Review of Jim Stengel’s disappointing book “Grow”

Research reveals the hidden secret to business success? No, sadly this is pseudoscience – that will only convince the most gullible of minds.

Jim Stengel seems a nice guy, he wants us to be passionate about our business and to feel that there is a greater purpose than simply making money.  Few would disagree.  But he also claims to have discovered the secret to sustained super profits – based on a flawed study dressed up as science.

Stengel is a marketing consultant, a famous one because he was formerly Chief Marketing Officer of Procter & Gamble 2001-08 until he surprisingly ‘retired’ to consult (and write this book). During the decade that Jim mostly presided over marketing at P&G the company was pretty successful, at least in comparison to the 3 year period immediately before he became CMO of unsuccessful restructuring and CEO turnover. However the success of the 2000s has been exaggerated; the reality is that during Jim’s decade P&G’s stock price doubled, though that is a misleading overstatement due to the brief dramatic dip in 2000 (the reasons why are discussed here). Without that dip the year before Jim took over as CMO the stock price only improved 20% over the full decade. That’s less impressive than the previous decade (90s) when stock price had increased 5-fold (or 3 fold when the brief dip of 2000 is considered), similar gains were also made in the prior decade (80s). So P&G’s performance during Jim’s tenure should perhaps more accurately described as a mild turnaround, or partial restoration. This chart shows the full history of the stock price.

In all fairness though, Jim Stengel doesn’t ask us to believe his amazing discovery just because he was (like millions of others) a successful practitioner, his claims are based on what he calls an unprecedented 10-year empirical study of highly successful firms and the brands they own. But his study does have precedent, it joins a growing list of books that claim to have discovered a few simple rules for business that near guarantee profit performance that will beat all rivals. Each of these books are based on severely flawed research that ‘proves’ just what the author wanted to say in the first place (which is the opposite of a surprising discovery). “In Search of Excellence” was one of the first of these books, which was largely discredited when the excellent companies went on to make poor financial returns in the years after the book came out.

Professor Phil Rosenzweig exposes these flaws in his 2007 book “The Halo Effect: … and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers“.

I describe and critique “The Stengel Study”, which is the basis of Stengel’s book, here. A quick summary is that to detect factors that might cause financial success then Stengel should at least compared very carefully matched samples of both successful and unsuccessful firms, and developed hard objective measures of strategy – not relied almost entirely on interviews with experts. Also, to avoid confirmation bias, the researchers who described the firms and their strategies should not have been aware of which were the successful and unsuccessful ones. And finally, any resulting theories should be tested against the future performance of the firms. Otherwise what looks like science turns out to be simply a story.

Tellingly the ‘research’ takes up small portion of Stengel’s book, the rest is a story: anecdote and assertion. Jim tells us what to do, but experienced marketers looking for strategic advice won’t find much new or particularly helpful. It’s pretty much the standard sort of consultant fare such as “deliver a near-ideal customer experience”.

It’s well meaning though, Stengel wants us to all be passionate about our business and to feel that there is a greater purpose than simply making money (even if finding out how to make money was the motivation of his ‘research’).  This is a nice sentiment, however, the success of brands (and the large corporations behind them) is far more complex than Stengel’s book and its predecessors claim.