Marketing connects customers to products. That’s the fundamental job of marketing simplified to a single phrase, but as we know, the specifics can get much more complicated.
The honest truth is that modern marketing moves so fast that books on marketing are most helpful when they address timeless, evergreen subjects. A marketing book that gives a deep dive into a specific channel or tactic will be outdated in six months, let alone be valuable years later.
Fortunately, there are marketing books out there that fit this bill and are well worth your time. Below, I’ve shared the best marketing books I know that share unique insight, are concisely written, and will likely stand the test of time. I’ve learned more from these books than I did from my college degree—and that’s no joke.
1. Obviously Awesome by April Dunford
Buy it here: https://amzn.to/3Arnzcj
The marketing book most deserving of being the successor to Positioning by Al Ries. Obviously Awesome is, unsurprisingly, a book on positioning your product in the context of the market, competitors, and your product’s strongest value propositions.
This long-standing topic is made fresh again through Dunford’s vast experience and clear thinking on how products meet customers in the context of the current marketplace. The book’s biggest idea, which is fleshed out and revisited through many chapters, is the five (plus one) components of effective positioning:
- Competitive alternatives. How are customers solving this problem today, and what would they do, or go back to, if your solution didn’t exist? The important thing to keep in mind here is that answers like “deal with the headache,” “hire an intern,” and “fumble around in a spreadsheet” are all answers customers might give. The clear-cut competitors that look like your business might not be your fiercest competition.
- Unique attributes. Also described as the “secret sauce” in a very literal sense—like the burger chain that has a sauce no one else serves. Your unique attributes are the clearly describable features and functionality that you have that current competitors lack or offer bad alternatives. It’s important to note that these features can be time-bound because lots of functionality can be copied, but you should get clear about where you have the edge today.
- Value (and proof). Your opinion of your product’s strengths is meaningless without proof. What is the value your product unlocks that you know exists? How do you know? What evidence have customers given you, or that you strongly feel you could collect, that validates why your product is valuable and what it can do for future customers?
- Target market characteristics. Which customers love you today? What traits and attributes do they share? Which features or functionality is most often brought up when they have good things to say? Great positioning focuses (first) on the customers who are most likely to buy, and the way you figure that out is through a keen sense—and ongoing research—into what your ideal customer looks like, what they love about your product, how they discover your product, and what makes them valuable to your business.
- Market category. The market you’re a part of is the backdrop, or setting, for your positioning. Nothing can be defined as a “differentiator” without the context of what’s expected and normal. Markets are also useful tools to help customers make immediate connections to what your product does; e.g., if you’ve built a wholly new way to nurture customer relationships, the CRM category could be a market within which you position your product.
- (Bonus) Relevant trends. Proceed with caution—some trends end up being fads. But if your product creates value and aligns with a trend that is beginning to stir and shake up an existing industry, it can be helpful to use that trend as a way to position your product as a solution for now and in the future.
The rest of the book offers tactical and step-by-step advice for developing or reimagining your product positioning, including operational ideas around how to form and structure teams for this job. The book is insight dense and doesn’t skip on the details of what to do and why—rare for non-fiction books but especially rare for marketing books. Highly recommended.
One good idea:
“I like to describe positioning as ‘context setting’ for products. When we encounter something new, we will attempt to make sense of it by gathering together all of the little clues we can quickly find to determine how we should think about this new thing.”
2. Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins
Buy the book: https://amzn.to/3ATGAFT
The oldest book on the list from a man considered the godfather of advertising. One common criticism of this book is that the information is outdated. What’s true is that you may not need Hopkin’s specific advice on using coupons to drive sales, and the book may suffer a bit from the Seinfeld effect in that it was written during a time when these ideas were mostly novel.
But Hopkins’ book also offers crisp explanations for why certain marketing fundamentals actually matter, along with examples from his lived experiences. Yes, he was selling products specific to their time, but many of his ideas are Lindy and continue to be cornerstone facts of marketing even today. Here are a few of my favorites that he unpacks throughout the book:
- People can be coaxed, not driven. You cannot get someone to do something they don’t want to do through an advertisement because advertising is about channeling an existing desire. Hopkins’ faced this fact during campaigns for toothpaste, in which the messages about tooth health and preventing decay fell flat against the sales promise of toothpaste being able to brighten your smile.
- Marketing is sales at scale. The reason most marketers fail to produce results is that they consider themselves artists or creatives. The best marketers recognize the value of creativity and polish but deeply understand that their job is selling the product—at scale and potentially over a longer timeline than direct sales, but it’s a discipline that’s part of the same outcome.
- Marketing gains power through precision. Hopkins has seen campaigns flip overnight after the change of a single word of copy. Because marketing operates at such a large scale, marketers must worship at the altar of precision. Every word, every visual, every testimonial, every offer must earn its place. If you can’t clearly describe why a certain detail is in a campaign or advertisement, ruthlessly question why it’s there at all.
- Don’t have ideas, have hypotheses. The grand idea that the marketer and their colleagues have fallen in love with is the one most likely to fail. Every marketing campaign, regardless of how much you’ve researched and learned about your customer, is a hypothesis until the results come in. Your job is to create the best, most informed experiments possible but to quickly change course should your idea fail once it’s actually in the market.
If you buy and approach the book knowing what you’re getting—and what you aren’t—I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with how Hopkins’ direct, no-nonsense style cuts to the heart of marketing fundamentals you thought you already knew.
One good idea:
“The product itself should be its own best salesman. Not the product alone, but the product plus a mental impression, an atmosphere, which you place around it.”
3. Competing Against Luck by Clayton Christiansen
Buy the book: https://amzn.to/3CG8Qx3
The late Clayton Christiansen helped develop and popularize the Jobs-to-be-Done framework, which argues that categories and other classifiers marketers use are rarely as important as the “job” a customer is trying to accomplish.
Christiansen’s famous example is a fast food chain that wanted to sell more milkshakes but couldn’t figure out how to do so. They’d done customer research, asked customers what they liked and didn’t like, and acted on the feedback and insight they received—but sales didn’t improve.
A colleague went with Christiansen to observe and talk to customers at the restaurant. What they found was that most milkshakes were actually purchased in the morning, and they were often the only product a customer purchased, which was an anomaly. After speaking with customers, they found that customers struggled with describing why they were buying the milkshake.
After taking a look at the full list of research and feedback, Christiansen and his team found that milkshakes were “hired” to do the “job” of satiating customers’ hunger during a long drive to work. Lots of other products did the same job, but solutions like the granola bar were too messy in the given context; solutions like a banana didn’t keep customers full.
It turns out there were no demographic insights that could’ve helped the fast food chain sell more milkshakes—the type of customer and their background didn’t matter at all. What mattered was their motivation, as that’s the one thing they shared; they had the same job to get done.
I share that story because Competing Against Luck is Christiansen’s seminal work on how the Jobs-to-be-Done framework works and how it’s applied in real-world contexts. Jobs-to-be-Done is just as applicable to marketing as it is to product development, and far from being a replacement for demographic data and customer personas, it helps marketers add a new tool to their kit that’s especially useful when the job, or motivation, is all their customers share.
One good idea:
“For innovators, understanding the job is to understand what consumers care most about in that moment of trying to make progress.”