Seth Godin to World: Market to Help People: Don’t be Evil

January 24, 2019
This is Marketing

How much could society improve if every company took on the challenge Seth Godin makes in his 2018 book?

In This is Marketing Godin argues in favour of marketing to serve people.

Marketing is the generous act of helping someone solve a problem. Their problem.

It’s a chance to change the culture for the better.

Marketing involves very little in the way of shouting, hustling or coercion.

It’s a chance to serve, instead.

Most of the book encourages readers to create and work within companies that help people by building a small audience of true fans and serving them so well that they are happy to buy things and recommend you to everyone they know.

Serve so well, you’re worth talking about

A good summary of his philosophy appears on page 196.

You do people a service when you make better things and make it easy to talk about them,” he wrote. “What we choose to market is up to us. If the change you seek to make can’t be talked about, perhaps you should find a different change worth making.”

I’ve been thinking about Godin’s arguments a lot lately, particularly in the wake of major tobacco bans in parks in Montreal and at the entire campus of my former alma mater, Western University.

You see, I don’t like complete bans on anything. Bans not only make peoples’ lives difficult—in the case of Montreal, the bans will most affect people with mental disorders and the homeless—but they also serve as good marketing for the banned item. There’s nothing as attractive as that thing we can’t have, particularly for young people.

At the same time, I agree that there should be limits on a product with immense health risks and Godin’s last chapter tirade against evil marketers hits a chord.

Don’t support evil marketers

Tobacco companies get mentioned twice in the paragraph that describes evil marketers.

I think it’s evil to persuade kids to start smoking, to cynically manipulate the electoral or political process, to lie to people in ways that cause disastrous side effects. I think it’s evil to sell an ineffective potion when an effective medicine is available. I think it’s evil to come up with new ways to make smoking acceptable so you can make a few more bucks.”

But is an outright ban a good response?

I don’t think so. Bans simply don’t work. They badly inconvenience the few without helping the many. Also, by the time people agree to ban something, the need for a ban is beginning to wane.

I haven’t changed my stance against them since arguing against a tobacco and alcohol sponsorship ban at Western in 1983. As a local club organizer, I got to discuss the plan to ban event subsidies by cigarette brands briefly with Western’s president George Connell. My club didn’t much care, but other student organizers with bigger events would struggle to replace the massive funding tobacco companies offered.

Our arguments against the ban didn’t sway him in the least.

Connell was adamant that all cigarette company sponsorships get banned outright on campus.

Only brands that make us proud should be featured on campus,” he argued. “Relying on unhealthy products to present good cultural events takes positive energy away from those events. We don’t want to stain our reputation.

Godin would probably agree. His book encourages marketers to create a reliable experience for every single customer. On page 174, he outlines just some of the moments that matter.

Everything you do, from the way you answer the phone to the design of your packaging, from your location to the downstream effects of your work, from the hold music to the behaviour of your executives, and even the kind of packing peanuts you use—all of it is a form of marketing your brand.”

You can’t measure it. You might not even notice it.

But it still matters

Create client connection

Godin offers several examples to make the point that good brands market well by ensuring that every moment of a client experience reflects shared values.

On page 154, he describes how a good brand fulfils customer expectations.

A brand is shorthand for the customer’s expectations. What promise do they think you’re making? What do they expect when they buy from you or meet with you or hire you?

That promise is your brand.

Nike doesn’t hae a hotel. If it did, you would probably have some good guesses as to what it would be like. That’s Nike’s brand.

If you have true fans, the only reason you do is because this group has engaged with you in a way that signals that they expect something worthwhile from you next time. That expectation isn’t specific; it’s emotional…If people care, you’ve got a brand.”

Even in 1983, I agreed with this too, which is why the cross-country skiing club never even thought about seeking tobacco sponsorship. We didn’t need it.

Banning Tobacco Sponsorship in 1983

Still, I really didn’t like the way Connell brushed off the concerns of a girl organizing a big concert that was supposed to happen a month after the ban would take effect.

I’m not going to start smoking just because I see their brands everywhere,” I said at the time. “You think we’re all stupid.”

Not stupid, he said, just capable of being influenced.

Connell understood how aggressive tobacco companies have been when it comes to advertising, especially to young people. He grew up in the period described by this Daniel J. Robinson’s 2019 paper about the operations of Imperial Tobacco during the 1930s, when their operations were rapidly growing.

Connell’s argument won out and that girl had to cancel her event.

I haven’t thought about that discussion for years until I read that Western plans to outright ban all smoking on campus this coming July.

Smoke-free Campuses 35 Years Later

It’s a trend. Dalhousie University went smoke-free in 2003, but 29 others joined them last year. Guelph and U of T plan to go smoke free next year. The Canadian Cancer Society, which argues in favour of these bans, claims that 65 campuses are already smoke-free.

Neighbours around each of these locations suffer as smokers congregate together on tiny streets next to the parks and campuses.

Meanwhile, the University of British Columbia still allows smokers—even pot smokers— to smoke in designated places on campus. I think that’s a better plan, both for neighbourhood peace and for the convenience of people who want to smoke.

Either way, unless something changes, the long-term trend in Canada means fewer smokers every year. The University of Waterloo’s Propel Centre for Population Health Impact research unit has a good chart showing how smoking in Canada has dropped over time.

So I won’t waste my time wading into the dilemma on smoking bans.

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Tracey Arial

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Tracey Arial

Tracey Arial helps Canadians grow with notable nonfiction and urban agriculture.

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