“Your Boat Is The Brand”

Once upon a time, Jack Trout was the man. After all, he is the acclaimed author of many marketing classics, including Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, Marketing Warfare, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing and Differentiate or Die. But now he’s come out against word-of-mouth in Forbes, making him look old-fashioned, at best.

There’s no way to control that word-of-mouth. Do I want to give up control and let consumers take over my campaign? No way. They aren’t getting paid based on how many widgets get sold. If I go to all this trouble developing a positioning strategy for my product, I want to see that message delivered. Buzz can get your name mentioned but you can’t depend on much else.
This all brings me to my word-of-mouth on word-of-mouth marketing. It’s not the next big thing. It’s just another tool in your arsenal. If you have a way to get your strategy or point of difference talked about by your customers and prospects, that’s terrific. It will help, but you’re going to have to surround it with a lot of other effort, including, if you’ll pardon the expression, advertising. You just can’t buy mouths the way you can buy media. And mouths can stop talking about you in a heartbeat once something else comes along to talk about.

Trout still sounds reasonable, when taken alone. However, when you examine some of the criticism, it changes the impression considerably.
Here’s Steve Rubel’s:

This is nostalgic thinking. It’s almost like saying that we should go back to using typewriters over computers since we don’t have to worry about getting a virus. With consumers pumping oodles of content onto the Web, marketers have already lost control of their brands whether they like or not. They need to deal.
Marketing today is much more like sailing than driving. Your boat is the brand. If you point your boat in the right direction, follow the winds/currents and steer, you will get the boat to go where you want it. Marketers should become the wind, but accept that they’re at the mercy of the currents and weather. Word of mouth marketing, when done right, is the wind.

About David Burn

Co-founder and editor of AdPulp. I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. I worked for seven agencies in five states before launching my own practice in 2009. Today, I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.


  1. Give…me…a…break. I have never heard such claptrap, metaphorical garbage. Rubel believes brands are supposed to unfurl their sails and let the wind of mouthes take it forward? I’m sorry, but Trout is correct. News and topics to talk about are coming faster and from more directions than ever.
    That proverbial fifteen minutes of fame have shrunk to five and will soon be fifteen seconds if – as Rubel suggests – every brand clogs the market with word-of-mouth efforts. Do you think people wont quickly catch on to the fact every conversation is now about a brand or product? And even more quickly grow tired of the constant selling inhabiting each conversation?
    Sure, word-of-mouth has a place. Just as it always has. But it will never be the wind beneath any brand’s wings.

  2. I’m a sucker for a metaphorical flourish. What can I say?
    Having said that, there are many cases where WOM does propel the brand. Yet, it’s because of a superior product or service, not clever marketing. Case in point, Patagonia.
    I think the resistance from Trout and others (myself included) comes from trying to manufacture something that is organic. The best we can hope for is a cheap imitation. Not good.
    So what has all these WOMers by the proverbial balls? Customer empowerment does. WOM is bigger now than ever before because citizen consumers are bound together in community on the interweb. This makes them more powerful, and at the same times, it makes them a target for manipulation by the hucksters among us.
    Paid WOM seems not only paradoxical to me, but wrong. At the same time, I see the value in sparking genuine interest among key influencers. And we all know influence can be bought. Washington, DC anyone?
    The clear answer is there is no clear answer. The waters of word are murky.

  3. In response to all the chatter about Jack Trout’s comments on Word-of-mouth marketing, Trout invited a group of “buzz evangelist” to face off with him on his radio program. Steve Rubel and Rick Murray of Edelman, Emanuel Rosen of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, Seth Godin, Joseph Jaffe and Errol Smith (me….producer of Trout Radio) sat down to deconstruct the buzz around word-of-mouth. I listened to all the arguments before sitting in on the roundtable discussion to end the series and concluded that rumors of Jack’s passing are indeed greatly exaggerated… You can hear the interviews at the roundtable wrap up at:
    and the entire series at: