The Best Book To Understand Marketing
By Seth Godin
Best Line #1: When someone doesn’t act as you expected them to, look for their fear. It’s difficult to dream of anything when you think you’re about to be eaten by a grizzly. Even (or especially) if it’s all in your mind.
Best Line #2: Everything that we purchase-every investment, every trinket, every experience-is a bargain. That’s why we bought it. Because it was worth more than what we paid for it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t buy it.
I’ve read Seth Godin’s work for several years now because his style and perspective is so distinct. He basically stands on his own. Like a purple cow, you could say. Which meant that I didn’t know how to describe him to others.
Was he a marketer? A business promoter? A self-styled guru? An advocate?
In truth, he’s a teacher. It wasn’t immediately obvious to me but it’s become clear with time. He is a different kind of teacher who doesn’t issue tests at the end of class or check your attendance. It’s a very inspiring way of comporting oneself.
It makes his work all the more valuable, too. Because if This Is Marketing were written by anyone else, it would probably be presented as a vehicle for … marketing. There would be an order form in the back to purchase more merchandise, a promotion page for all the other books in the series (buy one get one free!), and an online something-or-other to give him your email address.
Seth could easily promote all his other work throughout the pages of this book but he doesn’t. That choice should be noticed. It demonstrates his genuine effort to define marketing as something that transcends sales tactics and advertising and growth hacks. Marketing should be something greater, he argues. It should be the source of individuality in the work, the method for refining your approach to a point of maximum effectiveness.
It’s ironic to me. His book on marketing is meant to help us avoid the mimicry of what everyone else does. That feels wildly out-of-line with what I understand to be conventional marketing wisdom. Which is precisely the point.
To highlight his efforts, here are this week’s articles covering specific elements of the book:
Monday: The Four Words Of Marketing
Tuesday: True Differentiation
Wednesday: Tension Compels The Sell
Thursday: When Articles Become Pop-Up Ads
There’s so much more and I’ll cover two additional concepts below. For example, here’s a question many of us fail to think about: what should I charge? It could be for freelance service or a product you bring to market or a fee structure for a public program. In every instance, there is a price. What should it be?
What are others charging? That is usually the question we ask ourselves in order to decide our pricing. Whatever others are charging, we’ll be a little bit less since we’re new. Or hey, maybe we’ll be a little bit more because we think we’re better.
Do you notice what’s happening here? We’re not deciding a price. We’re deciding the story we want to tell. So when someone asks how much your product or service costs, we’ll say it costs X because we’re new. Or Y because we’re better than the competition. The price itself is just our way of conveying that deeper message of higher quality or greater value in clear, understandable terms.
Mercedes-Benz will never sell a brand new car for $20,000. Even though they could make one that is profitable at that price point.
Coca-Cola will never sell a can of Diet Coke for $80. Even though someone would surely buy it.
There are many factors that go into pricing decisions but let’s start with something Seth writes from the marketing angle:
Because people form assumptions and associations based on your pricing, and your pricing shapes what people believe about your service, it’s important to be clear about how you position yourself. Your price should be aligned with the extremes you claimed as part of your positioning.
The extremes you claim are those edges you’ve decided to occupy, as covered in Tuesday’s article on true differentiation. If you don’t have those extremes firmly established, you probably don’t have a solid basis for any price. So if you’re confused about price, you’re probably still confused about the product or service. Which means you’re still confused about the marketing. So read this book.
I know it sounds obvious but it bears mention: pricing has a tremendous effect on everything. Particularly your margins. And those margins determine what kind of business you will have. In fact, I’ve come to realize that when people mess this up, they have the worst of all situations: margins that dictate culture rather than culture that dictates margins.
Seth has really helped me see this clearly. Along with Jason Fried and his work at Basecamp. Think of it this way:
You get what you ask others to pay for.
Low price means low margins means high volume means high efficiency.
High efficiency typically means Taylorism and highly-processed work.
Highly-processed work means commoditized jobs and low wages.
Commoditized jobs and low wages create recipe-driven products that anyone can make.
Recipe-driven products attract fast-following competitors who enter the field with lower prices.
Lower prices means lower margins and the death spiral starts another turn.
Where does all this lead? To places no one wants to work producing things that no one values highly.
It also leads to distrust. This is a fascinating point in the book. How many brands do you trust because they are cheap? He writes the following:
When people are heavily invested (cash or reputation or effort), they often make up a story to justify their commitment. And that story carries trust. Every con man knows this. The irony is that marketers who need to be trusted often don’t understand it. Lowering your price doesn’t make you more trusted. It does the opposite.
