All Marketers Tell Stories by Seth Godin

“The lie a consumer tells himself is the nucleus at the center of any successful marketing efforts.”

Wow.

“Why did John Kerry lose against an incumbent with a near-record-low approval ratings after spending more than $100,000,000 on his campaign? Simple. He didn’t tell a coherent story, a lie worth remembering, a story worth sharing.”

Ouch. It hurts to read that now, so easy is it to transpose to a recent event.

And mee-ow. How catty can I get, opening this post with an out-of-context quote taken from a book written over a decade ago?

img_5749Well, I’ve just done precisely that and I’m not going to apologise for it. This post isn’t really going to be a review of “All Marketers Are Liars Tell Stories” (I’m not being sarcastic, that is its actual title). It’s going to be my reaction to it, which I summarise like this: it makes me foam at the mouth. Yes, my friends, I will be going for the moral high ground in the lines that follow, quite deliberately.

Disclaimer, I’m not a marketing fan, I never was and in fact, I wrote an essay about this a few years ago, trying to explain why. I looked at it recently, tweaked it a bit, ummed and ahhed about updating it with more recent examples and then decided to leave it pretty much as was. I feel a second essay coming on… (It does me good to write these things, whatever the readership. Writing is such a great way of clarifying your thinking.) However, I’d like to make it crystal clear that whatever my lack of enthusiasm for marketing, I am in no way denying that it is a highly effective tool.

And Seth Godin makes a very persuasive case for his particular approach to marketing, the storytelling strategy. I know he’s written many other books since this one and I might read a couple of the more recent ones, so thought provoking is he. In the meantime, this one about the marketers who “lie to consumers because consumers demand it” is still out there, the storytelling thing is still very much in vogue and I want to make my point about it.

Much of this book’s message is unassailable. We do indeed buy most things because we want rather than need them. We do indeed turn a story told to us by marketers into lies we believe because they conform to our worldview. I do both those things all the time, disdainful of marketing though I am. If I were going to spend serious money on a car it would be on a Mercedes; all my fountain pens have been Sheaffer ones ever since I bought one with my own money as a teenager; I pretend I’ve done a thorough survey of coffee capsules, whereas I buy Nespresso for a complex array of reasons that in truth do boil down to a story well told. (And you can tell from these pictures that I also own some Apple and Playmobil stuff, more stories…) So I get it, I really do. This strategy works, big time.

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My objection to its endorsement is a moral one (I warned you!) The heavy use throughout the book of the word “lie” is a red rag to my bull. As of course it’s meant to be. Indeed, the author acknowledges that it is part of the “going to the edges” aspect of marketing. But beyond offending whatever values it may be that make me object to lying on principle, the constant use of the word triggers my deepest misgivings about storytelling in this context.

The fact that we turn stories we are told into lies we believe is a fundamentally human trait, which I am not for one moment disputing. But recognising that this is a natural human mechanism and that marketing by storytelling is therefore a powerful and in fact consumer-led strategy and then saying: “So please, don’t hate me. Hate them. (the customers)” is surely disingenuous. And by the way Mr Godin, I don’t hate you. I’ve read my Voltaire. Free speech and all that.

The author touches on the ethics of the use of storytelling in two other ways but I vehemently disagree with the point of view he presents in both cases.

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First, he talks of the importance of being “authentic”. But he may as well have written “consistent”. In fact, he uses that word a lot too. But the two are not synonyms. For me, “authentic” implies some kind of substance, some kind of “realness” if not reality, something genuine, if you like. So I kind of object to “authentic” being used here: “The only robust, predictable strategy is a simple one: to be authentic. To do what you say you’re going to do. To live the lie, fully and completely.”

Second, after coming across a promising start in the “Keeping Promises” section that states: “The danger of writing this book is that will enable and embolden the deceitful stories”, I thought to myself “A-hah! Maybe I’m going to be able to sign up to this whole storytelling thing, after all.” So I read on eagerly, confidently anticipating an explanation of why it wasn’t deeply unethical. Oh dear. In the next breath, Seth Godin asserts that “selfish marketers” are in a minority. OK, maybe. He then surmises that “once consumers are able to see the effect that stories have on them, they’ll be in a much better position to believe the good ones and avoid the bad”, a point of view that can only be described as wildly optimistic at best. And then to cap it all, he offers a two-question “simple test for separating the honest stories from the deceitful ones” and goes on to demonstrate how it helps him determine that “SUVs don’t pass my test. Nor do some sorts of life insurance.” Well that’s all right then, I don’t think.img_5748

How about Presidential candidates? “Like him or not, George W. Bush did an extraordinary job of living the story of the strong, certain, infallible leader.” With the benefit of hindsight, it is so tempting to change the adjectives in that quote to “volatile, misogynistic, racist” and to replace the name of the 43rd President of the United States with that of the current President-Elect. After all, the latter did an outstanding job of telling a story: “No, not a story in a speech, but living a story, consistently telling us the story in everything he did and said. From the clothes a politician wears, to his spouse and his appointees, he’s telling a story.”

Yep.

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Photos: Hélène Wilkinson

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