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Seth Godin’s “This is Marketing”: Why You Need to Hear it Again

Nothing in Godin's new book will surprise old readers, but it's a needed refresher on why marketing's big ideas are important

Todd Wasserman
January 21 2019

Over Thanksgiving, my mother-in-law told a story several times about Samuel Hubbard shoes.

Three years ago, she bought a pair of Samuel Hubbards for her husband. Since then, the soles had worn thin and tractionless. Angry and disappointed, she called the company, seeking justice. What she got was grace. The company not only sent a new pair but promised to resole the old ones.

I thought of that story as I read Seth Godin’s new book, This is Marketing. What Samuel Hubbard’s customer service team had offered was remarkable. It was a story my mother-in-law could tell over and over that was better than any advertising the company could put out.

Longtime readers of Seth Godin will recognize the use of the word “remarkable” as deliberate. As Godin outlined in Purple Cow (2003), something is remarkable in the sense that we feel compelled to remark upon it. Godin’s message hasn’t changed a great deal since that time. While he has updated his communication to include mentions of social media, if you read Purple Cow, you probably don’t have to read This is Marketing. If you haven’t, his newest book is worth the $14.99 on Kindle because it’s a message we need to hear again and again.

Marketing, according to Godin

Godin is a deconstructionist. He loves to question premises that others take for granted. He views marketing as something we all do every day. “When you ask your boss for a raise, you’re marketing,” he notes. “When you raise money for the local playground, you’re marketing.” Godin defines marketing as “the act of making change happen.” In the first instance, you’re changing the boss’s mind. In the second, you’re changing the school system.

Not everyone will be convinced by this definition. You can use violence to make change happen, too. Is that marketing?

Digging deeper, Godin sees marketing as a mission of discovery. Find “your people” and give them what they’re looking for, and you’ve got a viable business. “Marketing is the generous act of helping someone solve a problem,” he writes. “Their problem.” For example, Penguin Magic helps fledgling magicians solve their problem — finding new tricks. The site includes inspirational videos outlining each trick (though it doesn’t reveal how the trick is done).

Godin’s view is a variation on the long-tail paradigm. He correctly notes that mass media is dead and only those who are focused on niches or are too weird for the mainstream will prosper. But instead of maximizing SEO and content marketing to reach such customers, he advocates helping people solve their problems and depending on happy customers to spread the word.

The value of marketing is in the stories

One of Godin’s most penetrating insights is that the stories marketers provide have real value. In the book, he talks about a trip to India he took with VisionSpring, a company that sells cheap reading glasses to the developing world. In one village, VisionSpring set up shop and made its pitch. But only a third of the people who tried on glasses bought them. “I was stunned that 65 percent of the people who needed glasses, who knew they needed glasses, and had money to buy glasses would just walk away,” Godin wrote.

He managed to double that figure by changing the pitch. “Here’s what I did: I took all the glasses off the table. For the rest of the people in line, we said ‘Here are your new glasses. If they work and you like them, please pay us three dollars. If you don’t want them, please give them back.” That changed the equation. The first pitch was an opportunity to see better and look good. The second forced the choice of having something taken away that was working, or paying three dollars to keep it.

As Godin notes, consumers always have a narrative about their purchase. They want to solve a problem. In a vivid example he shared on Tim Ferriss’ podcast, Godin talked about how a company might get a great logo from a crowdsourcing platform like 99Designs, but they’d rather pay $250,000 to have Milton Glaser design it. The logos might be comparable, but if you get Milton Glaser, then you can tell the board it’s a Milton Glaser logo. The association gives the board members a story to tell that’s worth the $250,000. Similarly, those who spend hundreds of dollars for a meal at Copenhagen’s Noma after spending thousands of dollars for the flight aren’t paying for the food, they’re paying for a story.

The big insight: marketing is about feeling

If you’ve read Godin’s other books, there’s nothing in Marketing that will surprise you. But reading the book is a needed refresher in how the big ideas in marketing are what’s important. He sees Instagram followers, article clicks, and “influencers” as the distractions they are. “It’s all the same old thing—the industrialized selfish same-old, made modern for a new generation,” he writes.

By reducing marketing to a promise of change, he shifts the focus from customer acquisition to filling a void in consumers’ lives. Peel away every layer of consumer want, and there’s a deep desire to feel something. Even buying a drill bit to fix something around the house boils down to receiving an affirmation from one’s spouse and the peace of mind that comes from knowing the house isn’t a mess.

Thinking this way is a useful exercise for marketers. Sure, the book is often repetitive and can veer off into self-help territory a little too often for some. But what Godin says rings true. It may not be groundbreaking, but it is remarkable.

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Todd Wasserman

Todd Wasserman is a journalist with 25 years of experience. He has been freelancing full time since 2015. Before that he was the business editor for Mashable from 2010-2015. From 1999-2010 he worked at Adweek's Brandweek, starting as a reporter and ending as editor-in-chief (2007-2010). He has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired, The Washington Post and The Economist, among other publications.

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