Features | From Pivot Magazine

The secret to standing out in a saturated marketing world

Seth Godin’s new book tells marketers to dream big and think small

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Marketing can be “evil,” Godin allows. It’s just as immoral to market someone into foreclosure territory as it is to burn down their house

Marketing, writes Seth Godin, used to be about advertising. Now, if it is going to work at all—and marketing is the only way to spread your ideas, create change and make the world a better place—it is about trust. This Is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See is the 23rd book, among them the bestsellers Purple Cow and All Marketers Are Liars, penned by the former dotcom entrepreneur, marketing VP at Yahoo and newly inducted member of the Marketing Hall of Fame. It aims to be the distillation of Godin’s previous works.

The book is centred on the idea that the internet is the first mass medium that hasn’t made marketers overjoyed by its mere existence, the way TV seemed invented to bombard the population with cheap (and misleading) ads. The internet is simultaneously the largest and smallest medium, Godin argues, where “you can’t steal attention for a penny the way your grandparents’ companies did.” It feels like a vast, free media hunting ground, but it’s really a “billion tiny whispers” with little time for any one entity. The old mass-market world, where everyone watched the same three TV channels and read the local paper, and could be manipulated by the same ads, is long gone. The memorable ads are decades old. (Godin cites “Winston tastes good . . .” and expects his readers to complete the rhyme.)

Empathy isn’t sympathy and a marketer doesn’t have to share a world view so much as demonstrate that she grasps it

What’s left for marketers is to ask for attention, rather than demand it, and to have the empathy to see the world as your “smallest viable market” sees it. That’s the only way to gain trust. We are none of us rational decision-makers. We don’t want a quarter-inch drill, or the quarter-inch hole it will make, or even the bookcase we will construct: we want the status we will gain (in our own or in our spouse’s eyes) once we put it up. Marketers are agents of change by definition, because they are championing something new, and asking people to break their customary patterns, whether in their toothpaste purchases or their vote in an election. And people are guided by their internal narratives about status and belonging, about what “people like us” do, buy or accept—whether their “tribe” buys $700 strollers because they’re a smart investment or doesn’t because they’re a stupid waste of money.  

Empathy isn’t sympathy and a marketer doesn’t have to share a world view so much as demonstrate that she grasps it, and that her product, service or cause is something a customer can believe is for “people like us.” That is only possible with a small “tribe” of early adopters: aim larger in the digital era and the necessary compromises will result in being ignored or dismissed. Establish trust and go from there. What you are selling may not take over the world à la Facebook—your local children’s playground may not get funded nor your political candidate be elected—but it’s the only sure way those things can now happen.

This all sounds persuasive, but Godin also knows what his readers are wondering: is this approach any less manipulative than Don Draper’s Mad Men tactics? Marketing can be “evil,” Godin allows. It’s just as immoral to market someone into foreclosure territory as it is to burn down their house, and “shameless” marketers have flourished in a way no other profession would tolerate: “You won’t hear of accountants who extract customers’ data without permission.” If a marketer feels what he’s doing is coercing or manipulating or making people fearful, he is doing it wrong.

And in the digital world, where attention has to be earned, shamelessness no longer pays. There are practical, as well as moral, forces driving marketers to a trust-based model.

If a marketer feels what he’s doing is coercing or manipulating or making people fearful, he is doing it wrong

A trusted marketer is one who makes promises she keeps—this product will cement or enhance your status, tighten your bonds of affiliation with your tribe. That’s how she gains attention to tell her story, which may lead to the Holy Grail, the word-of-mouth, peer-to-peer conversations that drive contemporary culture. And that will unleash all the good Godin’s profession can accomplish. Consider those playgrounds and politicians of choice, both impossible without marketing. Consider the Grateful Dead.

Godin certainly does. He’s a true fan, a Deadhead who’s bought 233 of the band’s albums. The Dead had just one Top 40 hit in their half-century of life and still managed to gross more than $450 million in ticket sales because they focused their energy, talent and generosity on a relatively tiny audience. They let the fans share the word—evangelize, Godin calls it—by freely allowing them to record their shows, thereby grafting fans and band together. It’s an “almost perfect example of the power of marketing for the smallest viable market,” he writes.

That’s the Gospel of Marketing according to Seth Godin and, as Jerry Garcia once put it, what a long, strange trip it’s been.