Alex Wipperfuerth won't talk to me. Not on the record, at least. Which is strange, since most first-time business-book authors practically require a restraining order. As it turns out, Wipperfuerth is simply practicing what he preaches.
Wipperfuerth's new book, Brand Hijack: Marketing Without Marketing (Portfolio, February 2005), is a smart, if somewhat scattered, argument for letting customers define a brand. Wipperfuerth, a partner with the firm Plan B who once managed brands for Procter & Gamble, describes how marketing phenomena such as The Blair Witch Project are made to seem like "serendipitous accidents." Wipperfuerth recounts how Artisan Entertainment created and "preseeded" an urban legend, targeted the right (not necessarily cool) early subgroups, and then limited distribution of the film. "Who would admit that the film wasn't all that," he observes, "after having wasted hours trying to get tickets?"
It's a savvy analysis — so why wouldn't Wipperfuerth want to get it some ink? Somewhere between his playing coy at our first meeting at a New York Starbucks and the two hours I spent gathering "background" at his San Francisco offices, it hit me: He wants to get his own brand hijacked.
"Your instinct is right that we're attempting to apply Alex's ideas to the publication of the book," admits Will Weisser, Portfolio's associate publisher. One of Wipperfuerth's original plans, says Amy Hertz, who edited the book and has since left Portfolio, was to send out galleys to middle managers, hoping to "seed" an authentic subgroup. Why? "That's where real change and innovation comes from," says Hertz. He also wanted to have critical reviews from readers — which he wouldn't get to see — published in the book. He wanted the back cover completely blank: no bio, no blurbs, no hyped-up copy. And, says Hertz, he didn't want it sent to the business press at all.
Wipperfuerth mostly got the book design he wanted. There are no promotional quotes on the back cover — only a brief definition of the term "brand hijack" — and a lone file-folder image gives the book an authentic manifesto feel. But his plan hasn't entirely come off. Portfolio gave him only 500 galleys, many times more than it usually gives authors but fewer than the 2,000 he wanted. Publishing constraints kept Portfolio from including readers' comments in the first edition. And staying out of business magazines? Try to stop us. Or maybe we were just part of the plan all along.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.