Facebook is free. Why? How do they make money? We’re starting to understand their mechanisms for profit and, as a result, people are turning away.
Is it because Facebook is an evil, nefarious corporation? Not really. It’s never that simple. But when you choose to offer your product for free, it forces you to find other means of growth and “monetization.” Weird behavior typically results.
Why is Apple more focused on privacy? Again, there’s no easy answer but one thing is clear: healthy profit margins means they can afford their privacy stance as part of a broader story they tell. A story that begins, and continues, thanks to pricing.
To put it all more simply than this, just consider the words of Marc Andreesen. When asked what advice he gives to startups and entrepreneurs, he says the following two words:
People Like Us …
Seth’s ideas on culture, identity, branding, and marketing always made sense to me but things really clicked when I first read the words:
People like us do things like this.
I think my first encounter with this phrase came from his book Tribes. He gives it additional treatment in a chapter of This Is Marketing. And whether it’s coverage of the three-step narrative by Marshall Ganz or the terrific reversal of Saul Alinsky’s thirteen Rules for Radicals, Seth does his best to explain how tribes can and should be formed. There’s no guarantee that you can form a large tribe. Maybe it’s a small one. But you can definitely find people with the honest methods he shares. It’s fantastic.
But what do you do once you get a tribe? Do you sell them Harley-Davidsons at high margins? Is that what it’s all about?
Some might think so. But that’s because they don’t see a tribe so much as they see a market. This is where Seth’s work can be instantly polarizing to the conventional approach. What is a tribe really? It’s clearly not just a group you sell stuff to. So what do you do? As he writes:
Your opportunity as a marketer is the chance to connect the members of the tribe. They’re lonely and disconnected, they fear being unseen, and you, as the agent of change, can make connection happen. You can intentionally create cultural artifacts, to use status roles to elevate a costume, a series of code words, or even the secret handshake.
I know these words are cryptic. Some will argue that it’s all a bunch of nonsense. Artifacts? Secret handshakes? Please. We’re trying to move product here. To which, of course, the obvious response is to invite such people with such attitudes to move on. This isn’t for them.
But these ideas are perfect for a lot of other people. Seth knows this and that’s why he writes these things the way he does. He can point to countless examples where it makes sense. I’ll give it a shot here and now:
What is a cultural artifact for a tribe/market? Well, for those in the music business, it’s a Grammy. Unless you’re in the indie scene, in which case it’s the Independent Music Award. Unless you’re in the indie electronic scene, in which case it might be the PLUG award. Unless you’re in the indie electronic retrowave scene, in which case it might be a feature video on NewRetroWave’s YouTube channel or a featured song on DrDisrespect’s Twitch channel.
And code words? For a tribe? What does that mean? For those who watched Jersey Shore long ago, it’s the nonsensical combination of words “gym tan laundry.” For those who watch Game Of Thrones, it’s “winter is coming.” For those who work in tech, it’s the strange use of the term “unicorn” and the symbols “10x” and “devops.”
You get the idea. There is a bit of anthropology to all this that can help us connect better with the people we want to serve. As we do so, we develop our own code words and shorthand. Eventually, this evolves into cryptic language of the kind Seth uses all the time.
The highest compliment I can give Seth Godin is that he is an profoundly-trustworthy, exquisite, brilliant, acquired taste. That is precisely what he strives for. And he does it masterfully. As someone who has read a fair share of marketing books, I should say upfront that I’m biased. Sequence matters and Godin was the first to introduce me to this world. So his influence is enormous for me. Not because he was first. Because he was first and he was genuine with the work.
That sounds like a contradiction of terms: a genuine marketer. Which is why, in truth, he’s a genuine teacher who just so happens to really, really understand marketing.
He understands it so well that he is trying to correct it. To steer it back to True North. That way, we can avoid the trap that countless others have fallen into. Does this book help? Oh yes. Definitely. Does it lead to growth? Under the right conditions. Does it help you understand how to engage people? Absolutely. Is it the only book to read on the topic. No. But it’s the first.
To close, I strongly encourage everyone to buy the book but, to start, just read a sample. The first few pages are easily previewed on Kindle. Go to page 11 and read the Five Steps of Marketing. If it makes sense (and it will), you’ll know to read more. Go to his blog, too. It’s great. Then download his podcast. It’s even better.
See what’s happening here? It’s almost as if this brilliant marketer has found me, and millions like me, and has done the generous, persistent work to understand our needs and help us fulfill them. And somehow, his efforts have led people like me to share it with others. Which appears to help it spread in the ways that a good marketer wants.
Funny how that happens.
Here’s the link to the book on Amazon.