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A Response to Seth Godin

When big or traumatic things happen, the clichés start falling like snow. In a time of coronavirus, these have predictably centered around notions of comfort, mixed with a little bit of harsh truth. “The new normal will be anything but ordinary.” “We’re all in this together.” “Embrace change or fall behind.” Etc., etc.

But aren’t these ideas kind of tiresome? Like almost as bad as the classic “In trying times like these …” I mean, no one can deny the truth of these remarks—but that’s what makes them clichés: people already know and believe what they have to offer.

What I think people want right now is something more intuitive, enlightening, a way forward that isn’t padded with comforting notions of authenticity, togetherness, the “new normal.” In other words, we need to dig deeper to find our way.

As I was thinking along these lines, I decided to check out Seth Godin’s presentation at Inc. magazine’s Real Talk. I admire Godin. He’s a top-tier brand strategist and a standup guy. But his presentation was discussed some of the kind of concepts that I view as just the starting point for strong branding, and a review of where we already are, not at all a prescription for the future.

So I decided to analyze his ideas a bit and add my own reflections. Here’s what came to mind as I listened to his lecture.

We Must “Embrace Change”

“You can’t be too attached to the old ways of doing things.”

Has anyone ever asked you whether you’d prefer some sudden, destabilizing change? Or, once a big change did hit, did you ever feel you had a choice between whether to embrace it or not? Of course you didn’t.

That’s the thing about life—it just happens. No one on earth expected Covid-19 to tear through the population, throw life off kilter and send us all inside for months. You don’t want to embrace that change? Well, I don’t either. But, too bad.

The real question that I think Godin is alluding to here is how we cope with critical new information while maintaining creative yet levelheaded decision making. Don’t freak out, basically. And don’t withdraw into your hole and cry, either.

Here’s where he and I differ. I personally believe that good businesspeople and smart marketers will seek out change—they thrive off of it. But that’s only because they’re masters at using whatever they happen to have close at hand—whether that’s new technology, fresh ideas, cultural shifts, or a crisis of some kind—to instigate and inspire transformation. To survive sudden changes and then take your brand and your company to the next level, it really takes a preexisting mastery of observation, ingenuity and pragmatism.

Embracing the change is only the first step—but you won’t win by just embracing. You’ll win by keeping up with everything around you and seeing what you can do with each idea in turn. During a crisis, yes, but during more easygoing times, too.

Every little thing has a purpose—your job is to find it and use it to your advantage.

We Must “Find Our Audience”

“Make sure you’re providing the right product at the right time to the right people.”

This is totally Marketing 101. Really? Find your audience? If this concept is news to you, please hit the books and call me in 2021.

Doing the research and delineating your ideal consumer audience is and always has been essential. At TopRight, we break audiences down into segments, all the better to present customized marketing campaigns to unique groups with unique perspectives. This now widespread practice comes partially as a result of the internet and digital communications, sure, but it’s also an old idea that predates that.

Doing this kind of necessary work is not a consequence of recent events, covid or otherwise. Researching audience and creating brands and marketing campaigns based on what you learn is some of the most interesting and effective work one can do. And it’s taught me that no brand has only one audience. If you observe closely and do the work, you can come to understand how complex and different people are, and which events have an impact on their outlook and which do not.

In the end, though, there is no “right product at the right time.” The right time is always. And planning product campaigns according to audience subgroups will always be critical to getting your message across.

We Must “Forget Authenticity”

“What we’re asking for when we are feeling disrupted is simply to be seen.”

Finally, something we agree on! Authenticity, in my view, has always been over emphasized in marketing.

To be clear, I do not mean that I prefer being “phony” or something. What I mean is that the concept of authenticity needs to be analyzed closely and assessed soberly. After all, what does a brand—created often by big companies staffed by dozens or hundreds of people and with a target audience in the thousands or millions—really mean by authentic? Is Coke authentic? What about Facebook, or Nike, or Chick-fil-A—are they authentic? All I know is that they’re successful.

To me, authenticity really means two things: one, don’t ever betray your brand story or brand values and, two, don’t be a jerk. That means that when something like Covid-19 happens, don’t throw away your old identity for something completely new, but also don’t be stubborn and ignore current events or pretend to be above them. If a brand means something to people, they will want to see it respond with the kind of concern they themselves have. Just be human.

So yes, in that sense, be “authentic.” But when it comes to promoting your brand or product, you only need to be true to the core brand values.

The Takeaway

Marketing is really a journey (speaking of being authentic, I actually hate the word journey, but never mind). By which I mean it’s a process and an adventure, a path that carries you directly through economics and history and pop culture and technology, and everything else. To survive such a trial, and to win out over competitors, your brand will have to be smart, strong, agile, and ruthlessly consistent. These traits, in the end, are really what you need to survive something like a global pandemic, or to survive anything else for that matter. That’s just my two cents.

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