Delight and paradox in Jeff Rosenblum's book 'Friction'

Friction: Passion Brands in the Age of Disruption

Reading most business books is like watching the movie Groundhog Day, just without the funny bits. Such books bludgeon their readers with a single idea over many chapters. Sometimes it’s not a very good idea, and there's no escape!

After a while I get: the premise, bored and out.

This is why I’ve concluded that most business books are really just HBR articles suffering from elephantiasis. (Google it.)

In contrast, one of the many things that make Jeff Rosenblum's new book Friction: Passion Brands in the Age of Disruption -- written with his friend and business partner Jordan Berg -- an insightful pleasure to read is that the book gets more interesting the more you read.

Full disclosure before I forget: Jeff and Jordan are my personal friends and professional allies. I've known them for years, and I've been pleased to watch Questus, their agency, evolve from a scappy little shop into an award-winning creative powerhouse. Jeff and I talked about the masochistic pain of writing as he was using mental forceps to pull this book out of his brain. So I was already a Questus fan even before they sent me a copy of Friction.

After reading the book you'll be a fan too.

Rosenblum's thesis is that friction gets in the way of business success in a fractal manner: the always-self-replicating pattern ranges from how a product category removes friction from culture at the broadest level, down to how a specific brand of a product removes friction from the lives of customers, down to how removing internal friction from the business creating the product aligns the team, and then down to how removing friction from an individual's life and work habits can bring more productivity, creativity and satisfaction.

This complex but enabling take on friction is what distinguishes Rosenblum's take from the commonplace business cliche about friction (i.e., it’s bad).

Lest you think the book hovers at a platitudinous level emitting self-help-style bromides, Rosenblum connects his argument to case studies linking the elimination of friction to business success, economic success, rather than marketing vanity metrics. In Rosenblum’s words:

Rather than focusing on providing consumer value, brands are trying to move metrics that have no proven impact on the bottom line. (74)

The case studies include how Patagonia discourages customers from buying too many products because its mission is to preserve the environment from depredation and waste, how Yeti charges $650 for a cooler and not only gets away with it but thrives, and how USAA bakes loyalty to its members into every part of its corporate practice, which is refreshing since the typical corporations only thinks of engendering loyalty from its customers.

Again, the fractal take on friction takes the book in unexpected directions. Usually, marketing books face only outward while leadership books face only inward, so when Rosenblum focuses on internal alignment both within the marketing department and among the many different departments in a corporation it’s a salutary fusion of two disparate disciplines.

I’ll confess to mild skepticism about how likely it is that the typical marketing department will have the social capital within the corporation or the perspective or the vision to drive the sort of alignment that Rosenblum calls for. In my own brand-side experience the marketing department usually elected to receive in a game of darts. Despite my CMO’s grand claims that the company was marketing-led first, such was not the case. I’d be happy if Rosenblum is right and I’m wrong.

Chapter Seven, “Irony,” is my favorite because it argues that “you can’t fight friction externally until you remove friction internally” (153). Delving unexpectedly into neuroscience, Rosenblum explores how chronic mobile phone notifications hijack our brains with stress and crush creativity. In another unexpected turn, Rosenblum observes:

You’re not cheating on your career when you’re with your family. You’re not cheating on your career when you are exercising or learning new skills. In fact, what you’re doing is managing your career, because you’re enabling your brain to be healthy, which will put you at peak performance. (162)

This is not a typical insight for a marketing book.

More riches on more topics await the reader in Friction, including discussions of why brands need to break away from campaign-based strategies, how a brand’s real competition isn’t its direct competitors but the crazy noise of the latest viral video or internet meme, that digital’s real advertising strength is mid-funnel (even a defense of the funnel at all is unusual), and that despite a tsunami of customer data available to the modern marketer, “we can’t cheat on creativity. Breakthrough ideas take insights, strategy, planning and time” (213).

The paradox of Friction is that while the book construes friction as negative the physical artifact of the book itself is a delightfully high-friction experience that argues the exact opposite. The book is big. Really big: 9-1/2 x 7-1/2 x 1” and heavy. It’s not a coffee table book: it’s an actual coffee table without the legs. And it’s gorgeous, printed on heavy, satisfying paper, filled with thoughtful pages of prose interspersed with full page illustrations, whole pages devoted to one key idea, and neuroscience sidebars surrounding pictures of monkeys in snow.

It’s impossible to skim this book because the physicality of the book gets in the way and slows you down.

This is the good kind of friction. The kind of friction that’s like a slow dance, a terrific meal, a cuddle with your baby, a first kiss. Except in cases of artificial insemination, we all got here because of friction between two bodies that resulted in a birth nine months later. (That is, if we’re doing it right.) Even the book’s cover demonstrates this: it shows an economy-sized matchbook.

Matches plus friction equal fire, and without fire we don’t have civilization.

Or marketing.

Dr. Brad Berens is senior fellow at the Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg and principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting

Brad Berens

Dr. Brad Berens is senior fellow at the Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg and principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting

All by Brad