Brash Upstarts


How Entrepreneurs Earned Consumers'

Trust from Wedgwood to Dell

By Nancy F. Koehn

Harvard Business School -- 469pp -- $39.95

If you accept Brand New: How Entrepreneurs Earned Consumers' Trust from Wedgwood to Dell simply as a collection of briskly written profiles of interesting companies, it can prove a useful and even thought-provoking book. Just don't expect much from the promised analysis of how entrepreneurs have found opportunity during times of accelerating economic and social change.

Brand New reads like an assemblage of six case histories that author Nancy F. Koehn, a business historian, prepared for her classes at Harvard business school. It's capped by a halfhearted conclusion in which--in Samuel Johnson's phrase--"nothing is concluded." Each of the profiles presents a fact-packed, chronological account of how a familiar brand was developed, all delivered in the competent prose of an encyclopedia entry. And while Koehn has a good grip on current business events, readers are more likely to encounter insights when she is dealing with three visionaries of the distant past--Josiah Wedgwood, Henry J. Heinz, and Marshall Field--than when she turns her attention to the more contemporary Estee Lauder, Howard Schultz (of Starbucks), and Michael Dell. Their careers and brands have been well covered--not least by the luminaries themselves, whose published first-person accounts provide much of the grist for Koehn's case studies.

To her credit, the author has done considerable primary and secondary research to flesh out the profiles of Wedgwood, Heinz, and Field. One of the rewards of reading these absorbing stories is the recognition that many brand- building techniques heralded as novel today were explored ages ago.

Take the potter Josiah Wedgwood. Koehn shows how he based his overseas expansion on what is now called "inertia selling." Wedgwood sent unsolicited samples to the German aristocracy, understanding that most would find it easier simply to keep and ultimately pay for the bric-a-brac than to send it back. Wedgwood was also the first marketer to offer a money-back guarantee. Or consider the palatial stores such as Niketown that are often viewed today as pioneering examples of retail as entertainment. How different are they from the uncommonly spacious showrooms that Wedgwood opened in London in 1768 to lure well-heeled women with time on their hands? "I need not tell you the many good effects this must produce, when business & amusement can be made to go hand in hand," Wedgwood wrote his partner, Thomas Bentley.

Unfortunately, the rewards are rarer in Koehn's discussion of the three contemporary brands. One can find far more exhilarating accounts of the rise of the PC industry and of Michael Dell. Koehn's essay on Starbucks' Schultz completely neglects such fundamental challenges as how the brand's ubiquity may be undermining its cachet. And if she doesn't have much to contribute to what we already know about these brands, Koehn seems to have no interest in developing a fresh point of view, either. Instead, she simply lays out the facts and leaves it to the reader--or the business school student--to figure out what it all means.

By Gerry Khermouch

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