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Alchemy: The Dark Art And Curious Science Of Creating Magic In Brands, Business, And Life

Alchemy: The Dark Art And Curious Science Of Creating Magic In Brands, Business, And Life

Written by Rory Sutherland

Narrated by Rory Sutherland


Alchemy: The Dark Art And Curious Science Of Creating Magic In Brands, Business, And Life

Written by Rory Sutherland

Narrated by Rory Sutherland

ratings:
4.5/5 (82 ratings)
Length:
9 hours
Publisher:
Released:
May 7, 2019
ISBN:
9780062801500
Format:
Audiobook

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Also available as bookBook

Also available as...

Also available as bookBook

Description

HOW DOES MAGIC HAPPEN? The Ogilvy advertising legend—"one of the leading minds in the world of branding" (NPR)—explores the art and science of conjuring irresistible products and ideas.

Why is Red Bull so popular, though everyone—everyone!—hates the taste? Humans are, in a word, irrational, basing decisions as much on subtle external signals (that little blue can) as on objective qualities (flavor, price, quality). The surrounding world, meanwhile, is irreducibly complex and random. This means future success can't be projected on any accounting spreadsheet. To strike gold, you must master the dark art and curious science of conjuring irresistible ideas: alchemy.

Based on thirty years of field work inside the largest experiment in human behavior ever conceived—the forever-unfolding pageant of consumer capitalism—Alchemy, the revolutionary book by Ogilvy advertising legend Rory Sutherland, whose TED talks have been viewed nearly seven million times, decodes human behavior, blending leading-edge scientific research, absurdly entertaining storytelling, deep psychological insight, and practical case studies from his storied career working on campaigns for AmEx, Microsoft, and others.

Heralded as "one of the leading minds in the world of branding" by NPR, Sutherland is a unique thought leader, as comfortable exchanging ideas with Nobel Prize winners Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler (both interviewed in these pages) as he is crafting the next product launch. His unconventional and relentlessly curious approach has led him to discover that the most compelling secrets to human decision-making can be found in surprising places:

What can honey bees teach us about creating a sustainable business?

How could budget airlines show us how to market a healthcare system?

Why is it better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong?

What might soccer penalty kicks teach us about the dangers of risk-aversion?

Better "branding," Sutherland reveals, can also be employed not just to sell products, but to promote a variety of social aims, like getting people to pay taxes, improving public health outcomes, or encouraging more women to pursue careers in tech.

Equally startling and profound, Sutherland's journey through the strange world of decision making is filled with astonishing lessons for all aspects of life and business.

Publisher:
Released:
May 7, 2019
ISBN:
9780062801500
Format:
Audiobook

Also available as...

Also available as bookBook

About the author

Rory Sutherland is vice chairman of Ogilvy. A columnist for The Spectator, he is former president of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, the professional body for advertising, media, and marketing communications agencies in the United Kingdom. His TED Talks have been viewed more than 6.5 million times. He lives in London.


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What people think about Alchemy

4.6
82 ratings / 20 Reviews
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Reader reviews

