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Brand Warfare: 10 Rules for Building the Killer Brand

Brand Warfare: 10 Rules for Building the Killer Brand

4.6 8
by David F. D'Alessandro, Michelle Owens, Michele Owens

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While more than a quarter of its traditional competitors were going out of business, John Hancock, under the direction of marketing wizard David D'Alessandro, transformed itself from a sleepy old life insurer into a leading financial services giant. In Brand Warfare much-quoted maverick D'Alessandro provides the secrets to his winning brand strategy that anyone


While more than a quarter of its traditional competitors were going out of business, John Hancock, under the direction of marketing wizard David D'Alessandro, transformed itself from a sleepy old life insurer into a leading financial services giant. In Brand Warfare much-quoted maverick D'Alessandro provides the secrets to his winning brand strategy that anyone in business can use to become a brand icon and incredible bottom-line success. D'Alessandro introduces his "brand first" philosophy and explains why brand must always take top priority over every other business consideration. He describes how that philosophy helped inspire the innovations in distribution, advertising, technology, and product mix behind John Hancock's astonishing transformation.

And he reveals how through a daring combination of marketing savvy and street smarts, managers and executives, marketing professionals and business owners can build their own "killer brand." This book provides powerful lessons on how to build and sustain a successful brand, and a great company, in any industry.

Editorial Reviews

One of the most debated issues in the business press is the topic of branding, and few executives are more able to effectively address this critical issue than David D'Alessandro. As CEO of John Hancock Financial Services, which The New York Times recently named as one of the world's top ten brands, D'Alessandro has overseen the transformation of his company into a cutting-edge industry leader with an aggressive "brand first" philosophy. D'Alessandro now reveals the secrets that fueled John Hancock's amazing successful brand strategy and provides advice that will prove invaluable to his fellow executives, marketers, and business owners.

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McGraw-Hill Companies, The
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6.24(w) x 9.31(h) x 0.82(d)

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Chapter 1 — It's the Brand, Stupid

James Carville, Bill Clinton's brilliant political strategist in the watershed election of 1992, famously kept the campaign on track by scratching three little words on a dry—erase board near his desk: "The economy, stupid."

I've often thought CEOs should be forced to do exactly the same thing: take down the office Monet and, instead, put a thumbtack into a scrap of paper that says, "The brand, stupid."

The recent history of American business is littered with the corpses of executives who forgot that. And a huge number of these executives, by the way, were running companies with very big brands. The problem is that there's a tremendous arrogance that comes from having a big brand, and that arrogance makes it easy to forget that even the biggest brand only stays big at the pleasure of the consumers.


The most incredible example of brand arrogance I ever witnessed personally was at Citibank, where I worked for seven or eight surreal months during the late 1970s. Of course, today Citigroup is one of the biggest and best financial services companies in the world. And back then, it was one of the world's finest banks, except for the division I worked in, which was a lunatic asylum.

Somebody came up with the bright idea that because this was Citibank, all the nation's smaller banks and credit unions were eager to emulate the company in any way possible. And the particular set of geniuses employed by this division sat around thinking about what they could sell to the smaller banks: computer systems, tapes on how to train tellers, prepackaged loan programs—you name it.

No product was too small or trivial. Our bosses would come in and say, "We're doing these Christmas calendars for Citibank, and you know, we can sell these calendars," as if Wachovia Bank were going to buy a Christmas calendar produced by the competition. It was seldom about the quality of the products or services we were offering; it was just about how much of the company's operating costs we could offset by pushing these things off onto smaller players. And the attitude of everybody involved was, "They will buy because it's us."

One meeting in particular opened my eyes to the future of this endeavor. We sat in a conference room while various technical people made presentations about the products that we were going to sell. That morning, one of the company's senior people graced us with his presence. Let's call him "The Executive." Of course, he would never leap down two or three rungs on the ladder to address the person presenting personally. As far as The Executive was concerned, assistant vice presidents like me were nonexistent. He would speak only to our boss.

That day, one of my unfortunate peers happened to be making a presentation about the sales of computer systems to correspondent banks, and he started to say things such as, "There are some limitations to getting this done," "The product has a limitation," and "There's a time—frame lag."

