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January 8, 2011 / tommoradpour

[Book Review] Brains on Fire

2011 Reading List #001

Brains On Fire
by Robbin Phillips, Greg Cordell, Geno Church and Spike Jones

For my full 2011 reading list, click here.

A very inspiring read, Brains on Fire builds a fantastic case on how to create movements, albeit a less convincing one on “why”. If you already think it’s the right thing to do, it will help you do it much better, building from the many practical lessons learned in their agency practice. But the book won’t help you decide how far you should take ‘movements’ in your budget mix. And if you need a book to convince a boss or CEO to change the way you do marketing… well, this is probably not the one you are looking for.


Obviously, the title! How can you not want to pick up a book with such a great title? Of course, you may also know of the agency of the same name, whose principals co-authored the book; also, Scott Stratten suggested four books to me for 2011, including this title. And what the author of Un-Marketing tells me to read, I read.


While movements is the new marketing buzzword all clients and agencies try to substitute to campaigns today, fact is that the two are very different. Contrary to a campaign – brand-centric and limited in time – a movement is passion-centric, rooted in people and is self-perpetuating.

Brains on Fire is about creating powerful and sustainable movements based on people, peer-to-peer relationships, shared passion… and few key ignition lessons shared in the book! To clarify and manage expectations, this is not a book about social media; it’s a book about connecting people in communities build around a conversation. Brain on Fire’s argument is that 90% of this happens face-to-face, in real life.

Some of their lessons sound rather obvious, such as finding the passion conversation, i.e. what your brand fans are already talking about; and no, it’s not the brand itself… it’s what the brand enables. Or looking for inspirational leaders to create momentum in your movement; and picking them with diversity. Other lessons are less obvious. How about the need to create barriers to entry into your movement? Seems counter-intuitive to whoever is looking for millions of Facebook fans, but is a must if you want commitment and participation. And opening your kimono talks about letting fans see the humanness – and mistakes – past the controlled corporate layers of perfection; a hard thing to do, even putting lawyers aside. Finally, some of the most engaging lessons feel anecdotal, but work disproportionately well according to Brains on Fire: think of the power of giving every member of a community a number (such as Fiskateer #2056), to cement the feeling of belonging and ownership.


  • On who should own movements, social media inside a company: “Whoever cares the most.
  • On traditional branding vs movements: “The role of traditional branding is to influence behavior. The difference with movements is to inspire behavior. So don’t try to influence; get out of that business. Now is the time to inspire. People don’t want to be influenced.
  • On Buzz: “Buzz does not create evangelists; evangelists create buzz.
  • On Influencers: “Influencers have organized themselves and now see their influence as a business (…) And we’d take 100 passionate people who contribute that sweat equity just because they care, as opposed to 1,000 influentials who tweet once and never think about it again.
  • On creating barriers to entry: “(…) if that person isn’t willing to send an e-mail back with any reason at all [note: why they would want to join] (…) then the odds are that they aren’t going to be an active member of the community.


Very little to disagree with here, as Brains on Fire dissects the key principles behind authentic movements. Testimonials ring true, examples are very inspiring and the underlying logic is… well it is quite logical. I’ll be going back to the 10 lessons and some of the most practical advice as a check-list for some of my 2011 initiatives!

That said, I was frustrated by the lack of significant metrics of success in the book. Don’t get me wrong, I am not in the camp that thinks marketing initiatives are only validated by the sales lift they generate; but I don’t think either that a kitten dies each time you say “Social Media ROI”. You decide what success looks like when you set targets and objectives, and then evaluate actions against your own criteria, be it sales, awareness, equity, loyalty… Up to lesson 10, nothing tangible in Brains on Fire, and really even that “results” chapter feels very light. That makes it hard to agree fully with, and decide to divert resources to WOM movements (unless you are already convinced). But even then: how much should you invest?

Likewise, a second unanswered question is how these movements scale up. In my job leading brand building efforts of Pepsi internationally, the challenge is literally billions of “moments of truth”, in over a hundred countries, with consumers who are less-than-passionate about the category. What is the significance of 7,000 Fiskateers and how can it translate into supporting billions of acts of purchase?

ReWork, by Jason Fried and David H. Hansson.
Another reco by @unmarketing. And actually so many people told me in tweets or comments how good it is, I had to change my reading plan and jump straight to it!



Leave a Comment
  1. Sandra Parrotto / Jan 8 2011 17:56

    I love everything about Brains on Fire, the book, their blog, the organization, their website… I have personally shared their vision, their creative approach with in at least 10 meetings to demonstrate what being inspired looks like…

    My response to their book was less from what I learned about igniting a crowd and more from whether or not I felt ignited by their ideas. I can totally appreciate though, Tom, anyone who’s wanting deeper insight wishing for more… thanks for your review…

  2. Robbin Phillips / Jan 9 2011 12:54

    Thanks Tom, this is a very thoughtful review. And we have certainly been thinking about the questions you bring up. ROI and scale is on everyone’s mind. I helped judge WOMMA’s (WOMMIE) awards this year, and I saw this very brilliant measure of success for one large Fortune 50 Company.


    To paraphrase Jay Gillespie from Fiskars, “We are absolutely fueling better products. We don’t want to make a move without asking the Fiskateers.”

    That “closeness to customers” transforms organizations. We have seen it first hand. It impacts productivity, innovation, growth and sales.

    We are all in marketing grad school and discovering what works. Agreeing on what success looks like up front is critical. And it’s important we all share lessons learned. But I will say, at this point, I’d take 5000 engaged and involved customers over 300 engaged Facebook fans (out of 300,000 or even a million) any day of the week.

    Thanks again for reading the book. I really do love this review.

  3. Sean McGinnis / Jan 10 2011 08:14

    Thanks for the great review Tom. Sounds liek a book that needs to be included in my 2011 mix too. Appreciate the recommendation!

  4. Ken Rosen / Jan 10 2011 13:49

    Thanks for posting. Very thought-provoking about what bar to set for how we change behavior and mindsets.

    While this is NOT a critique of the important theme of the book, I find myself frustrated when authors alter language and, in doing so, appear to throw out previous thought about the language they reject. I live in a world of words, so I embrace that word choice matters. Yet to reject “influencers” because “passionate people” will be more effective in driving the movement is to encourage readers to reject the deep thinking so many have done in understanding, co-opting, and directing “influence.” Perhaps “influence” really does carry negative baggage. Certainly the social media aesthetic implies more of peer relationship than the tone of self-interest often involved in influence. But I suspect serious thinkers would say influence has many natures and degrees. “Inspiring an influencer by igniting his or her passion” is clearly far more valuable than “delivering an argument to an intrigued influencer.” Yet when I think of a young marketer reading “So don’t try to influence; get out of that business,” I worry the person may get the strong points of the Brains of Fire argument, but not the value of preceding valuable work. But maybe this is just the nature of selling books.

    Just two cent on the language of idea expression your post stimulated. I look forward to your future reviews. Cheers,


    Ken Rosen
    Performance Works


  1. Social Media Marketing HQ | Learn Social Media From the Industry's Brightest Minds » How To Light My Fire: Authentic Word of Mouth Movements
  2. Book Review: Brains on Fire « Don't Compromise!

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