  • (5/5)
    Fantastic book. I read/ listen to a lot and this is the most insightful I've listened to in years. Highly recommended for anyone looking for a coherent contrarian view on logic.
  • (5/5)
    With exception of the obvious bias the author has in favor of vaping, this was a very enjoyable book. It is a pleasure to look at problems from different perspectives and this book is largely about reframing questions to find different solutions.
  • (4/5)
    Starting with the story of Red Bull, a product that most people thought tasted disgusting, went on to become a major player in the beverage market. The by using Dyson, Apple, and other companies show that these companies made it by being different.Mr. Sutherland even looks at two major events that happened in 2016 and explains why and how they happened despite most signs saying they couldn't happen.I was given this book as part of the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.
  • (1/5)
    “Alchemy” explores the interesting thesis that some problems are logic-proof and can be solved only by illogical solutions. Sutherland writes that there are “hundreds of irrational solutions to human problems just waiting to be discovered” (p. ix). Problems almost always have a plethora of illogical solutions waiting to be discovered (p. xi).While the premise sounds interesting, the book is not. Sutherland repeats his simple thesis over and over and over until I wanted to shout, “Stop! We get it already.”The format is episodic, consisting of countless 1-5 page snippets, each of which repeats the same theme. The approach quickly becomes tedious and I found it almost impossible to read for very long at a time. Hence, I typically read 1-3 snippets before becoming too bored to continue. “Alchemy” is poorly (actually, “not”) documented. It consists mostly of anecdotes, opinions and contrived examples. For example, Sutherland states that flossing has no value but provides no evidence to support his dogmatic assertion. He devotes a section criticizing the directions GPS systems provide as if GPS is the epitome of logic. The flaws he illustrates are not failures of logical thinking, however, but shortcomings attributable to the restrictions programmed into cheaper devices (services). Most of the flaws he cites (e.g., failure to consider current projected travel time for alternate routes) are not present in the better subscription services. The better services will even alert users to accidents that just occurred and suggest advantageous modifications of the route. Much of the book reads like it was written by a college sophomore who just finished an introductory class in social psychology and wants to impress everyone who has not had the class. For example, psychologists first identified the social phenomenon of “cultural lag” (the slowness of society to adopt new procedures, standards, and values, and the fierce resistance of established organizations to new findings and strategies that will undercut their standing and income) over 70 ago.Technical issues further make Alchemy uncomfortable to read. The font size is too small, given the spacing between lines, and most pages have footnotes which are signaled by even smaller characters. Often, I arrived at the end of a page, then had to search for some time to find the point the footnote was addressing. The use of a larger font and an increase in from the 6” x 9” format would increase readability considerably.I cannot recommend “Alchemy.”
  • (2/5)
    Smug business book attuned to the irrationalities of others but not so much to the author’s own (the kind of guy who says “Donald Trump can solve many problems that the more rational Hillary Clinton simply wouldn’t have been able to address” because threatening to build a wall between the US and Mexico will work better than ordinary trade negotiations—“you may hate it, but it works”—sure, that looks like a good prediction). Also thinks that you should listen to immigration officers about immigration and street cops about crime over sociologists because they know reality; oddly enough he doesn’t also say that airline pilots should be designing airplane engines or farmers making climate policy and I think the examples are revealing. (Input into design, especially interface design, is one thing—what the policy should be is quite another.) What made me most contemptuous was the conclusion he drew from the following graph: he presented data that when 3 women and 1 man are in a finalist hiring pool, the likelihood of hiring a woman was 67%. When it was 2 women and 2 men, the chances were 50-50, and when it was 1 woman and 3 men, the chances were 0%. And the conclusion he drew was that it’s wrong to say people are biased against minorities—he apparently in all seriousness thought that this evidence showed a bias against “anyone in a minority of one.” Tell that to the dude with the much greater than random chance of being hired in his minority or the woman with the 0% chance in hers. If you celebrate irrationality, you may end up pretty stupidly irrational. So too with the claim “We know how to design physical objects to fit the shape of the human hand quite well”—tell that to women like Zeynep Tufceki struggling to make today’s huge smartphones work with on-average smaller hands; the gaps in our knowledge and attention are not evenly distributed. And he thinks “women are let off rather lightly” for spending so much time and money on grooming; “If men spent three trillion dollars a year on something totally irrational—building model train sets, say—they would be excoriated for it.” If you can live your life without considering the financial burden and the misogyny deployed against women for painting our faces (or not painting our faces), then maybe you aren’t as savvy as you think?If you can stand it, some entertaining marketing anecdotes about irrational techniques that work (e.g., giving a donation envelope that’s open on the short end instead of the long one, making it look more appropriate for holding cash or checks). I learned that smoother shapes taste sweeter, affecting the appropriate shape of a chocolate bar. There was also advice for selling an environmentally superior detergent—people don’t think that concentrated formulas can be as effective, and they definitely think environmentally superior formulas work worse, so you might have to change the marketing to deemphasize the environment, or change the format from liquid to powder, or add intricacy—colored flecks “will make people believe it is more effective even if they do not know what role these flecks perform.” So too with mixtures of liquids, gels, and powders: they seem more effective per unit. So too with adding effort: If the product requires people to mix it with water first, or to mix two separate agreements, that restores our faith in its efficacy. He leans hard into the idea of costly signals as evolutionarily appealing—showing you can spend on advertising is thus the best form of advertising. And perhaps oddly, he agrees with progressive activists that behavior changes first, before attitudes, which change in response.
  • (5/5)
    So insightful and thought provoking. Rory has got a great narration voice. I just finished the first read and am ready to start the second listen. Now the real question is what's the "real why," not the rational economic why :)
  • (2/5)
    Garbage, basically re-hashed points from Dan Ariely and other behavioral economists, but adding his own stories and a touch of hocus pocus.

