Interview: Seth Godin

All Marketers Are Liars author and marketing enthusiast

All Marketers Are Liars author and marketing enthusiast

Seth Godin is a man who searches for answers to the marketing questions of the world.

He has parlayed this inquisitive nature into a slew of well-received books, including Purple Cow, Unleashing the Idea Virus, and All Marketers Are Liars, which was released last week. Godin spoke with about how people misunderstand the latter title, why he thinks PR needs to change, and how corporations are obsessed with sunk costs.

Q: Where do you get the ideas for your books?

A: I talk about things that have happened to me. Just about every book I have written has been has inspired by real-life events, and the attempt to explain to myself why they occurred. Why did John Kerry lose to the most unpopular incumbent in recent memory? Why do people pay a premium for a PowerBook? Why you can get into a bitter fight with someone when you tell him or her that St. Pauly's Girl and Becks Light are the same beer, that's made in the same brewery? If I can come up with a way to tell a story about it, then I write it down.

Q: Now that you have a blog, has that changed the way you share your ideas because you don't have to wait for the complete story before writing a book?

A: Blogging is removing most of the reasons that I have to write a book. I'm really focused on sharing my ideas; it makes me happy. There are at least 20 ideas from my blog that I could turn into books. But if the idea has spread [through my blog], I don't need to do a book on it now.

Q: Do you find people a) can comprehend and b) are comfortable with your premise that all marketing is lying, but the lie has to be true?

A:First of all, I didn't take my own advice in telling a story about the book that fits people's worldview. I'm not selling it to the Naomi Klein No Logo crowd; I'm selling it to marketers. And marketers don't like believing that they are liars. The good news is that I'm getting extraordinary response among the people who have actually read it. People are saying it's changing the way they look at the world. I'm getting a lot of mail from ministers and churches who seeing stuff in the book that I never wrote. It's changed their worldview. But there are people at leading book publishing magazines and blogs who haven't read it. They just see the title, decide what they think the book is about, never read it, and haul off writing something about it.

Q: How would you say PR, an industry where people expect everything to be authentic, fits into this argument?

A:Let's be clear: authentic doesn't mean that the truth is there before you. I don't believe anyone can know the full truth about anything. I'm not saying in my title that you should commit a fraud. Telling someone something and having him or her discover what you said is not real or not what you said it was causes you huge amount of backlash. We saw that when Sony ran TV commercials of fake [critics] giving reviews of movies. What I am saying is that you must tell a story to people because they don't have time to listen to the full truth. Your story must be authentic in that when it is held up to further scrutiny, it is consistent and is what you said it was. So, I say, 'All marketers are liars, and it works when people are telling the truth.' That leaves PR with a big problem. I think the future of PR is to not do PR [as it is done now]. PR people have to say, 'I refuse to be the last step in the chain.' [Currently] the company will say [to PR professionals], it's all done, and now you need to slap some hype on it and cajole some people into putting it into the Style section. PR people have to go way back into the marketing process and say, 'We're experts at telling stories. We need to sit with your designers and customer service people at the beginning and help you tell the story.' Because if the story is consistent and authentic, it will spread and the PR will take care of itself. That is a wonderful role for PR. If you're spending your whole day getting e-mail addresses for bloggers and sending out mass spam, you're not doing anybody any service.

Q: So do you think in the current situation, PR professionals are faced with hyping stories they personally don't think have merit?

A:PR professionals are good upstanding professionals, but they have too narrowly defined what they do for a living. They're constantly taking Kuwait or some pharmaceutical company as a client, and spinning, spinning, spinning. The public looks at that, and says, "Give me a break. You're standing in front of a building that's burning down, and you're saying, 'We're delighted that the building is burning down because we now have the opportunity to build a better.'" People can tell when you're being fraudulent with them. The brave PR professionals will say, "I won't take this account, but I [may] work with you on the product you bring out next year." But the ones who have the guts to do that will be so effective that they have a line of new clients waiting for them.

Q: Do you feel that PR professionals have to fundamentally believe in the product, company, or organization they represent?

A:I don't have any problem when you discover the PR people at Microsoft use Macs. If you are marketing a Bible to people who want to believe in Bibles, and you believe your story is authentic ? when the people buy your Bible, they will live with it, use it, and be happy they met you, it doesn't matter if you're an atheist.

Q: It seems a common theme in your work is about telling a story. In this industry, professionals are tasked with helping the media tell a story. Isn't there going to be an inherent problem there when the PR professional is telling the company's story while the journalist is might be looking for a different story?

A:Some PR people are able to create a reputation with a particular journalist, so their story is perceived to be authentic. PR people are smart enough to realize if they cross that line and try to trick somebody, they won't have the opportunity for a second chance.

Q: You say, in general, that marketers don't have enough time to change people's minds? How does this apply to companies in crisis ? Enron, for one - which need their potential customers to come back?

A:You can't change my mind, but you can surprise me. If I believe the world is flat or I believe evolution is a theory, you can shout all you want that evolution is science, but I'm not going to change my mind. But you can surprise people by telling a story that fits their worldview. Once they buy into the story, you can use it to transmit more facts. You can stand up and say Enron did a lot of bad things and cheated in this way and that way. People will listen because you're matching their expectations. Then you can say, "32,000 people worked at this company and maybe only 12 or six of them were crooks. Let me tell you about the other 31,988." You haven't said, "You must admit you were wrong in order to listen to me." You've said, "I'm acknowledging that you are correct about some things, but you are slightly uninformed about others. Do you want to learn something new?" If you want to tell a story to certain part of the population that's journalistic or cynical, those people have a worldview that expects a lot more candor than most corporations are willing to give.

It could be something as simple as most people not thinking your beverage tastes good. For you to stand up and say, "Yes it does [taste good]," and quote some twisted focus group, why are you doing that? I'm not going to go back and say that I know like it because some focus group did. I would [recommend that a PR pro should] go back to the company and say, "We can't go up in front of these people and say it tastes good. You need to change the flavor." That's about transparency. Now the PR person says, "Beverage Corp. is really focused on listening to people. This stuff tastes horrible. Here's some b-roll footage of us dumping it in the Passaic River and lighting it on fire. Here's our factory gearing up for a new flavor." You would gain so much credibility.

Q: Do you think corporations have a hard time dealing with sunk costs?

A:Human beings have a hard time with sunk cost. People don't like to admit they're wrong. The problem with sunk cost is that, at some point, you have to admit you're wrong. As the world goes faster, the people who embrace the old models have troubles. The sooner you embrace [change], the better.

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