The Consumer Manifesto – Bruce Philps on writing (Part 2)

In writing Consumer Republic, Bruce Philps set out to present retailers and customers with a manifesto for change, couched in the form of a great read. No small goal. Here, in the second part of my interview with him, he talks about getting his book out there, including advice to aspiring specialist writers looking to pen their thoughts on their field.

What was the biggest challenge in putting this book together?

The usual challenges were there, of course: finding time and a place to write, organizing my thesis, researching, all of the things that go with non-fiction writing. But there were also two unique challenges in this book. One was that I was catching a very specific moment in history, and I had no idea where the zeitgeist might go by the time I was finished. It was a gamble that the finished product would be seen as relevant. And, as I mention in the Author’s Notes, the research material was coming at me like patio furniture in a hurricane. It was like what I imagine being a journalist is like, except that I have no such training.

The other challenge was more about fear than about the process, but it bears mentioning: This book attempts to be reasonable about a very big and freighted issue. Reasonableness isn’t very fashionable these days. People can too easily love their simple black hat-white hat narratives, love someone to blame, love to wallow in fear and anger. Heated rhetoric sometimes feels as if it’s replacing critical thought. Meanwhile, here’s “Consumer Republic” saying, “Well, this mess was kind of our fault, too. And in any case, fault-finding is a waste of time. Because this is a free market economy, the only change there can be is change that begins with consumer demand.” I was afraid I was going to have to get Naomi Klein to start my car for a while, there.

So far, I’m happy to report, this fear seems unfounded. People seem very open to the idea that they have the power to turn things around and are excited by that.

You worked in marketing for years before deciding to write about it. What advice would you give to other would-be professionals looking at writing about their field?

There are a couple of ways to answer this question. The first is for the more common situation in which a practicing professional wants to write about what she does as a form of self-marketing. To her I would say, treat your book as your platform, not as your product. For a book to help your career or even just to be a business, you have to leverage it into public speaking and consulting work, and you have to be your own best, most tireless promoter. Examples of people who have done this are countless, but I think that Sall Hogshead’s “Fascinate” or Gary Vaynerchuk’s “Crush It” are great current cases in point.  They may do better with their books than most writers of this kind will do, but I can assure you that the books in both cases were pillars of bigger, longer term personal branding strategies.

My situation wasn’t exactly like that, though, and that leads to the second answer. Although I will continue to consult, I left the company I founded before this book came out, and in some respects left the industry itself. “Consumer Republic” wasn’t meant as a business book, but as a book for consumers and a manifesto; there was no ‘business model’.

To someone who wants to do this, my advice is a little different. Yes, you are still going to be your own brand manager as any writer today is, but you’re also going to have to let go of what you were, at least while you’re writing. You’re going to have to be a writer, not a consultant who writes, with all that implies. I spent a lot of time on my own, and I spent a lot of time doubting myself, two things that were not characteristic of my business career or my lifestyle, but very much are characteristic of being an author. I also had to be willing to fail, utterly. That, again, isn’t a sustainable business strategy, but it’s the only way to go into a project like this. And, with that, I had to realize that I wasn’t a CEO anymore, I was a helpless little bunny with a book to write. I relied on an editor, a very smart woman who marked my work like a schoolteacher and without whom the book wouldn’t have been possible. Likewise, an agent, and likewise a publicist, and so on. You have to learn trust and dependency and humility all over again, and if fortune favours you with mentors, embrace the opportunity tightly.

What would you like to write next?

I’ve had another project in development since a couple of months before “Consumer Republic” was released here, another book about consumerism that reimagines it as a pop culture phenomenon. I won’t say more, but even at the conceptual stage, it was great fun to gnaw on. Since “Consumer Republic” has come out, though, it’s had a great deal of media attention and interest and attracted enough fresh questions that I’d love to be ‘forced’ to write a sequel. Hey, a guy can dream.

Consumer Republic will be released on March 28th, but you can pre-order now from Boomerang. You can also check out his blog at “Brand Cowboy”.

Shopping to Save the World – Consumer Republic by Bruce Philp

Bruce Philps wants shoppers to realise something: we hold all the power.

