Fool Interview: Seth Godin on "Tribes"

The 20th century was built on mass marketing and brand management.

The formula for large consumer companies was simple: Hire Madison Avenue talent, create unremarkable products, blast commercials with a snappy jingle across every radio, television, and newspaper outlet available, sell tons of products, stir and repeat. For years, marketing pioneer Seth Godin forecast the demise of the "TV-Industrial complex's … top down, internally focused, political and money based philosophy."

In Seth Godin’s new book, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, he outlines how "tribal" management is poised to dominate our current marketing era. He emphasizes that the most valuable asset a company can grow is the trust and permission to deliver “anticipated, personal and relevant messages” to people who crave authentic connections, rather than just another branded product or service.

Seth urges companies in the 21st century to focus on nourishing and growing their individual tribes. He sees the most successful organizations as those that continually create remarkable products and services with the overriding purpose of delighting their tribe. He profiles the stories of tribal managers, ranging from the niche leadership of Joel Spolsky, who inspires software engineers everywhere, to Mich Mathews, a Senior VP at Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) , who organizes a band of marketers from her cubicle inside the world’s largest software company.

So, with these principles in mind, I thought our Foolish Tribe would welcome a quick chat with Seth on how understanding this secular trend may help us spot tomorrow’s market winners today. The following conversation is from an interview conducted with Seth Godin via email.

Andy Louis-Charles: You have helped individuals and companies ask for Permission Marketing, catch the Ideavirus, and milk the Purple Cow. Now you are calling us to lead our individual Tribes. Have you simply come full circle and found a centralized unifying theme to your vision marketing, or is this something bigger, some sort of evolutionary change in how companies interact with their customers?

Seth Godin: There's been an evolution to my thinking, certainly (I'm more focused on strategy and meaning, and less on tactics), but more than that, the world has fundamentally changed. It's hard to remember that just ten years ago (!) email was a risky novelty. The world is indeed flatter and faster than ever before, and that means that our expectations of how things work have to change.

Louis-Charles: What are your thoughts on user-generated content and social networks like Facebook and News Corp.'s (NYSE: NWS  ) MySpace? Hasn't this evolved somewhat backwardly, as the tribe members have had the spotlight early on, now it seems that we need tribal leaders to bring order to the noise?

Godin: Users have always generated content, of course. The difference now is that we're being noticed, that our platform is bigger, that people are listening.

The next step is to organize that content and to find the leaders among the din. It used to be that if you had money, Procter & Gamble Co. (NYSE: PG  ) , or a media company, CBS (NYSE: CBS  ) , you could be expected to out-shout everyone else. Now, that's no longer true.

Louis-Charles: What does tribal marketing mean for the traditional top-down sales techniques of the past (i.e. Procter & Gamble or Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ  ) brands)?  

Godin: The thing to understand about every packaged good company (Gillette, Unilever (NYSE: UL  ) , etc.) is that they are organized to be ruthlessly profitable through TV. They are organized to make average products for average people and to flog them on TV and sell them in big retail outlets. That's what they do. It's their foundation.

So, when TV dies, what happens? The ecosystem is sick. The entire pyramid wobbles. It's not going to be easy for companies like this to adjust because I'm not talking about a new topping on their existing sundae. I'm arguing that the future belongs to leaders, to groups, to remarkable agents of change. Is that them?

Louis-Charles: How do you see your book Tribes relating to our audience and how they invest in companies?

Godin: Most of the companies Fools invest in have brands. They've earned those brands over time. Those brands stand for a certain level of service and quality and expectation. And that's not going to go away. But it's not going to grow so much, either. Your expectation of a brand of vodka or seltzer or shoes or air travel is set and, especially in a turbulent economy, hard to see growing much.

On the other hand, think about the value you place on the tribes you belong to. A political tribe, say, or a Harley-Davidson (NYSE: HOG  ) . You define yourself in this way; you connect to people in this way. When that tribe grows, you grow. You are willing to spend more, longer. More time and more money and more effort and more love.

So, when a company becomes a leader, when it connects a tribe, it is far more powerful than any ordinary brand could ever be.

For related Foolishness:

Fool contributor Andy Louis-Charles is a supporter of the “Foolish-Investment Complex.” Andy owns LEAP options in Johnson & Johnson. Unilever and Johnson & Johnson are Motley Fool Income Investor picks. Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Seth Godin makes no recommendations of the stocks or companies mentioned in this article. We need the Fool's disclosure policy to lead us.


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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On November 14, 2008, at 4:13 PM, BeboLindo wrote:

    You know, it is interesting that this Power Marketing kind of concept is not limited to average consumers, nor even just consumers. I worked for J&J during the 1980's at a medical device division, and there was a much greater focus on market perception of our products i.e. "make it work OK, then make absolutely sure it always looks pretty, then see if you can make it actually be better". They would not even introduce a new product that worked great if it could not be made to look pretty, so as not to tarnish the brand perception. Funny thing is, this formula actually seemed to work: they were able to charge premium prices for me-too products. My guess is this brand-image approach will continue regardless, because the consumer marketplace is only a fraction of J&J's business.

  • Report this Comment On November 17, 2008, at 3:05 PM, TMFSpiffyPop wrote:

    Andy, it was great to see you land this interview with Seth, of whom I am a faithful fan. I have learned a lot from him, and recommend "Tribes" or, really, any of his other books, to anyone who is interested in figuring out where our culture -- and its business -- is headed. Fool on. --David G.

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