Update Nov 2009: Seth changed the name of the book.
A story is a vehicle to characterize the essence of an occasion, a way to give context to an emotion, a way to capture and enhance a fleeting feeling. With a story one can, hopefully, communicate the spirit of a moment in time so fully and wonderfully that individuals who weren’t “there” can themselves share in the aspects of an experience and understand the core of the emotions that the originator felt when the actual experience occurred.
I love telling stories. Why? To build community. Stories about real occasions, real places, real friends are the fibers that knit themselves together and bind small, intimate groups. The shared histories. The lore. The remembrances of the silly things we did that our best friends will never, ever let us live down.
Over the weekend, I got an email from some friends who were hosting a dinner at an art studio and café that’s right on the ocean here in Half Moon Bay. “Show up any time after 5:30; we’ll be serving until 7:30 or so,” the note said. I pulled up about six, just as the sun was hanging brilliantly orange and precarious over the water. The room was impossibly small, maybe 14 feet square, with about a dozen strangers dining at two rectangular tables. The café’s weathered wooden walls, the outside covered with corrugated plastic, overlooked acres of open space and the Pacific. It looked a bit like a cabin from a summer camp from years long past. It’s a comfortable, well-worn place, an anachronism.
Not knowing anyone in the room, and seeing my friends via the pass-through, I walked around and snuck into the kitchen (hey, no one knows me here) to say “hi.” We chatted for a bit, got caught up (they’re thinking about building a new house). I was informed that if I was hungry, I should eat sooner rather than later, as they were likely to run out of food. I grabbed a plate (fresh-made veggie lasagna and a bit of salad made with lettuce picked five-minutes-ago in the community garden across the dirt driveway), ducked outside, and back into the main room. With much shuffling, place was made for me at the far table, with smiles and introductions around.
The next two hours magically flew. The sun crashed into the ocean, candles were lit, and the room warmed with yellow-orange candlelight and laughter-filled conversation between strangers-turned-friends. Pears with a hint of delicate maple syrup arrived. Wine flowed. Heaven.
Finally, tearing myself away (we had just finished a riotous discussion of the theological merits of pastafarianism), I said a hug-filled goodbye to my new friends, and stood up to leave. I then realized there wasn’t a check; there wasn’t a bill. There was a chalkboard by the screen door with prices on it, next to a hand-lettered wooden box that said “Donations.” I calculated my tab, added a few bucks on for good measure, dropped in a few bills, and said goodnight. It was a wonderful experience, one I hope to repeat many times.
In All Marketers Are Liars, Seth Godin tells us on Page One:
“This is a whole new way of doing business. It’s a fundamental shift in the paradigm of how ideas spread. Either you’re going to tell stories that spread, or you will become irrelevant.” (p.1 , EH)
Except…it’s not. The (ahem) earth-shattering “story” concept is, at most, an attempt to do a little spruce-up on the concept of the “experience economy” as outlined by Pine and Gilmore almost a decade ago. Yes, there are a few dollops of good common sense in All Marketers Are Liars, but “a whole new way of doing business?” C’mon.
(And, besides, after seeing a bunch of business plans in the late 90’s, I don’t know how many more “fundamental paradigm shifts” I can take. Of course, that just might be my lumbago acting up.)
Now, to be fair, there were a couple of diamonds in the rough. In particular,
“Some marketers focus so hard on the facts of their offering that they forget to tell a story at all, and then wonder why they’ve failed.” (p. 20, DIR)
is a point that needs to be posted outside the door of every founding CTO whose “grand architectural vision” is incomprehensible and irrelevant (and, ergo, un-saleable) to customers who have real-world issues they are trying to address. Similarly, the points on socially conscious investing and the need for human connection and authenticity are spot on. A couple of faves:
“Personal interaction cuts through all the filters.” (p. 113, DIR)
“Allowing your employees to post an honest blog or to engage in direct instant-messaging conversations with your customers is a way to promote honest communication. If it makes you nervous to do that, maybe you need to worry about authenticity a little more.” (p. 114, DIR)
The points above were the exception, however. In more than a few instances, the book’s advice jarred with a resounding clang. (Think Ethel Merman singing Ave Maria.) You know that sound your car makes when you try to start it when it’s already running? Some of the paragraphs are a lot like that.
