I wanted to read The Tasti D-Lite Way: Social Media Marketing Lessons for Building Loyalty and a Brand Customers Crave (McGraw-Hill Professionals, $25) by company execs James Amos Jr. and BJ Emerson because I like ice cream.
But Tasti D-Lite -- that grammatical eyesore -- isn't ice cream. Or even frozen yogurt. According to the website, it's a "dairy-based soft-serve frozen dessert," a marketing euphemism if I've ever heard one. The authors acknowledge the lingering "What is it?" question while tut-tutting "...those feeling the need for a formal classification." In The Tasti D-Lite Way's eleven chapters, you will never get an answer; an infuriating tease. "While the question needs to be addressed, Tasti D-Lite was not built through converting the skeptics with rational arguments. They just have to taste it," write Amos and Emerson. That doesn't exactly sound like a healthy or responsible bequest of an already obese nation -- how we got into this epidemic was by tasting everything. What is so damn difficult about explaining what Tasti D is? There's a book I'd rather read.
Celeste Carlesimo and her food scientist father concocted the cold treat, which apparently contains natural ingredients and a little sugar, while lacking both butterfat and most of the calorie content, fat and carbs of its alternatives on the market. I doubt this faux fro-yo contains bleach or polar bear tears or whatever used to fill the hole in the ozone layer, but its status is so secretive that I granted my imagination a 240-page free for all.
My related second problem with the book -- out September 7, to coincide with the company's 25th anniversary -- is the flip-flopping claims about Tasti D's commitment to corporate transparency. Amos and Emerson say, "Many other books have defined transparency; this one demonstrates it." Minus that whole part about what product they're selling. Then there's this humdinger, which made me laugh out loud: "What you might find missing from this book is many of our missteps. We don't share all of our failures," followed just a couple sentences later by, "Sure, there will always be parasites who do nothing but take from the world when we and others like us openly share." Before you make a claim like that, reconsider telling readers what you're withholding. The transparency thing is a farce anyway -- companies can closely monitor our activity, not the other way around. One subhead in chapter five is even called "You Say Stalking; We Say Proactive Gesturing," entailing how, for example, Tasti D will reply to Twitter mentions with follow-up questions, upcoming flavors news and coupons.
Whether it's meant to be applauded or appalling, The Tasti D-Lite Way has some brutally honest confessions. "When it comes to social media, we've thrown a lot of mud on the wall," the authors admit. And I had no doubt believing this one: "Our initial concern (along with that of our literary agent) was that any attempt at telling the Tasti D-Lite story would sound like a self-serving marketing piece." This is precisely what happened; glossary terms include "Tasti Flavor Alert," "Tasti Healthy Habit Search," "Tasti TreatCard," "Tasti Trivia," "Tastimonial," "TastiPad" and "TastiRewards."
Originally, I thought the book was targeted to run-of-the-mill individual consumers like me, but it becomes very clear in chapter two that the intended audience is outside marketing professionals. The giveaway is when, disorientingly, the customers are referred to as "them." That explained all the PowerPoint-speak and the rampant use of clichéd maxims such as, "Necessity is the mother of invention" and "Life is a journey." From then on, it reads like a textbook full of obvious talking points - listen, engage, build trust.
As Amos and Emerson write, "This is both a history book and a future book. Sure, we get to tell our version of the story in the light and perspective that we choose. We're the ones holding the pen." Herein lies my most thorny concern: it's difficult to critique a book that shouldn't have been written. At least not by staffers at this particular company.
A couple mentions are made of a Mashable article -- "40 of the Best Twitter Brands and the People Behind Them" -- where Tasti D is heralded as one of the top innovators. Now for some perspective: the story was published in January 2009, when Twitter wasn't yet a must in the business world. At the time, Tasti D had 105 followers, the second-fewest of any brand on the list. Another of the 40 top brands, the Chicago Bulls, had 429 followers; they now have over 520,000. Tasti D currently has just over 7,700 followers (higher profile competitors Pinkberry and Red Mango have almost 42,000 and 56,000 followers, respectively; neither company's management has written a book about their marketing success). The Tasti D-Lite Way prologue crows that it's been singled out for its "avant-garde" social media strategy.
I found this very surprising. When I think of marketing powerhouses, brands like Apple, Nike and Starbucks come to mind. Soon after, in a huge tonal shift, Amos and Emerson say, "When does business stop being about being in the lead and start being about serving and enriching the lives of others?" Suddenly Tasti D seems to suggest that they're not receiving a fair share (all I could think of was Oliver Twist at the orphanage: "Please, sir, I want some more."). The writer who christened Tasti D "avant-garde" in 2010 is the same person who named it one of the "40 Best Twitter Brands." Interesting. Maybe she's trying to cash in on her TastiRewards.
I liked two very small aspects of the book. There's no teasing under the subhead "The Most Powerful Word on the Internet." (It's the word "or," if you're wondering.) "Or" is ambivalence. "Or" means persuasion is still possible -- no decision has been made. So if a guy on Facebook, Twitter or a personal blog writes that he might go here or there, marketers can make their move. I found that very insightful. I also enjoyed sifting through the text for rare bits of trivia. Cake batter is the most popular flavor of Tasti D right now, out of more than 100 options. There are locations in Australia, Dubai, Panama and Saudi Arabia, although the vast majority of the 55 outlets I counted are in Manhattan. And -- this is pretty excellent -- Tasti D's mascot is named Fillmore Cups, a name generated in a competition among customers.