The best business books humanize business rather than commodify humanity. Seth Godin’s books have always attempted to do that, and his latest does a great job of it.
This Is Marketing: You Can't Be Seen Until You Learn to See by Seth Godin, Portfolio, 288 pages, Hardcover, November 2018, ISBN 9780525540830
“Who’s it for?” It really doesn’t matter where you work—in business, in government, in a non-profit, or in the home—you are going to need some marketing skills at some point. And whether it’s getting customers to purchase a product or service, getting constituents out to vote, getting contributions toward a cause, or getting your kids to brush their teeth, it is important to ask, “Who’s it for?” The answer should almost never, if ever, be for you.
Seth Godin’s first big book, Permission Marketing, got him kicked out of the Direct Marketing Association. It was heresy to suggest that, rather than disrupting people to convey a marketing message they most likely didn’t want to receive, you should instead seek their permission—their willing, even eager, participation in receiving messages from you. He had not invented this idea so much as he “narrated the beginning of a revolution” in marketing.
Permission Marketing was a revolution that mirrored the evolution of digital technology, and many other classic books from Seth followed. His latest, boldly titled, This Is Marketing, is in some ways—and sometimes literally in the later chapters—a summation of his previous books and all he’s come to understand over his many years of observation, research, and writing. One of the key observations is that the positioning philosophy of marketing’s past—of pioneers like Ogilvy, and Trout and Ries—“doesn’t hold up over time.” The way to gain a consistent and sustainable edge now, if there is one to be gained, is through honesty and generosity. The way to gain a following is to ignore what’s popular, ignore the spaces in which most people are already operating, and carve out a niche, “build your own quadrant,” speak to the underserved and underrepresented. Leave the most fought-over territories to others, to those with big advertising budgets and less scruples about using them to rent people’s attention for 30 seconds, less scruples about filling our inboxes with spam and our mailboxes with junk mail. The efforts to reach a mass market through those means is an understandable impulse; you think you’ll find more customers there, but you are unlikely to gain more traction there.
The kind of marketing that Seth practices and promotes “seeks volunteers, not victims.” It is “about the human condition, and about our culture.” It is about bringing about change.
Regardless of what the specifics are, if you’re a marketer you’re in the business of making change happen. Denying this is a form of hiding; it’s more productive to own it instead.
Anand Giridharadas wrote powerfully and, we here at 800-CEO-READ believe correctly, in Winners Take All about how the philanthropic endeavors of powerful, private industry interests to “change the world” perpetuate the very social ills they are attempting to alleviate. But there’s no denying that if you’re in business, you are going to have an effect, that you are often going to make a literal and material change in people’s lives. It’s also true that if you’re in any other field outside of business, you are going to have to find a way to reach people. But how do you do that, and what kind of a change are you going to make?
Seth’s vernacular is that of the market. Seth’s values are undeniably heretical to the traditional understanding of marketing. But it’s also why he has so much appeal to those looking for a better way to make change. He gained the popularity he has not by appealing to the mass market, but by serving a specific audience. The following, written by Seth to you, could apply directly to him.
You, on the other hand, have gone out on a limb, one that belongs to you, and maybe, just maybe, there are underserved customers out there who can’t wait to find you, connect with you, and spread the word.
If you’re a politician, substitute the word “customer” with “constituent.” If you’re a teacher, think in terms of classrooms and students. If a nonprofit, think of communities and individuals. The important thing is to consider the needs of your "market" before your marketing.
When you’re marketing-driven, you’re focused on the latest Facebook data hacks, the design of your new logo, and your Canadian pricing model. When you’re market-driven, you think a lot about the hopes and dreams of your customers and their friends. You listen to their frustrations and invest in changing the culture.
The market, in this sense, is simply those you wish to serve. And marketing, in Seth’s view, is “a chance to serve.” It’s a chance to tell stories and to make change in a culture. He does, in traditional business book fashion, break marketing down into five steps, but those five steps are rather broad, and the final step (to my mind, the most important one) is to “show up—regularly, consistently, and generously, for years and years—to organize and lead and build confidence in the change you seek to make.”
There are actually many more lists in This Is Marketing. While I’ve heard some readers decry the list-ification of business books, those lists are often very effective, and Seth’s lists in particular contain more human considerations than "business" motives—things like advising readers to “Start with empathy to see a real need. Not an invented one, not ‘How can I start a business?’ but ‘What would matter here?’”
Ellen Ruppel Shell warned us wisely in The Job, against seeking out a “calling” while seeking out a job. But what if the calling weren’t in the job title, but in the description of it, “a chance to make things better for those we seek to serve,” or “to serve people in a way that they need (or want).” That is what Seth is suggesting when he uses such language in marketing. Honesty is necessary, absolute authenticity is a myth, because “what people want is to be understood and to be served, not merely to witness whatever you feel like doing at any given moment.”
Not everyone is going to like your work, and that is okay. In fact, it is only right:
The critic who doesn’t like your work is correct. He doesn’t like your work. This cannot be argued with.
The critic that says no one else will like your work is wrong.
What you do is not going to be for everyone. That is a feature, not a bug. Find the people that like your work. Better yet, find people that need something you can offer and find a way to be of service to them. If you’re in marketing specifically, Seth suggests this:
Now, instead of asking, “How do I get more people to listen to me, how can I get the word out, how can I find more followers, how can I convert more leads to sales, how can I find more clients, how can I pay my staff … ?” you can ask “What change do I seek to make?”
Once you know what you stand for, the rest gets a lot easier.
It is a bold statement, to say “this is marketing.” Because marketing has a pretty bad reputation. It’s as bold as Dan Pink saying that “to sell is human” in his book of that name. But both are also undeniably true, and both espouse these professions as honest, generous, and perhaps most importantly, engaged in service to others over the long term. Marketing is, as Seth says, “the landscape of our modern lives.” He begins the final chapter asking "Is marketing evil?" He has answered the question throughout the book, but he does so more directly here, stating that he thinks "it's evil to persuade kids to start smoking, to cynically manipulate the electoral or political process," which is undoubtedly marketing. But "Marketing is magic when it elects someone who changes the community for the better," and of course, to echo the title of the book, "this is marketing" also. We should work to make it better by promoting that which makes the world better. I believe the knowledge and perspective Seth offers can help us do that.
The best business books humanize business rather than commodify humanity. Seth’s work has always attempted to do that. And in This Is Marketing, I think he has succeeded. Who's it for? Maybe not for everyone, but if you've been following us here, I imagine you'd find it's for you.