After a few minutes, The Executive bestirred himself to say to our boss, "Put the cup up."

I had no idea what The Executive was talking about. Our boss whispered something to somebody, who produced a Styrofoam coffee cup and set it on the table in front of the poor guy doing the presentation. Then our boss explained to the guy that every time he said something The Executive didn't like, he had to put a nickel in the cup.

What The Executive didn't like soon became abundantly clear. He refused to hear anything that in any way, shape, manner, or form took him off his timetable and delayed the launching of the product. And every time he did hear something that suggested the product was not yet ready for market, he'd hold up one finger and indicate that it was time for the peon irritating him to toss a nickel in the cup.

My colleague had a couple of nickels on him, but that was it. Watching him root around in his pockets looking for change was just painful. So finally, our boss put a $5 bill in the debit cup for him so he could finish his presentation.

I was thunderstruck by the whole scene. Despite the childishness of what was unfolding, the project that my colleague was trying to tell the truth about was a rather significant one that was costing millions and millions of dollars. And it was not just that The Executive—this arrogant shell of a professional manager—was humiliating someone who seemed to me far more honest and competent than he was. It was also what he said at the end of the meeting: "We're Citibank. This is a marketing problem, not a product problem."

In other words, because we were Citibank, and so obviously bigger and better than every other player, the quality of what we were selling didn't matter. We just needed to market it.

Though he was considered rather brilliant otherwise, The Executive misunderstood completely what it meant to have a strong brand. The presenter, on the other hand, had it right. We had to work harder and be better than anyone else simply because we were Citibank and had a reputation to uphold. Add in the fact that the smaller banks, the intended market for these products, were already suspicious that Citibank wanted to take them over, and there was simply no way we could sell those banks anything if our products were not so superior that they felt they couldn't live without them.

My colleague, of course, quit soon after, unwilling to work for an organization that would allow him to be publicly embarrassed just for doing his job. The meeting convinced me, too, that the division was going to fail, and I'd better exit. Sure enough, it cost Citibank hundreds of millions of dollars to watch this little notion implode. Thankfully, John Reed soon took over, and Citicorp became an enviable powerhouse. And The Executive was jettisoned to a premature retirement.

I tell this story because many of the biggest brands in America were once run by people like that. Complacency used to be rampant in the business world. Part of the explanation was probably generational.

Of course, there probably isn't a Baby Boomer or Gen—Xer in America who hasn't felt a little soft in comparison to the World War II generation he or she is now taking over for. After all, those people survived the Great Depression, kept the world safe for democracy, and went on to prosper in almost everything they did. Tom Brokaw's recent bestseller, The Greatest Generation, makes the case for them about as directly as it can be made: "This is the greatest generation any society has ever produced," he writes. He's largely right, of course. The self—confidence of the World War II generation was earned—it came out of bitter experience.

One small problem, however: This older generation of executives retired believing that they had not just seen the rough—and—tumble of war, but also had seen the rough—and—tumble of business. And on that small point, I beg to differ. By today's standards, these heroes of the three—martini lunch were playing a country club game.

Twenty or 30 years ago, if you had a good solid brand, it tended to stay good and solid for a long time. Big players ruled: CBS, NBC, and ABC controlled television; Sears dominated retailing to the middle class. AT&T owned telecom, and the U.S. Post Office owned the mail delivery business. The life insurance business might have been a little more fragmented, but we were all reasonably happy. We knew who the competition was, we were making plenty of money, and no one threatened our business model.

In fact, the big life insurance players all did business the same way: We pushed our products through agents who went door to door and earned big upfront commissions on every policy they sold. For consumers, it was the most expensive, time—consuming, and intrusive of all possible ways of delivering life insurance, but that didn't matter: The Prus, the Mets, and the John Hancocks were the only places they could buy this stuff.

Then, when the Fidelitys and the Schwabs started appearing and siphoning off dollars into their mutual funds that would once have gone to life insurance, and when new players started selling life insurance through new distribution channels at a lower cost than we could, the guys at the top of the industry sat around saying, "Who's going to buy mutual funds when they could buy life insurance?" And later, they said, "Who's going to buy life insurance from these newly branded companies when they could buy it from us?"

