Marketers are lying scum

Here’s an interview I did with India Times. I cleaned up some of the formatting from their website so you can read it more clearly. Nobody ever said I’m afraid of hyberbole.

Consumers know marketers are liars’

He once said that he wished he had invented Hotmail. Small wonder then that he’s dubbed the “the ultimate entrepreneur for the Information Age” — meet one of marketing world’s greatest minds, Seth Godin. Alan Webber, founding editor of Fast Company, says, “Whatever Seth is selling is catching — and if you spend time with him, you’ll come down with it.” In an interview with Brand Equity, legendary marketing man Sergio Zyman (of Coca-Cola fame), told us that he’d recommend any of Godin’s books — “He always makes you think.”

Think again. Godin’s best-seller, Permission Marketing, was named one of Fortune magazine’s best business books in 1999. Godin’s made the bestseller lists time and again — some of his other blockbusters include Survival Is Not Enough and, more recently, Unleashing The Ideavirus. In the preface to that book, author of The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell warned: “This is a subversive book. It says that the marketer is not –and ought not to be — at the centre of successful marketing. The customer should be. Are you ready for that?”

And are you ready for the Godin magic? Here’s more: In his latest book Purple Cow, Godin describes how having an idea that’s “remarkable” is the only way a brand can survive. He looks at companies that do that — those that have invented the Purple Cow, and how they’ve been able to milk them.

Now meet Godin, the fiery entrepreneur. He was founder of Yoyodyne, the first gaming and interactive direct marketing site on the Internet, which was acquired by Yahoo! in 1998. He then joined Yahoo! as vice-president of direct marketing before leaving in 2000 for a career devoted to writing and speaking. And if you think we haven’t given you the full picture, well, he likes it that way.

In a candid and free-wheeling chat with Brand Equity from the outskirts of New York, Godin talks about what makes companies remarkable, the biggest challenges marketers have to face, and how brands can deal with growing clutter, and consumers who are increasingly cutting off communication with them. Watch out for the second installment of the interview next week as well.

You’ve written about the need for marketing to be a part of every process a company does. How does one go about building that sort of total marketing mindset?

If you’re going to be busy just buying TV ads, you can have the company make anything it wants and then the marketing department has to come up with a very clever advertising campaign. That doesn’t work any more. You have to build the marketing right into the product. The people who are going to make a product successful are the people who invent it, not the people who market it.

Look at a company like Starbucks, they don’t spend any time at all on marketing, but they spend an enormous amount of time on the quality of the coffee beans, the lighting in the stores… Because those things make the store remarkable. I saw a bunch of TV commercials that ESPN had run about two years ago in India, they were very funny. But they didn’t work. And they didn’t work because what they were promoting wasn’t on television — the commercials were funny, but the TV shows weren’t.

How does a brand like Starbucks keep reinventing itself?

They did something interesting last year, which is that they wired one thousand of their stores with wireless Internet connections. So for people like me, and I’m in the minority, I would go across an entire town to sit in a Starbucks for five minutes and check my email. And I’d tell hundreds of people about this, because it changes the way I work when I’m on the road. So that was one remarkable thing they did, instead of doing more of the same. But the big challenge they’re going to have, is there are only so many three-dollar cappuccinos a person can drink everyday. And I think they have to embrace the fact that Starbucks isn’t going to keep growing the way it was, and they’re going to have to find something new — maybe in the same building, maybe not — that is remarkable all over again.

Are there any common characteristics to all these remarkable companies?

What they all have in common is that they have nothing in common. What they all have in common is that they’re going to the edges. The mindset, all over the world is “Let’s make average products for average people”. Everywhere you go, that’s what it’s always about. Average people are now really good at ignoring marketers; they don’t pay attention any more. So, it’s now about how can I make the things on the fringe, that most people don’t want. If you make the things that most people don’t want, you may find that some people desperately want them.

Consumers today are bombarded by clutter not just in advertising messages, but with news, with terror alerts, with rumours… How are marketers reacting to this clutter?

They’re doing exactly the wrong thing: they’re running more ads. They’re putting ads on parking meters, in hotel elevators, in washrooms. Because they think that the answer to clutter is more clutter. That’s why there’s so much spam in your email box. Because marketers are desperate.

Consumers have realised that marketers are lying scum. They don’t trust them to give them permission (to talk to them) anymore, because they figure that the permission is going to get stolen. And so there are some people who are able to build a reputation,? and they can get permission. I signed up 500 people in the last three days for my newsletter, because people know I’m not going to steal it. But there’s no way in the world anyone’s giving their email ID to Allstate Insurance, because the next thing they know they’re going to get deluged with spam.

So how do marketers deal with a situation when they’re getting less and less access to consumers? For instance, schools in the US are banning the sales of soft drinks on campuses…

Stop lying, stop cheating, and stop insisting that every single person in the world drink Coca-Cola ten times a day. Consumers have the right to keep Coca-Cola out of the elementary schools. Coca-Cola does not have the right to sell it there. And the right thing for Coke to do is not sue people to get into the schools, but invent a new product, a healthy product, a remarkable product that makes consumers’ lives actually better, and wait for people to say we’d like to sell it in schools. And they could do that, they just have to acknowledge the fact that Coke’s not going to grow the way it used to.

Lowe in the UK recently launched a channel that will show only commercials… What do you think?

The Lowe thing is a stunt. It’s remarkable that there could be a channel with only not-very-good commercials on it. But there’s no question that in a world when you could have a billion TV channels, you could have a channel that has nothing but a half hour commercial about Volvo cars. Because if you’re thinking about buying a Volvo, you’re going to want to watch that half-hour presentation. Not a slick, one-minute, sexy commercial, but a half-hour honest representation of what their car can do. And so that’s a commercial, but it doesn’t interrupt the person who doesn’t want to see it.

In a more slick way, BMW did it with those movies. There are plenty of places like Charles Schwab where you can go into one of their investment centres, and the salesperson won’t bother you, you can sit and read a brochure that honestly tells you whether you should go in for this or that.

Are marketers building an age of mega-events as far as conventional advertising goes — like the Super Bowl?

The Super Bowl is the last refuge of the interruption marketer. It’s the only place where people with tons of money can interrupt large numbers of unaggregated, average people, who aren’t really paying attention. So it’s a great place for someone with nothing better to do to spend money. It’s not going to go away until they stop spending the money, so I expect it’s going to be around for quite a while. But the fact is that there are very few, maybe no companies, that have advertised on the Super Bowl and said, we can prove that it was a good idea.

Reebok seems to think so with its Terry Tate commercial this year…

The thing is, the Terry Tate commercial (even though I don’t own a television, I saw it!) was for a commercial, really effective, and it helped them do better against Nike that week. But that’s not going to make Reebok work. The only thing that can is for Reebok to figure out on an ongoing basis, how to make a profit selling sneakers to people. And you can’t keep repeating a Terry Tate sort of experience. They’re not going to say the future of Reebok is to run lots of commercials on the Super Bowl, — that’s not why it works. Why it worked is that in a sea of really bad commercials, it was better.

I think both Reebok and Nike are trying interesting things. Both have management who realise that it’s not going to be about TV ads in the future. And so Nike, which has a long history of bringing out a new product every few days, is getting more aggressive about bringing out interesting, edgy, new products that are remarkable. Reebok, which has a tradition of not being so much a bully as Nike is going to win because they may be able to deal with consumers in a way that will keep them happy.