Here, for the business-minded individual on your list, is an assortment of books about buyin', sellin', and whatnot. We'll begin with I Want That!: How We All Became Shoppers (HarperCollins, hardcover), by Thomas Hine. It's a sharp examination of the history and practice of shopping -- why we shop, what needs we fulfill, what self-gratification and cultural significance we attach to this not-so-simple act of commerce. You wouldn't think there'd be quite so much to say about something so seemingly run-of-the-mill, but Hines packs the book with insight and clever analysis.
The New Client: How Customers Shape Business in the Information Age (Viking, hardcover), by Paul Hoffert, explores the wide-ranging and often tumultuous impact of the Internet on businesses. The Internet has put a staggering amount of information at customers' fingertips; with information comes power, and customers are beginning to demand more control over the business of buying and selling. The customers, in effect, are sliding over from the passenger's seat into the driver's. In order to survive, businesses are being forced to relinquish certain controls and adapt to a drastically new environment. Perceptive and, for some intangible reason, a tad unsettling.
Moving from buying to selling, here are two books by Al Ries and Laura Ries. The first is The Fall of Advertising & The Rise of PR (HarperBusiness, hardcover), in which the authors warn us that we're in the midst of a shift in the business of selling. Companies used to build successful brand names by advertising them; these days, the authors say, nobody trusts advertising, because companies are perceived as willing to say whatever it takes to make the sale. Instead, a brand is built through publicity: by what other people say about a product. Companies that throw money at advertising companies may be doomed; it's companies like Starbucks and Wal-Mart, which achieved enormous success with almost no advertising (but plenty of publicity in the form of articles written about them in newspapers and magazines), that will succeed in the future.
Similarly, in The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding (HarperBusiness, paperback), Ries and Ries show us how to build a winning brand -- if you have to advertise it, here's how to do it successfully. Here's how to accentuate the things that make your product different from its competitors; how to devise a product name that's memorable and catchy; how to concentrate on the part of the market in which you can excel, and to avoid expanding beyond your capabilities; and many other useful lessons. Very interesting and informative.
In Blockbusters: The Five Keys to Developing GREAT New Products (HarperBusiness, hardcover), Gary S. Lynn and Richard R. Reilly describe how several companies invented, developed, and launched successful new products: a new toothpaste, a personal digital assistant, a revolutionary staple gun, stuff like that. The authors describe the five rules they say a company must follow in order to make a successful product: commitment of senior management, improvisation (the speedy re-design of prototypes, for instance), the free exchange of information between product-development groups, and so forth. It's a sensible and very helpful book.
Douglas Hunter's The Bubble and the Bear: How Nortel Burst the Canadian Dream (Doubleday, hardcover) is the anatomy of a scandal: the Nortel scandal, to be exact, in which a telecommunications company seemed to be the wave of the stock-market future, until the wave crashed and investors lost tens of thousands of dollars. How did the bubble burst? How did so many stock-market analysts fail to see the crash coming? Hunter relates the Nortel saga in precise detail, and it's a timely cautionary tale.
Just as timely, and far more distressing, is How Companies Lie: Why Enron is Just the Tip of the Iceberg (Crown, hardcover), by A. Larry Elliott & Richard J. Schroth. A study in 'economic terrorism,' the book proposes that we, the consumers, may be just as much to blame for corporate deceit as the corporations themselves. Yes, it's true that some CEOs are greedy beyond comprehension; yes, it's true that the behind-the-scenes shenanigans at some companies are truly appalling; but it's also true that we don't ask nearly enough questions, don't demand nearly enough accountability. The authors explain the complex machinery of deceit, and demonstrate how the right questions, asked at the right moments, can render the kind of deception perpetrated by companies like Enron a sheer impossibility.
Editor's Note: This is one of a series of articles on books, on a variety of subjects, as holiday gifts. Find more suggestions in our Columns.
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