Clearly, the life insurance industry at least was waiting for a fall, but for decades it didn't happen. It used to be very difficult for upstarts in many industries to catch any traction, mainly because there was only one way to establish a new brand: Advertise on network television. This actively discouraged new players from entering the arena. Network TV was prohibitively expensive. Plus, it was insanely wasteful: The demographic group you were targeting might represent only 10 or 20 percent of the network audience. The rest of the impressions you paid so much for would be throwaways. And network TV actually deterred innovation: Because you were paying for a mass audience, you'd be forced to make your products more generic to appeal to as wide a group as possible.

It cost such a huge amount of money to launch a brand that the marketplace was dominated by major corporations. They were like sumo wrestlers pushing each other around on mats. Their only competition was each other. And naturally, the conventional wisdom about branding reflected this inertia. The idea was that brands had to be built over a long period of time, and the more established you were in people's minds, the better. One theory called "double jeopardy" suggested that brands with large market share not only were bought by more consumers, but also were bought more often by more loyal consumers. In other words, all the advantages were thought to go to the incumbents. Some people even thought market share was static. The number—one brand simply stayed the number—one brand, no matter what.

So why wouldn't you be arrogant if you were IBM or Sears or the U.S. Post Office? And why wouldn't you dismiss any other way of doing business except the one that kept you on top? After all, who's going to want a personal computer? Why would anyone need to buy any other brand of appliance but Kenmore? And what's the big deal with overnight delivery, anyway?

It's amusing to consider the idea that all the advantages go to the established brands in light of today's marketplace. Brands that once seemed invincible—JCPenney, Sears, AT&T, the U.S. Post Office, and the "Big Three" television networks—are now just shadows of their former selves. Newer names have taken their place in the consciousness of the American consumer: The Gap, Home Depot, Sprint, FedEx, CNBC, and the WB Network. The landscape of business now looks like a series of earthquakes, as the Mount Everests crumble and upstarts who truly understand consumers rise out of nowhere to take their place. Every week, another big American brand wakes up out of a deep Rip Van Winkle sleep and finds that upstarts are shaking the ground out from under it. And the pace of change is only accelerating: Companies like eBay and Amazon.com that did not even exist a few years ago are now dominant brands in their fields.

We're not watching sumo wrestling anymore. Instead, the marketplace looks more like the bazaar scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where there's a big, menacing guy dressed in black, swinging a saber. He thinks he's tough until Harrison Ford pulls out a gun and shoots him. It's no longer the biggest guy who wins, but the fastest, smartest guy with the best command of new technologies.


Three very important events toppled the "sumo" brands. First, consumers' attitudes changed. The Baby Boomers were better educated than their parents and constitutionally less accepting of the status quo. Everything from Vietnam to Watergate to the Exxon Valdez disaster taught them that big institutions were not to be trusted. And suspicion of big corporations has proved to have real endurance as a pop—culture concept. In just the last few years, the movie A Civil Action had John Travolta battling Beatrice and W. R. Grace; The Insider had Russell Crowe and Al Pacino fighting Brown & Williamson; and Erin Brockovich had Julia Roberts shooting down PG&E.

Guess who came out looking better: Julia Roberts, overflowing her miniskirt and bustier, or the big utility brand, leaking poison from its wastewater ponds? It is a small step in this world from rich corporation to villain, and any big brand that doesn't keep that constantly in mind is foolish.

The second thing that's happened is that thanks to technology and the explosion of media outlets, it now costs a fraction of what it once did to enter a business and create a brand. The "high—tech company born in a garage" myth has been around for some time now, but the Internet has lifted the ability of intelligent people to launch a business on a shoestring to another level entirely. Jeff Bezos got Amazon.com off the ground with $300,000 of his parents' retirement savings. Pierre Omidyar launched eBay with no more resources than his own ability to write code and a $30—a—month Internet service. Yahoo! was launched in a trailer by two procrastinating Ph.D. candidates who were more interested in creating an Internet index than in doing the work they were supposed to be doing.

Whatever struggles upstart companies eventually face down the road, technology has made it easier than ever for them to at least get onto the field.

And whether you're in a new—world business or old, it's no longer only those corporations that can afford to advertise on the network evening news that speak to consumers. Two—thirds of American households now have cable television, which means that today there are 40, 50, or 60 channels you can use to reach them. There were also almost 18,000 consumer magazines in 1999, according to The National Directory of Magazines—a 40—percent increase over the number just 10 years earlier.