The ones that got me the most were the ones that fairly seethed with disregard for the customer. Examples:
“Marketers aren’t liars. They are storytellers. It’s the consumers who are liars.” (p. 15, DFC)
“The lie a consumer tells himself is the nucleus at the center of any successful marketing effort.” (p. 157, DFC)
“It doesn’t really matter whether a story we tell to a consumer is completely factual.” (p. 73, DFC)
“If it’s a good story, if that story is framed in terms of his worldview, then he’ll tell himself the story and believe in the lie.” (p. 73, DFC)
Moving from the emotional to the practical, the challenge with the ephemeral “story” concept is that it is designed to “work” (1) only when things are subjective and (2) primarily when the marketer’s main concern is grabbing the customer for the first time. If the “promises” of a story can be measured and don’t subsequently add up, the chance of building a real, non-synthetic long-term relationship with a customer where the customer becomes part of an community or ecosystem with a vendor is precisely nil. On the other hand, if you’re trying to succeed with yet another twist on yet another retail outlet, or trying to market yet another vacuous, “must have” brand of running shoe or SUV, maybe the story thing will work for you.
Interestingly enough, this short-term mindset seemed to permeate not only the book, but the support around it as well. The book was launched with great hype and (ahem) storytelling, complete with its own supporting blog. The blog was Vibrant! Dynamic! It showed examples of All! The! Lies! that illustrated the points made in the book.
The Liar’s Blog now sits dormant, stagnant since July, 2005. Somehow, that seems fitting.
The Big-Box-O-Annotated-Quotes from All Marketers Are Liars.
“Marketing, apparently, makes wine taste better. Marketing, in the form of an expensive glass and the story that goes with it, has more impact on the taste of wine than oak casks or fancy corks or the rain in June.” (p. 4, GUP)
“Kiehl’s customer’s are measuring the price paid compared to the experience of purchasing and the way that using the product makes them feel, it’s a no-brainer” (p. 12, EE)
“This seems obvious, doesn’t it?” (p. 38, SOO)
“People clump together into common worldviews, and your job is to find a previously undiscovered clump and frame a story for those people.” (p. 38, RW)
“Recently, Brad Anderson, Best Buy’s CEO, discovered that 100 million (about 20 percent) of Best Buy’s customers were actually costing the company money.” (p. 44, GUP, ADD) [ed. - Wait a minute…Best Buy has five hundred million customers? Like, twice the population of the United States? A bit of research shows an original source on this (it appears to be the WSJ, by the way), talks about 500 million customer visits a year. A very different thing altogether.]
“People with worldviews that are private, that are embarrassing to share or that belong to people who don’t like keeping up with the Joneses don’t offer as high a yield to marketers as other, more profitable ones.” (p. 57, SOO, ILT)
“[Ailment*] is caused by a shortage of dopamine.” (p. 68, FOW, ADD) (more here)
“The battle between Salesforce.com and Seibel [sic] is a great example.” (p. 82, ADD)
“Seibel [sic], 82-83” (index, ADD)
“It’s time we realized that there may be no more powerful weapon on Earth [than marketing].” (p. 107, EH)
“A resume, a job interview, a date: in all of these cases, when the person you’re dealing with has only a few moments to come to a conclusion about you, insisting on telling them just the facts is a sure way to fail.” (p. 135, GTR)
The Jeff Tweedy Story (p. 147, DIR, ADD – was actually reported in Wired in an interview with Xeni Jardin, and cited by Tim Manners in FastCompany…the implication in All Marketers Are Liars is that Manners did the reporting)
The RBC Story (p. 151, ADD – the market share figures given in the book disagree with the quotes attributed to McLaughlin, who was on the panel with Seth from where this vignette was likely sourced)
ADD: Attention to Detail Disorder
DFC: Disregard For the Customer
DIR: Diamond In the Rough
EE: Experience Economy
EH: Excessive Hyperbole
FOW: Flat-Out Wrong
GTR: Guide to True Romance
GUP: Grand, Unsubstantiated Pronouncement
ILT: Ignores the Long Tail
RW: Reinvention of the Wheel
SOO: Statement Of the Obvious
* – Intentionally omitted here, as this error could erroneously cause this page to be elevated in search rankings based on incorrect information…follow the link for the whole bit.