Brains On Fire

Robbin Phillips, Greg Cordell, Geno Church and Spike Jones


Rick Carabba
Word-of-mouth marketing bible: a great toolkit filled with "how to" and actionable steps for creating word-of-mouth movements.
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Book Note

Summary of nine steps to word-of-mouth marketing

  1. Start with the first conversation.
  2. Look for inspirational leadership within fan base.
  3. Create a barrier of entry.
  4. Empower your fans with knowledge.
  5. Make sure you integrate shared ownership into your movement.
  6. Build it on a powerful identity.
  7. Tie online and off-line efforts and tactics together.
  8. Make your fans feel like rock stars.
  9. (Possible bonus step): Fight an injustice.

Ways to spread a branding / marketing movement

  • Go where the party is already happening: go meet your people (target market) where they hang out, instead of expecting them to come to you. If your teen buyers are already at Wal-Mart, you don't need to create your own event elsewhere.
  • Include your audience in creating the message: use a logo or catchprase that ignites them in some way.

How to train brand ambassadors (a 5-step onboarding framework)

Case study from Fiskars (Fiskateers):

Empowerment session 1 ("DNA"):

  • Have key people from your community come together and identify and value their strengths and uniqueness: builds community, connection and respect.
  • Ask your ambassadors introspective, personal questions: get to know people and help them share on a personal level. "We dig deep into who the leads are as people." (p. 76)
  • If you could bring three foods with you to a desert island to eat for the rest of your life, what would they be?
  • Which books / movies have influenced you?
  • What's your first childhood memory related to (object)?
  • The goal here is to uncover their "why's" and "passions" so you can align them with the "why" of the movement.

Empowerment session 2 ("Education"): Have them learn about your company: give them the (interesting) story behind your brand or company, and show that you value this chance to share this story with them ("meet the executives").

"It's more than content. It comes down to storytelling." (Scott Monty  Head of social media, Ford Motor Company) —p. 78

Empowerment session 3 ("Infection"):

  • Share the notion of "idea virus", i.e. how an idea can spread by word of mouth.
  • Teach them how to blog about personal stories and things in their lives, not share bland "buy this product" statements.
  • Encourage honesty and transparency in the blogging process. ("If you don't like it, say so.") "Transparency is a cornerstone of any successful movement." (p. 79)

"We taught the leads to always, always sign their names and identify themselves as a lead Fiskateer when answering any questions or commenting on other web sites, message boards, or blogs. No exceptions, ever." —p. 80

Empowerment session 4 ("How to be an ambassador"): Emphasize that ambassador is distinct from sales associate, they're there to "spread the love," not for PR or product pushing.

Empowerment session 5 ("Bring it home"): Have them take it home, sustain interest, keep the movement moving.

The "fan cycle" model; participation and evangelism

The fan cycle (credit: Brains on Fire)
  • Fan cycle: "a series of steps that provide a blueprint for turning passive participation into ownership for a brand, product, service, or cause." (p. 85)
  • Partly based on David Armano's people graphic, and Huba and McConnell's loyalty ladder model.
  • The seed of participation is in a personal introduction. "You have to get to know someone before you want to go to their party." (p. 87)
  • Fans (neighbors, employees, advocates) are the first ambassadors of your brand, who will ensure these personal introductions.
  • Concept of evangelist as "rock star": "Evangelical fans should be treated like rock stars, since these extroverted loyalists bring more and more people to you." (p. 87)
  • The value of evangelists: "Evangelists won't just bring people to the party: they'll also tell you what food you should serve and what music to play. And it's up to you to listen." (p.87)

Importance of a fan base and giving people ownership ("finding the passion conversation")

  • Idea that it's time for brands to become "fans of their fans."
"Finding the passion conversation in others means that you're asking them what they think, which inherently makes them feel valued. And feeling valued is a direct conduit of them buying in and caring about what you're doing, since it's based on their direct input. It's those first conversations in which the seeds of shared ownership are planted." —p. 95
  • Give people permission to change the system: empower them. Example of a business card with the simple message: "You have permission to change the system."
  • Empowerment leads to evangelism leads to ownership (the fan cycle). The idea of ownership as a win-win for both fans and the company, since the success of one creates success for the other.
"Tell me and I'll forget. Show me, and I may not remember. Involve me, and I'll understand." —Native American proverb

**(image ch6 p105: NOT AVAILABLE)

  • How to involve customers in the company: begin by asking, and always listen. Most companies ask but don't listen. If you really listen, you can get ideas for how to involve them that Marketing wouldn't have dreamed of. (p.104)

Identity vs. brand, and why identity matters

"We've always used the word identity [as opposed to brand], because we feel that by finding your purpose in the world as a company, you unearth your soul. And when you put your very soul out there, you protect it, value it, and draw kindred spirits near. Your organization's identity is so much more personal than a brand." —p. 110

  • Identity as "the collection of beliefs and ideas we are passionate about," and the idea that "passionate people wear their beliefs on their sleeves." (p. 110)
  • Question: What's your brand commitment?
  • The importance of deciding on and crafting an identity for your company / organization:

"I am a ________. It's up to you and your fans to fill in that blank, and not in a self-serving way.  The movement must be a valid extension of who you are and why you exist. But now it's also an extension of who your fans are and why they exist." —p. 112

  • Good things happen when people realize and establish their connection (shared identity) in a social setting: "Hey, I'm a Park Angel too!" "That's what it means to be part of something bigger than yourself. It becomes part of your identity and a connection point to others, and it's how a movement takes root in people's lives." (p. 113)
  • Giving each advocate a number can show people "where they belong" in the movement, creating and reinforcing an "identity within an identity":
  • numbered dog tags for teens in the Rage against the Haze (anti-tobacco) movement;
  • numbering pairs of special-edition scissors for the Fiskateers.