  • (2/5)
    This is actually great fun. If you like an interesting and outrageous lunch companion, you could take this along.In psychology, we talk about rationalizing. After a strange act that we could not explain, we go back and insert our explanation. We are indeed more irrational than we like to admit. The author argues that it is an evolutionary advantage. The hare does not always plan an escape route that would give clues to the pursuer. It just runs with some creative zigs and an unpredictable zag for good measure.Just watch any television commercial knowing that you are being manipulated. You still may catch yourself retroactively finding that the most obnoxious commercial, in fact, worked. Why did I buy that "energy" drink at the gas station anyway? As I try to get that taste out of my mouth, I actually start to question my rationality and that can be uncomfortable. Why did I buy that? Honestly, I don't yet know.In a way, you may read this book and have the same private uncomfortable reaction. Now, why did I finish this anyway?
  • (3/5)
    Rory Sutherland gives us an inside look at the world of advertising, and how human psychology affects marketing. A lot of what I read was extremely unexpected and very entertaining. My biggest take-away is that human choices often defy logic, and that unpredictability is the most predictable thing about what drives us. I think most people would enjoy reading this book for it's insights into human nature, and maybe laugh a little when they recognize themselves in these pages.
  • (4/5)
    Sutherland gives a shallow but enjoyable look into the way humans "defy" logic—or more accurately, the way they operate with a different sort of logic than the kind you'll get from most economists. The book is chock full of interesting examples from the business world, and somewhat repetitively exhorts the reader to take chances, experiment, and make mistakes, rather than trying to logic your way to a solution. If simple logic could solve a problem, after all, someone would've already come around and solved it. I was leaning towards 3 stars instead of 4, because the book could've been better put together. But it honestly is a fun and interesting read. My problem with the book is that it lacks structure—which leads to the same few ideas being repeated over and over, illustrated by a series of (not always well-thought-out) anecdotes. For the most part the ideas are good, but poorly served by some of the author's anecdotes.For example, a security guard once told the author to stop vaping in a no-smoking area; the author uses this anecdote (among other, better anecdotes) to illustrate how people "reverse-engineer a logical argument to suit an emotional predisposition," i.e. the guard didn't like vaping because he associated it with smoking (emotional predisposition) and therefore reverse-engineered a reason that the author couldn't vape in a no-smoking zone (he was 'projecting the image of smoking'). On the one hand, I think the idea the author is trying to communicate is completely reasonable, probably correct, and definitely something we should pay attention to. But the story is ridiculous. The guard's reply is unrealistic (who talks like that?) and suspiciously convenient for the author's purposes. Worse, the author falls into the very trap he complains about: ignoring reality in favor of your own rationalization. No-smoking areas exist to prevent second-hand smoke, and second-hand vape is still going to set off someone's asthma. Duh. Other than that, this needs more citations. I don't know if that's missing from the back of my ARC, but considering the already abundant footnotes, I'd prefer more scholarly support for his arguments.
  • (4/5)
    Not sure why, but this is the second book in a row that I am reviewing where the first half just didn’t grab me but I really liked the last half. Part of the difficulty was the extensive use of footnotes, which makes reading a bit choppy but does of course add extra bits of information. Also sections/chapters were of varying length. The proof of how much sense this book made to me though was my trip to the grocery store yesterday—example after example of “advertising” or “promotions” or techniques that were just easier to spot after some of the stories told by the author. And I really liked his idea of how to make taxes more palatable by letting people have some choice about where to direct the funds and support instead of just dropping them into a big federal or state bucket. I can honestly say this book made me aware that advertising is not just creative because of cutesy commercials or boxes, but because trying to figure out what people really want, need, wish for and showing how a product can be shown to match those desires (often hidden from those buying the product) is interesting, profitable, and eye-opening.
  • (4/5)
    While a bit of a mixture of ‘Mad Men” marketing and “Harry Potter” wizardry, Roy Sutherland’s long titled book, ‘Alchemy the Dark Art of Cheating Magic and Curious Science in Brands, Business, and Life’, is as much about human behavior as advertising and branding. Using many examples and stories, the author explains how nature, and in particular the human brain, often deviates from the ‘logical’ in unexpected and often unexplained ways. The book is an easy read containing bits of British humor and peppered with the author’s international experiences. While a little repetitive, Sutherland does achieve his goal of showing that logic and established practices do not always produce the greatest results. I give the book four stars and recommend it to all Mad Men (and women), and all others who still believe in Alchemy.