With its several billion pages, the Web offers a nearly infinite variety of ways to reach consumers. And e—mail has turned word of mouth into a force to be reckoned with. Within its first 30 days in business, without any press or advertising, Amazon.com was able to sell books in all 50 states and 45 countries. Jeff Bezos simply asked 300 of his friends and family members to spread the word. When it comes to the Internet, six degrees of separation is probably five too many.

The demographic cuts are so fine in these new media outlets that you can speak to precisely the right audience. For a fraction of the money you'd have spent on network television, you can run commercials on the Lifetime Channel, the Discovery Channel, or the Food Network and create a subcult for your brand. You can advertise in Teen People, Brill's Content, or Fine Gardening and use the Internet on the backswing. Suddenly, you've grabbed market share from the established brand that seemed to be king. And there's a good chance that the established company did not even see you coming.

The result, in almost any product category you can name, from microbrewed beer to mutual funds, is an exploding number of brand choices for consumers.

The third leg of this revolution is the unlimited access to information that consumers now have. What's occurred is the business equivalent of the fall of the Soviet Union. The Marxist state survived as long as it did only because it controlled the flow of information. It was the "mushroom" theory of public relations: "Feed 'em horse manure and keep 'em in the dark."

The Marxist capitalists—the big dominant corporations of the past—maintained their power in a similar fashion. Consumers had only limited access to information and distributors; therefore, corporations had to give them only limited choices. The pre—Internet marketplace was not unlike a Moscow grocery store before the fall of Communism: You could have the brown sausage, or you could have the white sausage, but you were going to have sausage.

Thanks to the Internet, however, consumers are no longer limited to what their local retailers are willing to stock, and comparison shopping no longer means expending considerable shoe leather interviewing a number of dubiously trustworthy salespeople. No matter what the consumer is searching for, from bird cages to mutual funds, a half—hour online will generate enough information to turn him or her into a walking, talking Consumer Reports.

The old economy was a product—push economy. Manufacturers made what they wanted to make, at the cost structures they liked. And then salespeople pushed those products off onto a gullible public. The new economy is a marketing economy, with the consumer firmly in charge.


Charles de Gaulle put his finger on the political implications of consumer choice when he expressed his own exasperation with the French: "How can you govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?" The truth is consumers who have that many choices are ungovernable, especially by despots. Choice teaches consumers to make increasingly fine distinctions between what they like and what they don't. In the process, it raises the bar for anyone trying to sell them anything from a political idea to shampoo.

Not surprisingly, many of the brands that ruled in a world in which consumers had less power are also—rans today. The truth is, brands are much more vulnerable than the executives in the dominant corporations of the past ever believed them to be. It was a particular collection of historical circumstances that kept many brands on top for so long, but the top executives of these brands mistook the size of their market share for the genius of their management. And now many of those brands are fighting for their very identity.

It's a pattern repeated over and over: Big companies that mismanage once—strong brands suddenly find themselves slipping in consumers' eyes. They go through a period of bad publicity and falling sales, and falling sales and bad publicity, that feels almost like a death spiral. Of course, many of them recover, mainly because their huge reserves of capital keep them from crashing completely. The best of them, like IBM, remake themselves into modern competitors, but none of them ever seem to achieve the same dominant market share they once had. They may be among the top brands, but the top is now shared.

Clearly, the arrogant old dinosaurs offer plenty of lessons in how not to win friends and influence people. But that leaves another question open: How do you compete in a world in which consumers have infinite knowledge and choice?

You can trade in commodities and try to win on price alone, a depressing downward spiral, given the almost limitless competition most businesses face today. That's why, in many industries, the smart commodities producers are turning their commodities into brands and commanding a premium for them. Increasingly, consumers no longer just reach for milk; they reach for Horizon Organic milk at almost twice the price. They don't drink unbranded water from the well or from the reservoir; they drink Evian or one of hundreds of other brands of bottled water at over a dollar for a little bottle.

If you don't want to compete on price alone, you can, of course, try to win on product features or service. But technology makes it unlikely that you'll offer anything that can't be copied by your competitors in record time.

