Is Marketing a Scam? Seth Godin on the service of those who see . . .

I’m always intrigued by the arguments of Seth Godin and read his books as soon as they’re published.

His approach to marketing, as he writes in This is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See (New York: Penguin 2018), focuses on one “big idea”: great marketers don’t use consumers to solve their company’s problem (especially to increase its finances). He writes, instead that “[t]hey use marketing to solve other people’s problems. They don’t just make noise; they make the world better. Truly powerful marketing is grounded in generosity, empathy and emotional labour.”

We see the needs of our prospects and clients and work hard to meet them.

By contrast, we’ve all read about or watched dishonest marketing practices—whether an excoriating talk on the pharmaceutical industry, promoted on Facebook; or through investigative reporting, as in CBC’s “Marketplace.” Some people (for instance, some academics) associate all aspects of marketing with “snake oil” salespeople. These critics assume that all marketing is chicanery; and in the past, there has been much evidence of dishonesty. “Crooked” marketers, as in any profession, do still exist. One leads our neighbour to the South, with fresh lies, deceptions and predictable hatred and fear that unfold every day.

Yet for the last 25 years, Godin has argued for marketing work that gives people “the tools and stories they can use to achieve their goals.” So the “snake oil sales” approach to marketing is dying, if it’s not already dead, a throwback to the time of industrialization when workers were but “cogs in the wheel.” He urges those who sell that it’s “time to stop lying, spamming and feeling guilty about [our] work. It’s time to stop confusing social media metrics with true connections. It’s time to stop wasting money on stolen attention that won’t pay off in the long run.”

Marketers build connections between themselves, their products or services and consumers: we encourage consumers to use a product or service or to make a donation and each action is a part of the story we share with them. Instead of being “marketing-driven,” forcing a narrative over consumers, the best of us are “market-driven,” meaning that we see and listen to our customers, “bend” to them (accommodate them), to improve the quality of their lives.

We think about “the hopes and dreams of our customers and their friends . . . listen to their frustrations and invest in changing the culture.” Storytelling is a huge vehicle for this kind of marketing. And in this way, Godin reassures us, “being market-driven lasts.” There is longevity and integrity in stories.

Last week, at the opening of this new year, I rebranded my communications and marketing business as “Storytelling Communications,” positioning the experiences and needs of SMEs and individuals at the heart of every story I research and write. I do that by preparing website copy for a security start-up; by revising a resume for a new Canadian who is failing to get traction on the job market; or by leading workshops on how to blog better or prepare media releases that get accepted. I write and edit so that my clients (whom I vet for their integrity, as they do me) will succeed.

This is not chicanery and involves no snake oil. The practice of business writing and editing is a service and a calling, no less than Geophysics, Cardiac Surgery or Politics.

So when you next encounter evidence of disreputable marketing, or the  complaint that customer service has fallen to a low worse than ever before, please remember that many marketers deplore these things, too. Such stories hurt not only the consumers they exploit, but also the reputation of those of us who serve you. And who persevere with empathy, generosity and hard work.

And now it’s your turn: have you participated in sales/marketing exchanges that fail to meet your needs? Do you speak up to challenge the narrative created by that producer and to get your story fairly told?

Please write in: I’d be delighted to hear from you.