  • (4/5)
    Written by a 30-year veteran of the advertising world, this book is filled with insights into human behavior learned by trying to sell stuff to people. Not startling original, I've read some of this in other books on human behavior, but interesting none the less.Apparently, people have no idea why they do most of the stuff they do. We're pretty good at rationalization after the fact but logic rarely enters into why we do stuff. This is because our instincts evolved over time, from a time when there wasn't time to think things through. If you're strolling along a jungle path and a lion jumps out in front of you, you run. You don't stop to think about whether you're in danger. If you did, you'd probably be dead. In today's world, you might think you jumped out of the way when stepping off the curb into the path of a bus, but in fact, you were probably already jumping back before you were even consciously aware of the bus.Sutherland is making the point that in advertising, and human behavior, logic rarely wins out. But a lot of advertising is ineffectual because the client and maybe your boss, think logic prevails. This is his idea of Alchemy. The use of non-sense to grab attention. He says in the business world, you'll rarely be fired for being logical. If an idea makes sense to everyone and it doesn't work, well, better luck next time. If an idea seems like nonsense and it's tried and doesn't work, you'll get fired. Leads to overcautiousness he says.The only real problem with the book is that he treats this subject like it's just occurred to him, that it's not already widely practiced in the advertising world. How much nonsense to you see in a typical hour of commercial TV? In the commercials, I mean.He also applies this idea to new product development but many of the examples he presents seem to be lessons learned after the fact. He mentions Red Bull as an example of a product that, in a perfect rational world, wouldn't exist. It's expensive, it tastes weird and has some magical ingredient, taurine. But it sells. He has some interesting thoughts on branding. If spending $200 on a product, would you rather buy a product with a brand you know, or someone you never heard of. You go with the brand name. He says you do that because you'd subconsciously decide that the brand name would less likely be terrible. So, maybe the insights aren't all that original, but the book is a very entertaining read. I read an uncorrected proof (an advanced reader copy I got for free from librarything.com) and there are some typos and parts seem like they could be organized better. I got the book in return for an unbiased review.
  • (3/5)
    This book has been compared to two books I really enjoyed reading: Freakonomics and The Power of Habit. I don’t feel that Alchemy is in the same category at all. Although Alchemy provides some food for thought, I didn’t care for the organization. It seemed like a patchwork quilt of anecdotes, factoids, studies and personal opinion, woven into an incoherent design. I’m sure there’s some internal logic, but that wasn’t something that I could readily discern. And the over-abundance of footnotes was more than distracting. Why symbols instead of numbers? Why so many? I don’t mean to imply this was an unpleasant read. It just didn’t feel as if there were much meat on the bone. Review based on publisher-provided copy of this book.
  • (5/5)
    Alchemy is like a fascinating discussion with a friend full of odd facts, interesting ideas, and lots of good humor. I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in marketing, consumerism, or even public policy.The author is Rory Sutherland, who is vice chairman of the worldwide advertising firm of Ogilvy & Mather. Drawing on his own experiences in brand management, advertising, etc., as well on academic work such as that of Richard Thaler, Sutherland argues that we have become too enamored of facts, figures, equations, and paradigms, leaving too little space for inspiration and seemingly irrational ideas and decisions.Mr. Sutherland will argue, however, that seemingly irrational ideas and decisions often represent what he calls second-order thinking. They embody the true motivations and emotions surrounding purchases, branding, successful products, and successful public policies. The author insists that things that make psychological sense (what he calls psycho-logic) are as important to decision making as reliance on what the numbers, equations, or statistics show.I do not mean to suggest that this is a dry book. Quite the contrary: Mr. Sutherland is an extremely engaging writer and is often quite funny.Sit down with this book. I think you'll be fascinated.
  • (4/5)