Or you can join the battle of the brands. In that case, everything you once thought was important—margins, service, information systems, and even the products you sell—will have to become subservient to the brand. Because no matter how well you do these other things, consumers will never notice if there isn't an appealing brand out in front whistling for their attention.

Business theorists are now talking about the emergence of the "experience" or "entertainment" economy, in which the most successful companies no longer sell goods or services, but instead sell an experience. This is just what Nike, for example, does in its spectacular NikeTown stores. It's not selling athletic shoes based on product features; it's getting the consumer to buy those shoes by enshrining the whole idea of athletic competition. Starbucks is another example. No one would ever accuse it of just selling coffee. Instead, it sells the entire coffeehouse experience, meticulously controlled down to the reading material offered at the counter, which even included, for a time, its own magazine, Joe.

Actually, the phenomenon is at once simpler and broader than the ascendancy of shopping as entertainment, and it applies to brands like John Hancock that will never offer a purchasing experience that can be confused with a trip to Disneyland. It is simply human nature for people to prefer the richer experience to the more austere. And the experience of purchasing anything is richer if you buy a good brand, since a whole host of pleasant associations, by definition, accompanies that brand.

Why is it the brand, stupid? Because consumers have so many choices today, there is no reason for
them to buy anything that doesn't give them enjoyment. Strong brands are simply more enjoyable to buy, so you'd better have one if you hope to compete.

Meet the Author

D'Alessandro developed and directs the company's integrated consumer marketing strategies and operations, which involve an unprecedented and aggressive expansion of the company's product lines and distribution channels. Under his leadership the company has moved from selling its products almost exclusively through its 5000-person agency field force in 1991 to making products available to a distribution network of more than 200,000 individuals who are today authorized to sell John Hancock products.

He joined the company in June 1984 as vice president of Corporate Communications, and was the youngest senior officer in the company's history. He was promoted to senior vice president in January 1986. The following year, he was given additional responsibility for the $1.2 billion institutional insurance division.

In July 1988, he became president of the Corporate Sector, making him the youngest management committee member in the company's history. He became a member of the board of directors in 1990, and senior executive vice president in charge of the Retail Sector, in 1991.

Named by the Sporting News as one of the "100 Most Powerful People in Sports" for the past five years, D'Alessandro is the architect behind John Hancock's successful and widely acclaimed sports marketing programs, including the company's worldwide sponsorship of the Olympic games, the Boston Marathon, Major League Baseball, and Champions on Ice.

