REVIEW: “Conversational Capital” Is All About Word of Mouth

Conversational Capital

I got my hands on Conversational Capital: How to Create Stuff People Love to Talk About, one of the few business marketing books I’ve reviewed. The authors—Bertrand Cesvet, Tony Babinski and Eric Alper—all work at SID LEE, an agency with experience creating buzz for brands like Cirque du Soleil and adidas. Creating and recreating word-of-mouth buzz, or “conversational capital,” is an extremely difficult thing, but Cesvet believes it boils down to eight engines that anyone can use.

The eight engines

According to Cesvet, the engines that drive conversational capital are:

  • Rituals: Making a brand important by the routines that surround it
  • Exclusive product offerings: Making a brand stand out by its uniqueness
  • Myths: Making a brand meaningful with its story and mythology
  • Relevant sensory oddities: Making a brand remarkable with peculiarity
  • Icons: Making a brand recognizable with imagery and iconography
  • Tribalism: Making a brand essential for consumers to belong with others
  • Endorsement: Making a brand influential by evangelists who preach for it
  • Continuity: Making a brand trustworthy by delivering what it promises

Conversational Capital establishes these engines with only three major case studies at the beginning of the book, but spends many more pages citing examples and it’s quite an interesting read to see how examples out in the wild (such as Apple’s “1984” TV spot) conform to Cesvet’s theories. However, I am bothered by the sheer generalization of the engine concept—they are so broad they can be applied to any number of things outside of the topic of word-of-mouth marketing. People find comfort in rituals, enjoy having unique experiences and also yearn to belong with others like themselves. These are not new insights, and it goes to show how the manipulation of marketing boils down to basic human psychology.

Conversational Capital repackages these basic insights under the guise of “marketing tactics” and then considers itself a guide to recognizing and applying these tactics. There are a lot of interesting examples and case studies from well-known brands, which I like, but they are there mainly to reinforce Cesvet’s concepts of conversational capital and there’s no sign that IKEA, Apple and other brands are actively developed and marketed like this. Conversational Capital merely has a theory, and examples that seem to support their theory. But that doesn’t mean its theories are the definitive methods to build word-of-mouth.

How to implement: dress like Devo

The section on how to implement a conversational capital marketing plan is decent but, again, the information is basic enough that anyone can do it. The basic process is to assemble a team (the crazier the better), audit what you’re doing now, design a creative solution and then implement it and record the gains. There really is no silver bullet, though Conversational Capital does offer some tangible tools buried in these chapters, such as the “meta-story,” that every brand should have. These are the real gems to be found in this book, but you have to dig for them.

As a book reviewer I have a couple pet peeves: books by business owners that promote the business too heavily, and books that even slightly suggest that the key to creativity is to be wacky—adding a foosball table to the break room, hiring a professional clown or masseuse, or putting monkeys in your advertising just because they’re funny. Conversational Capital comes close to both sometimes. The book is labeled “a SID LEE project” right on the cover, and many examples cited in the book are the agency’s own clients. Cesvet also notes with glee that his agency has worked with a clown, exhibitionist and oceanographer, and “it is fun—if you keep them away from sharp objects!” Asides like these make SID LEE sound like a wonderful place for a creative professional to work, but that’s not the goal of this book and these comments don’t help the material.

If you have never even considered taking active steps to build word-of-mouth buzz, Conversational Capital is a great resource with all the basic strategies and steps needed to build your own campaign. The book is really a blueprint for such a campaign. But agencies and marketing professionals who are already handling word-of-mouth with some success may find some of Cesvet’s points right on the money, and others not so much. The steps do not necessarily fit every brand and industry.

A note about the Conversational Capital website

This book is supported by a devoted website, Even if you don’t pick up the book I highly recommend you visit the website: it has some good video and especially good articles (labeled “conversations”). I am always glad to see publishers supporting their print products with online resources, such as websites and/or downloads. Conversational Capital enjoys one of the better websites out there in terms of supporting its message.


Conversational Capital does have something to offer marketing professionals, but I think it’s important to separate the wheat from the chaff. The concepts, engines and little nuggets of technique will serve anyone who needs to launch or rejuvenate a brand through word-of-mouth. Cesvet, Babinski and Alper know what they are talking about and execute it on a daily basis for a variety of clients.

But there are a lot of marketing books like this out there and the books that stand out have clear writing, strong concepts and a concrete plans of attack. Conversational Capital is good but not great, and I would recommend it to marketers who have some space on their library shelves or who live and die by the word of mouth they generate for their customers.

Conversational Capital: How to Create Stuff People Love to Talk About
Bertrand Cesvet with Tony Babinski & Eric Alper
Published by FT Press
US $22.99
Rating: 7/10

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