Today’s Solutions: November 27, 2021

Anyone who wants to save the world must understand the power of marketing to make things better–or worse

Seth Godin | April 2006 issue

I have no intention of telling you the truth. Instead I’m going to tell you a story. This is a story about why marketers (which in some way includes most of us) must stop trying to communicate facts, and must instead tell powerful stories. And this is not just a good idea for boosting business; it’s necessary for changing the world. It’s a fundamental shift in the paradigm of how ideas spread. Either you’re going to tell stories that move people, or you will become irrelevant.

Before there was marketing, before stores, long before infomercials, people were telling stories to each other. People noticed, for instance, that the sun rose every morning and so we invented a story about Helios riding his fiery chariot across the sky. Stories make it easier to understand the world. Stories are the best way we know to spread an idea.

Marketers didn’t invent storytelling. They just perfected it.

I believe marketing is the most powerful force available to people who want to make changes in the world. But with that power comes responsibility. We (anyone with the ability to tell a story online, in print or directly to the people in our communities) have the ability to change things more dramatically than ever before in history. Marketers have the leverage to generate a huge impact in less time—and with less money—than ever before. There’s no question that consumers (and voters and nations, and so on) are part and parcel of this storytelling process. No marketer can get people to do something without their active participation. But that doesn’t diminish the huge responsibility that rests upon marketers now because of their awesome power to tell in an era when communications technology knows no bounds.

Marketing is about spreading ideas, and spreading ideas is the single most important work of our civilization. Hundreds of thousands of Sudanese people have died recently because of bad marketing. Children are educated, companies are built, jobs are gained or lost—all because of what we know (and don’t know) about spreading ideas.

Am I trivializing all of these important events by implying that marketing is at the heart of these issues? I don’t think so. These issues are too important not to be marketed. Some ideas spread far and wide and have a huge impact, while others, ideas even more valuable and urgent, fade away. If marketers could tell a better story about really urgent stuff—how to keep kids safe or how to bring peace to troubled places—we would all benefit.

If you care about the future of your community, your business, your social movement, your church or your planet, marketing matters. If you’ve got an idea to spread, you’re a marketer—whether or you’ve got the money to buy a commercial or sophisticated PR campaign.

Key fact: In 2003, pharmaceutical companies spent more on marketing and sales than on research and development. When it comes time to invest, it’s pretty clear that spreading the ideas behind a product—even medicine—is just as important as the idea itself.

I’m angry that politicians and corporations and even job seekers have figured out how to tell stories that trick people into doing things they regret later. I’m bitterly disappointed that something that could do so much good is often used to selfish ends.

Somewhere along the way, the marketing profession started sliding down a slippery slope of something that is worse than irresponsibility: non-responsibility. It’s okay to market unreliable or even potentially dangerous products because, hey, it’s a free market. It’s okay to twist the truth a little in your Web site or publicity campaign because, hey, you’ve got quarterly numbers to hit.

Until we take responsibility for the stories we tell and the promises we make, the public will get increasingly more sceptical and suspicious—and begin to close their eyes to all marketing, even the stories they most need to know.

The good news is that even though marketing is far more powerful than ever before, it’s harder than ever to get away with a fraud for long. Thousands of watchdogs on the Internet are monitoring the accuracy and response to your stories. Google is tracking your behaviour. It’s almost impossible now to keep a tangled story straight. The only predictable marketing strategy today is a simple one: Be authentic. Do what you say you’re going to do. Tell a story that you believe. A story that doesn’t hurt or demean anyone. A story that makes the world a better place.

Marketing is so powerful today that marketers have a new kind of responsibility, to both the long-term profits for the companies they work for and the long-term well-being of the people to whom they tell stories. If you make a fortune but end up killing people and needlessly draining our shared resources, that’s neither ethically nor commercially smart, is it? Nuclear weapons have killed a tiny fraction of the number of people that unethical marketing has.

It’s time we realized that there may be no more powerful weapon on earth than marketing. Stories can have a nearly instant impact, and that impact can be felt for decades. New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme created a story about blackened redfish that made the fish a staple of restaurants around the U.S. in the 1980s—and came very close to causing its extinction. Coke and Pepsi created a story about sugary carbonated beverages, and this myth is causing the premature death of countless people from heart disease and diabetes. I refuse to accept that there’s a difference between a factory manager dumping sludge in a river (poisoning everyone downstream) and a marketing manager making up a story that ends up causing similar side effects.

I’m not proposing marketers step up to become the conscience for our society. What I am proposing a simple test for separating the honest stories from the deceitful ones. It involves two questions that every person should ask every time they hear a marketing message, either about a product or an idea:

“If I knew what you know, would I choose to buy or believe what you sell?”
and
“After I’ve used or experienced what you are selling, will I be glad I believed the story or will I feel ripped off?”
Good, honest stories can help create a world, in which people benefit and profit.

Seth Godin was founder and CEO of Yoyodyne, a leading interactive direct-marketing company, which Yahoo! acquired in late 1998. He is the author of numerous bestselling business books, including Unleashing the Idea Virus (which he has put online for free, www.ideavirus.com) and Permission Marketing. He keeps an entertaining weblog, www.sethgodin.typepad.com, and he has his own website, www.sethgodin.com.

This is an excerpt from Seth Godin’s book All Marketers are Liars: The Power of Telling Authentic Stories in a Low-Trust World (Portfolio, 2005), an interesting look at the potential of marketing. More information: www.allmarketersareliars.com.

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