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All Marketers Are Liars

By: Seth Godin

Reviewed By: Bob Ruffolo

Ever wonder what sells products these days? Is it the features and benefits, the buyer’s needs, the price point?

It’s none of the above according to Seth Godin.

After reading All Marketers Are Liars recently, which highlights the power of authentic storytelling, I was inspired. The message seemed relevant and timely for me and the clients I work with since the growth and profitability of our businesses depend on the right story resonating with customers and satisfying their needs.

I thought I’d share a few book excerpts and lessons learned, including how we’ve applied them at our agency, in the hope that it will inspire some thinking and feedback from you.

The Power of Authentic Stories

The book’s theme and subtitle, the power of telling authentic stories in a low-trust world, describes how marketers succeed when they tell us a story that aligns with our view of the world—stories to which we respond intuitively and want to share with our friends, such as Apple’s unveiling of the iPod.

The book’s title is intentionally misleading: Marketers are, in fact, not liars—they’re merely the tellers of stories that consumers choose to believe. We, as consumers, are more likely to lie to ourselves about what we should wear, what we should watch at the movies, or where we should live—the consumer choices we make on a daily basis, says Godin.

All marketers tell stories, and when they do so in a compelling manner, we believe them, says Godin. He illustrates with the marketing of expensive wine glasses, where we believe wine tastes better out of a $20 glass rather than a $1 glass when there’s no scientific or verifiable difference between them. We believe an $80,000 Porsche is infinitely preferable to a $36,000 Volkswagen that’s made in the same factory, and we’re convinced that a pair of $125 sneakers will make our feet feel better and make us look cooler than the $25 brand. We believe it and that makes it true—at least for us.

"Truly great stories succeed because they are able to capture the imagination of large or important audiences."
- Seth Godin

Not Liars—Storytellers

“The truth is elusive. No one knows the whole truth about anything. We certainly don't know the truth about the things we buy and recommend and use. What we do know (and what we talk about) is our story. Our story about why we use, recommend, or are loyal to you and your products. Our story about the origin and the impact and the utility of what we buy.”
- Seth Godin
“Marketing is storytelling. The story of your product, built into your product. The ad might be part of it, the copy might be part of it, but mostly, your product and your service and your people are all part of the story. Tell it on purpose.”
- Seth Godin

A Simple Summary

Instead of summarizing, I thought I would give you a few quotes that lay out the theme in the author’s words, using his “simple summary” in two parts:

I. We believe what we want to believe, and once we believe something, it becomes a self-fulfilling truth. If you think that (more expensive) wine is better, then it is. If you think your new boss is going to be more effective, then she will be. If you love the way a car handles, then you’re going to enjoy driving it.

That sounds so obvious, but if it is, why is it so ignored? Ignored by marketers, ignored by ordinarily rational consumers, and ignored by our leaders. Once we move beyond the simple satisfaction of needs, we move into the complex satisfaction of wants. And wants are hard to measure and difficult to understand. Which makes marketing the fascinating exercise it is.

II. When you are busy telling stories to people who want to hear them, you’ll be tempted to tell stories that just don’t hold up. Lies. Deceptions.

This sort of storytelling used to work pretty well. Joe McCarthy became famous while lying about the “Communist threat.” Bottled water companies made billions while lying about the purity of their product compared to tap water in the developed world. The thing is, lying doesn’t pay off any more. That’s because when you fabricate a story that just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, you get caught. Fast.

So, it’s tempting to put up a demagogue for Vice President, but it doesn’t take long for the reality to catch up with the story. It’s tempting to spin a tall tale about a piece of technology or a customer service policy, but once we see it in the wild, we talk about it and you whither away.