"[Numbers] reinforce that sense of belonging and identity. Not only are you a part of something bigger, but you have your own corner of it carved out for you that is yours and no one else's." —p. 116

Ways to onboard fans, advantages of offline (vs. online) interactions

Importance of combining offline with online actions, e.g.:

  • Use an element of surprise: don't tell advocates they'll be getting a surprise package / kit in the mail, let them enjoy it.
  • Customize stuff: e.g. Fiskars delivered scissors with custom-colored handles and a number, which would get noticed and be an excuse to talk about the movement at meet-ups.
  • Give them something useful that sparks conversation: e.g. a coaster (Fiskars).
  • Communicate: physical booklet with page welcoming newcomers; information about what to expect and what is expected.
  • Encourage fidelity: the Fiskateer Oath.
  • Example of complementing with online support:, a site for personalized Fiskateer stuff (coasters, blinkies...).
  • Idea for a way of leveraging advocates to support the brand / spread the love: 50 Fiskateer advocates were given free crafting lessons with celebrities and taught to teach workshops, in exchange for the commitment to teach and certify twenty more crafters the same skills when they returned home. As a result, Fiskars had 1000 crafters on hand who could respond to requests for classes, which they had previously struggled to meet.

"Wal-Mart will pay that individual to come teach a class, Fiskars will get more exposure, Fiskateers will get to teach the hobby they love to others, and we will watch that store's sales increase for the following ten days. That's what they call a win-win situation." —p. 134

  • Bonus point: Go to where the party is happening. Don't throw a party and expect people to show up, and don't expect people to come to a party where all you talk about is you and how great you are.

90% of word-of-mouth interactions happen offline

  • While companies often get tied up with social media, the real power lies in engaging people first.
  • Getting people together and socializing—in a room, a restaurant or at your brand's Mecca—is way more powerful than any Twitter or blog or MySpace campaign. (Note to self: COVID implications?)

Justine Foo, Ph.D., on web marketing vs. in-person marketing

Foo argues that social media is an oxymoron, since what makes us human is actually our "social brain". This brain capacity is what helps us to understand and size up a person by inferring what their motivations are.

Our brains evolved several million years ago, at a time when we needed to function socially and tribally in order to survive. As a result, our "social brain" capacity for understanding, inferring and connecting with kindred spirits—and the pleasure centers that are stimulated by that—still uses mostly offline information, such as intonation, or the look on a person's face.

This doesn't transfer to social media, which (for Foo) is why web marketing alone will never be able to really build community or start a movement.

Finding passionate rock stars, and how to reward them

  • Don't just give people stuff: they'll just feel lucky, not necessarily appreciated. Reward them with recognition. (p. 141)
  • The idea that you need to lift people up, not have them lift you. "Lifting up" means not trying to manipulate or get them to do anything, but instead enabling them and celebrating them.
  • Leverage the power of people who may be "born advocates": people who are just looking for somebody to advocate for, and only need an outlet and appreciation. "Be famous for the people who love you, for the way you love them.  Love and recognition form a circular transaction." —p. 142

"It's your job to find passionate people, hoist up their conversations, shine a light on their lives, raise the sails of what they care about, and connect them with companies that care about a real relationship—one that transcend's a Twitter feed." —p. 143

Igniting and recognizing your fans' passions (the love bomb)

Responsibility = appreciation = ownership = rock stars!!!

Ways to reward people:

  • Give them responsibility (manageable tasks), which leads to ownership. Research your advocates, find subgroups, talk to them and ask how you can amplify their passions.
  • The love bomb (power of "thank you"): circulating positive feedback from a customer around the office, and having each office member write and thank the customer individually (=20 emails from company). "Now we've turned that person who was curious about the company into a lifelong advocate, with very little effort." —p. 151
  • Show trust. Ask advocates what they think before you take action. (Note to self:  Talk to customers beforehand!!)

Don't you wanna be in the club? (entry barrier and belonging)

  • Creating an entry barrier to the group (e.g. by having potential advocates email their passion for crafting, fill in a form and be vetted) says, "You're a kindred spirit. We trust you."
  • Barriers to entry lead to better movements because they require an up-front investment and it acts as a screen to ensure that all of your “ambassadors” or “followers” are very serious, passionate, engaged, and overall high quality.
  • Ways to show love and strengthen identity: things as simple as a form, or recognition. Or a number (Fiskateers), a dog tag (Rage), a replica of a key (Colonial Williamsburg), a LIVESTRONG bracelet...

Strengthening personal relationships with customers gets results!!

  • "Closeness to customer": phrase coined by (wannaread?) Hermann Simon, Hidden Champions of the 21st Century; compared to (wannaread?) Jim Collins, Good to Great. Simon's "hidden champions" were significantly more involved in making regular contact with customers. The idea that closeness to your customers could improve ROI. (p.156)
  • Advantages of being close to your customers (p. 157):
  • Compels performance and innovation, so strategies become driven by value, not price. As a result, companies can charge more for products or services.
  • Employees are more engaged with customers.
  • Being on first-name terms with a larger group of customers makes them real people (with interesting lives) instead of just part of your target audience.
  • (Note to self: first-name terms as really good North Star Metric to measure connection and relationship with clients. This makes for stronger bonds, more trust, and ultimately sparks word-of-mouth movements / turns your customers into brand advocates.)
  • Question: how close is your company to your customers? **You mentioned adding a metric for gauging connectedness: couldn't find it**
  • Improve ROI by simply making a better product. How? Involve people who are actually using the product. (p. 157)
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Rick Carabba is a writer looking for uncommon ideas that improve people's lives.