His book, Consumer Republic, argues that – far from being us being powerless passive consumers constantly buffeted by slick marketing – the brands that corporations spend millions to develop and maintain makes them accountable. Expensive to create and more public than anything else a corporation has or does, a brand is an enormously valuable and fragile asset to them. And we consumers have the power to make it worthless with just a few clicks and key-strokes.

Brands, says Philp, are the leverage the average consumer has with which to make a company behave itself. And he should know. Describing himself as a “advocate for brands”, he works as a marketing strategist to some of the world’s biggest brands, helping them create brands that are both profitable and sustainable. (“Profitable is easy, sustainable isn’t.”) His previously-published book, Orange Code, explains how the championing of consumers led to ING Direct’s revolutionary rise in the banking industry.

I caught up with Bruce to ask him a few questions about his book. Here, in the first part of my interview with him, he talks about the big Australian brands, the Aussie approach to consumerism and how to react to attacks on your own personal brand.

In Consumer Republic, you discuss – and contrast – European and American attitudes to branding and consumerism. How about the Australians?

Comparative data like the material I used in the “Europeans” chapter isn’t as easy to come by for Australia, unfortunately, so I can’t give you an empirical answer. But since my pundit license is current, I can share some impressions. My sense of the Australian consumer is that she has more in common with those in my home market of Canada than perhaps anyone else in the world. Both are suspended between the global influence of American brand culture on one side and, on the other, three moderating forces that are more European in character: hereditary Anglo reserve, healthy suspicion of social climbing, and a cultural preference for working to live rather than living to work.

What this produces is a muted version of American consumerism, wherein we still lust for things and often spend more than we ought to, but there is also still some social currency in understatement and a resistance to forced social consensus.  That seems to be the attitude, anyway, to a casual observer. Still in all, it’s worth pointing out that Australians have in the past had among the highest ratios of household debt to disposable income in the world. Whatever the various contributors to that number are, it certainly has to be construed as a warning that perhaps consumerism needs moderation there, too, and that perhaps more of us in the world resemble the pre-2008 American consumer than we’d like to think.

What’s your favourite and least favourite Australian brand?

My favourite Australian brand is that of Australia itself. I am in awe of how clearly it seems to understand its nation-brand, at least to those of us in the rest of the world. It is extremely comfortable with its distinctiveness and with the virtue in that distinctiveness. It’s impressive enough that so many people dream of living there despite the fact that apparently everything in nature wants to kill you (I owe this characterization to my daughter whose heart has been stolen by an Australian man). But I also think it’s an admirable model for branding of any kind. If I had to choose a more typical consumer brand, I’d have to say that I greatly admire Billabong. It’s achieved global brand status in a tough product category, and seems to be staying on top of its game.

As for a least favourite, I don’t think I have one. But forced again to answer, I might choose Foster’s in its global brand guise. In export markets, this brand’s advertising has often made some pretty ham-fisted use of its Australian heritage, doing neither it nor Australia’s brand any favours at all.

How do you react when people diss your brand on social media – slag off your book or blog? In this age of “personal branding”, do you think we need to vigilant or get over ourselves?

The best way for anybody to approach the social media space is the way public relations people have always approached the world: Decide on your reaction by first assessing the credibility of the attacker. As has always been true, there are times when it’s best not to rise to the bait because the dissers are either hopelessly unreasonable and shrill, or they are lonely voices in the social media wilderness.

Often, though, if a criticism is well reasoned and legitimate, you can accomplish a lot by engaging with the critic. For one thing, it’s amazing how things can suddenly get very polite when something like this turns from a speech into a public conversation. For another, any brand that lives online – and we all do – has to bear in mind that everything that’s said about it becomes part of the internet’s canon. Too much criticism, unanswered, becomes what people will find in the future when they Google you, so to speak. Engagement is, in the crudest terms, a way to make sure that the good scraps of information about you floating around out there in cyberspace outweigh the bad.

So, yes, I’m vigilant (technology like Google Alerts makes this very easy), but I try not to get too paranoid about it. I try to respond to every serious blog comment and every Twitter mention, and will for as long as it’s practical.

Consumer Republic will be released on March 28th, but you can pre-order now from Boomerang. We’ll be posting the rest of the interview, including Bruce’s advice to aspiring specialist writers looking to pen their thoughts on their field, on Friday.