Here are the questions I hope you’ll ask (your boss, your colleagues, your clients) after you’ve read this book: “What’s your story?” “Will the people who need to hear this story believe it?” “Is it true?”
- Seth Godin

If what you’re doing matters, really matters, then I hope you’ll take the time to tell a story. A story that resonates and a story that can become true. (2)

The Five Steps Paradigm

All Marketers Are Liars employs a series of examples and anecdotes to illustrate five key steps that you and I go through when we encounter great marketing. The five steps, which resonate throughout the book, include:

Step 1: Their worldview and frames got there before you did.  Great stories don't contradict themselves—they match our customers’ worldview by agreeing with what they already believe. Our customers’ worldview is the individual beliefs, rules, values, and biases they bring to every potential buying situation.

Our worldview as consumers (the combination of our current rules, beliefs, and biases) affects the way we notice things and understand them. What’s more, if a story is framed in terms of our worldview, we’re more likely to believe it. (3)

Here's the punchline: “When you try to change someone's worldview forcibly, they get a headache. People become defensive in the face of a frontal assault on their worldview. Cunning is far more effective.” (4)

Step 2: People notice only the new and then make a guess. The next point Godin makes about us as consumers is that we notice things when they change—that’s just how our brains work. We start making guesses about what to expect next as soon as we notice something new.

Step 3: First impressions start the story. You don’t get much time to tell a story, and our decision-making process has a lot to do with first impressions. A first impression causes us to make a fast, permanent judgment about what we just saw or experienced, and nearly all of our important buying decisions are made instantaneously. These snap decisions affect everything we do, and we'll bend over backwards to defend them later, Godin says.

Step 4: Great marketers tell stories we believe. A story changes the way we experience a product or service as consumers. As consumers, we make a prediction about what will happen next and rationalize anything that doesn’t match that prediction. Godin notes that, "authentic marketing, from one human to another, is extremely powerful," causing both of us to win (consumers and marketers) when marketers succeed in telling an authentic story and the organization backs it up by creating a product or service that does what the marketer says it can do.

Step 5: Marketers with authenticity thrive. This is the process of successful marketing related to finding a consumer audience that wants to believe a story that’s being told. Godin says, "The authenticity of the story determines whether it will survive scrutiny long enough for the consumer to tell the story to other people." Bottled water companies made billions while lying about the purity of their product compared with tap water in the developed world. The thing is, lying doesn't pay off anymore. That's because when you fabricate a story that just doesn't hold up to scrutiny, you get caught. Fast." (5)


Case Study: How We Apply This at IMPACT

For me, this book underscored the importance of knowing our customers; When we tell stories in a way that aligns with their worldview, they will listen.

That’s why we create buyer personas or profiles of our customers before communicating with them.

A buyer persona is a semi-fictional representation of our ideal customer based on market research and real data about our existing customers.

When creating buyer persona(s), we may include customer demographics, behavior patterns, motivations, and goals. The more detailed we can be, the better.

Buyer personas provide great structure and insight for our company, enabling us to know where to focus our time, guide product development, and allow for alignment across our company. By doing so, we’re able to attract the most valuable visitors, leads, and customers for our business.

Another important point related to storytelling: The wine glass everyone is selling is virtually the same—it’s a commodity. Likewise, many inbound marketing agencies have the same tactical approach that we do—most know how do some SEO, some email marketing, and blog content—but most of them are just creating noise.  

The agencies that get it right are those creating resonanting messages with their audiences; They’re the ones who succeed. At IMPACT, I believe our messages resonate because we understand our customer’s worldview. What’s more, it’s been fun and fulfilling to teach a number of other businesses to do the same with their customers, helping them understand the importance of authentic storytelling and creating buyer personas so their business can thrive and prosper.

1. Godin, Seth, Not Liars, Storytellers, Seth Godin’s blog (October 04, 2012). Accessed June 8, 2015.
2. Godin, Seth, A new cover, a new foreword, but the same book, Seth Godin’s blog (Nov. 11, 2009) Accessed June 8, 2015.
3. Godin, Seth. Speed Review: All Marketers Are Liars, Soundview Executive Book Summaries. Accessed June 8, 2015.
4. Godin, Seth, A new cover, a new foreword, but the same book, Seth Godin’s blog (Nov. 11, 2009) Accessed June 8, 2015.
5. Godin, Seth. All Marketers Are Liars, page 16.