    While ostensibly a book for advertisers and marketers, I wanted to read this because I wondered why Red Bull is so popular, why some of the ads that seem so awful to me are nevertheless successful. But mostly, I wanted another glimpse into who our minds work. This book did not disappoint. It was both insightful and humorous. “The advertisements which bees find useful are flowers – and if you think about it, a flower is simply a weed with an advertising budget.” And the forthright honesty of a Porsche ad was a bit crude but quite attention getting, before, as the author noted, “...I imagine the Porsche dealership stripped it of its franchise.”This book has pages of footnotes, generally quite entertaining footnotes.Although I have zero interest in becoming a a marketer of any sort, I do think this book is good for anyone who wants to be entertained and likes knowing a bit of psychological behind decisions. Again, not being in advertising, I don't know if this has new information for such people or not, but for me, it was mostly enjoyable. I did lose a bit of interest in the last few pages about how to brand my non-existent product, but overall, it kept my interest.
  • (4/5)
    I love behavioral economics, it's my go-to nonfiction indulgence. The recipe is familiar, Most treatments present multiple cases of when common sense simply does not prevail. Or, reaction or root cause of how people behave, is based on common sense, but it takes a creative investigator to really figure things out. The author, a leader in Ogilvy marketing, writes dozens of cases and quirky examples. For example, when Betty Crocker cake mix had to change the formula to include an egg. Previous formulations failed. Why? because it was too easy, 50s housewives felt too guilty using such an easy kit. There's plenty of raw quirky humorous comments from examples on both sides of the Pond. This book is just as good as efforts by Mlodinow, Ariely, McRaney, Gladwell, Miller, Levitt, Lindsburg, Thaler and all the other perceptive group psychology and marketing wonks.
  • (4/5)
    I just finished the book, and I enjoyed it. Some of the stories and information was really funny and made me laugh multiple times. I liked how he is taking an unconventional look at various situations and not just using data to make informed decisions. Different perspectives and people that are actually closer to the situation definitely have information to share instead of just taking information from people that know how to read data. I enjoyed his use of psychology and his advertising background to look at various issues.
  • (3/5)
    Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life by Rory Sutherland is a book that convinces the reader that the logical isn't always the best way to go when marketing.Sutherland works for prestigious ad agency, Ogilvy & Mather, and you can tell he really digs economics, psychology, and experimenting. This book shares many enjoyable anecdotes of companies who did the "illogical" and came out ahead. Brands such as Red Bull and Google are featured in this storytelling - and I enjoyed these parts of the books very much.Admittedly, I got lost in the economics discussions - just not my wheelhouse. And I felt that Sutherland was beating the proverbial dead horse by driving home his point, time and time again. I grew impatient and skimmed some of the chapters.As an entrepreneur, my big takeaway is that I probably don't know the answer why consumers do the things they do. Test and experiment until you find the sweet spot. Don't be logical because consumers rarely are. Now to figure out how to incorporate this into my own marketing....
  • (2/5)
    Disclaimer: My copy of Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life is an uncorrected proof that I acquired from LibraryThing's May 2019 "early reviewers" batch. I presume that the final published text doesn't differ significantly from this proof.Rory Sutherland's Alchemy is quite the frustration. The basic underlying premise that logical calculation and deduction doesn't solve all problems, sometimes requiring occasional bold and seemingly illogical excursions outside the box, is valid, insightful, and increasingly relevant to life today. Sutherland's approach to exploring and explaining that premise is a careless unsubstantiated mess.Sutherland's approach largely boils down to declaring all methods of logic and statistics and science to be deeply ineffectual and wrong in order to highlight cases in which outside-the-box boldness and serendipity (idea "alchemy"?) are better or more effective. He does admit from time to time that it's not that simple or absolute, but maintains this tone across much of the book nonetheless.While this approach does effectively spotlight an interesting path of illogcal "alchemy" and "magic" solutions, it also severely undermines the spotlighter's credibility by seemingly condemning all logical methodologies in comparison as ineffective and without value. His apparently huge survivorship bias concerning anecdotes of successful "ah-ha" discoveries doesn't help.Sutherland fails to consider that human progress may not be the result of occasional victories of "good" illogcal creativity over "bad" methodical logic, but rather of a perpetual complex interplay between the two.Other books I've read recently that do a much better job of exploring this same underlying logic-vs-creativity (and related computer-vs-brain) territory include: • Being Wrong, by Kathryn Schulz • Scatterbrain, by Henning Beck