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Brand Warfare: 10 Rules for Building the Killer Brand 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
kiwii More than 1 year ago
This book is small but don't let that fool you, D'Alessandro does a good job of packing in the info. Also this is a great book to read for people and is suprizingly interesting. Its a book that is not just relevant to marketing people of a company, it explains the whole picture and clearly explains it. I'm not a business person of any sort and I haven't completed high school, yet but this book is a fluid easy read, and no confusing words that require me to pull out a dictionary. I wouldn't suggest this book to many of my friend but if anyone is starting a business and has some serious change I'd suggest this book to them.
CynthiaG More than 1 year ago
I chose to read this book for my Economics class, as an assignment, at Santa Monica High School knowing very little about what it was about. Being the type that "Judges a book by its cover", i didn't expect to enjoy reading this book. It was surprisingly very informative, yet a fast and easy read. D'Alessandro shows the reader how to stand out from the crowd by developing your own personal brand. In ten rules he lays out the foundation in which a business can be successful. 3 Words will stick to you when having read this book, Develop, Build, and Defend.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Understanding branding, how brands evolve, and what it takes to build a 'recognized' brand are extremely important points for marketing managers to comprehend. Yet, branding is not the stuff of business school classes, at least not to the point it should be. Thus, I found this to be an excellent book to read to bring myself up to speed on the 'state of brand-building' today. I do wish the book spent more time on how to build online branding. Online companies exist in a high-flux industry where there is much lower brand loyalty. It's still not clear how online branding will shake out, and how it will differ, though some researchers are starting to make great in-roads into this type of research.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading Brand Warfare because it succinctly outlines key brand principles in building and maintaining a brand. Mr. D'Alessandro's examples and case histories were helpful in better understanding the principles. There were a few sections that were most interesting to me. First, the chapters on corporate sponsorships were enlightening. To learn how to choose sponsorships that support your brand, to understand how to deal with event producers and to recognize the importance of measuring the value to the brand was beneficial. While his examples pertain to large companies, it was clear that any size company could gain from the appropriate sponsorships. Second, rule number 8 was fascinating, 'Make your distributors slaves to your brand'. I thought Mr. D'Alessandro's decision in l999 to direct John Hancock to partner with online insurance aggregators was brilliant. This strategy showed great confidence in the John Hancock brand. Far too many companies set up their own website's to drive sales and don't have the success that John Hancock has had. Third, his insights on how the brand affects employee recruiting and retention was very relevant to me. Employees do want to work for the most successful brand. And I agree whole heartedly with Mr. D'Alessandro that employees should uphold the brand. They should be brand experts and consider the brand every step of the way. The CEO is not the only person who should be responsible for the brand. Overall, I thought this book was a good read for anyone in business.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a good read. I'm not a marketing person, but I enjoy reading business books. With 'Brand Warfare,' what I found especially enlightening were the passages on how to get value out of corporate sponsorships and avoid getting suckered, and how the networks overpay for the rights to big sporting events and then soak corporate advertisers by coming up with ingenious new ways to pass along to them the cost of their mistakes. Good stuff!
Guest More than 1 year ago
As the owner of a small but growing technology-driven business, I have to make my company and my brand stand out in a highly competitive environment. At first, I wasn't convinced that this book would be helpful to me, since the author refers mainly on his experience building brands for large companies like John Hancock. But it's chock-full of insights that are relevant to businesses both large and small, whether they peddle life insurance, micro-brewed beers, sneakers or high-speed Internet access. The 'top 10' list-format breaks the daunting subject matter of how to build a killer brand into easy-to-read, manageable pieces. Sprinkled throughout the book are unabashedly honest, and at times, amusing case studies for companies like Orville Redenbacher, Old Crow Whiskey and Toys 'R' Us. It's one thing to be told how to build brands and be a successful leader. It's quite another to see how real, live companies have to deal with the consequences of their actions whether they sink or swim. Overall, a good read for anyone who cares about their company's image and wants to make their brand stand out.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you ever wonder how great brands become great, this book will solve the mystery. It's a book about being tough and being focused and standing for something. I've read a lot about David D'Allesandro in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times business section. Finally, an opportunity to see his view of 'brand warfare' first hand.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mr. D'Alessandro is the CEO of John Hancock, and rose to that position after starting with the company as head of communications. The many successes that John Hancock has enjoyed certainly relate back to good brand thinking and implementation. Although the book contains many details about John Hancock's experiences, it mostly recounts examples from other companies to provide a full perspective on the difficulties of establishing and maintaining a positive brand image and awareness. My only complaints about the book are that it would have benefited from more context about how branding fits with other critical activities for corporate success and more constructive metaphors than those of warfare and competition. Most students of marketing will scratch their heads at his list of 10 principles. Yet, I see these principles violated every day by dozens of leading companies. So, even if the rules seem obvious, it easy to go astray. For example, 'It's the brand, stupid.' Despite this, few CEOs spend time measuring and understanding what is happening to image and awareness of company brands . . . must less thinking about what needs to be done. Most spend more time in 100 other areas that are mostly unrelated to brands. Another good example is 'If you want great advertising, be prepared to fight for it.' I agree with his observation that many marketing executives and advertising agency people will tend to try to produce copy that will be easily accepted by company decision makers, rather than copy that will increase sales and profits. Many CEOs don't even realize how they have been maneuvered. Some don't care, like the CEO whose girl friend was in all of the company's ads. I meet CEOs who like to date the women who appear in the company's ads, so the problem hasn't disappeared. To my mind, Mr. D'Alessandro is probably best at thinking through event-based marketing. Most companies are horrible in this area. The book is well worth its price just for the sections that explain how to select events to sponsor, how to work with the event's organizers, and how to connect to the event for maximum advantage. The section on how you use advertising on how to create brand differentiation for relatively undifferentiated products was well done, but is probably too subtle for most to really understand. This section could probably have used some more details and