forgettable.

And yet so much of the promotional content put onto the web—see: Chat GPT, which writes with tons of accuracy and zero humanity—fails to bring things to life. It could be swapped out for the competitor’s content and make just as much sense and inspire just as little interest.

You can purchase “One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America,” here (non-affiliate link).

3. “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield

Ignore a few things.

First, ignore that the title has “Art” and not “Marketing.” Ignore the fact that, if pressed, Pressfield would (I imagine) find it appalling that I’m trying to apply his artistic manifesto to something as base and crass as commerce and capitalism. And ignore, please, that this book is recommended in every other personal development blog and YouTube video on the planet.

Instead, just read this book. It’s short. Each chapter is about 200 words. If you’ve already read it, read it again. If you’ve read it twice, go for a third. And each time you read it, read it slowly (despite the temptation to blitz through). Read a chapter or two a day.

This book isn’t a race to win or a thing to be wrestled into submission; it’s a dictionary of meditations. You’ll finish the book inspired by the fact, which Pressfield presses home excellently, that creative pursuits both create personal meaning and offer meaning to the world.

How is this helpful to a marketer?

I’m lucky. I somehow landed a job at a marketing firm that works only with mission-driven organizations. Among many benefits, this means I don’t have to sell corn chips or remain beholden to some … ugh … Sales Director who’s demanding to know how many time-share condominium interest-form submissions we got this week. Instead, our clients sell things that are, intrinsically and unabashedly, good for the world. Our clients make lives better.

And yet, I know that you may not (yet) be so lucky. You may be selling tortilla chips, or helping a “life coach” sell spots in her upcoming “Vision Board Seminar” by cranking out SEO-driven landing pages. I get it. I’ve been there and I’ve done that.

This book will, among many other things, slap you in the face to say: Don’t let your sublime talents—and certainly not your limited time on Earth—be eaten whole by work you find uninspiring. Yes, we all must work for a living; but there’s absolutely no rule that says that you have to market things—or in ways—that leave you feeling cold.

You can find the book, “The War of Art,” here (non-affiliate link).

4. “Do I Make Myself Clear?” by Harold Evans

No list of books is complete, in my book, without one option that’s focused on the craft of writing, grammar, usage, etc. So this book—the adroit and doll “Do I Make Myself Clear?”—is standing in for a deep bench of other great books-about-writing I could’ve listed. Among those alternatives are the excellent:

Harold Evans knows of what he writes; he was the long-time editor of The Times of London among countless other writerly accomplishments. In this book, he discusses a diverse set of his professional peccadillos—the traps and tropes that writers too often fall into. Evans gives you countless examples of the difference between good writing (which most folks can manage) and superb writing (which requires the focus of a craftsperson).

This book, with its wry British humor, is one part treatise and two parts writing clinic. You’ll leave understanding the why and the how, and you’ll laugh plenty along the way.

How is this helpful to a marketer?

Simple: It makes you a better writer. And even if your particular type of marketing doesn’t require you to write anything public-facing—even if you’re an SEO pro or crafting only internal reports—clear-eyed writing is one of the surest ways to distinguish yourself from your colleagues.

You can purchase “Do I Make Myself Clear?” here (non-affiliate link).

5. “Making Numbers Count” by Chip Heath & Karla Starr

As a professional marketer, at some point you’re going to have to read numbers, understand them, and then communicate them. Clients love numbers, and they assume (sometimes rightly) that their audiences and users love numbers too. But 99% of the time, those numbers are shared in a way that is at best ignorable and at worst misleading.

This book will fix that. This book will guide you—with plenty of examples and mini-quizzes—toward number alchemy. You’ll learn how to transform stale data into insight, into compelling stories—into, frankly, marketing.

How is this helpful to a marketer?

For example, if your nonprofit client wants to tell its donors that in the last year it has served 4,000 local families, what do you do with that? Most marketers simply slap the number into an annual report—e.g., “Last year, we served 4,000 local families.” Guess what the reader does when they encounter that number. They either (a) speed past it without a second thought or (b) pause momentarily and wonder, “Is that good or bad?”

To become powerful weapons of persuasion, Heath and Starr remind us, numbers need context. Maybe you should tell us that “last year, our nonprofit helped enough families to fill Arthur Ashe Stadium for the finals of the U.S. Open.”

Allow me a brief up-on-my-soapbox moment: An infographic is not merely when you change font colors, sizes, and turn some numbers on their side. Nope. An infographic, as its name implies, is when you use graphics (i.e., images) to convey some information. For my all-time favorite example, see here.

You can find “Making Numbers Count Science Communication,” here (non-affiliate link).

What are your favorite non-marketing marketing books?

I’d love to hear your suggestions, and I’ll respond with a few more of my choices that didn’t make this list. Please email your recommendations to [email protected]. Happy reading!

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