Ignore Seth Godin and his marketing fairy tales

by Nigel Hollis | January 09, 2019

This quote from Seth Godin was recently posted on Kantar’s Workplace, “People do not buy goods and services. They buy relationships, stories and magic”. It is the sort of simplistic platitude that seems to resonate with an awful lot of people. And it might work when it comes to selling advice, but most people do not want a relationship with the brands they buy.

I am all for a good story, but when it comes to brands in most cases what I really want is some tangible help. I use brands to help me get something done (even if it is trying to gain social status). I replied to the post as follows,

“Story-telling will never overcome a bad experience. And I do not want a relationship with my toilet paper. This is just another Godin generic platitude that should be added to the fairy tales of marketing.”

Jane Ostler then asked if I might have been persuaded to buy Andrex toilet paper because of the puppies featured in its advertising. My answer is yes, but not because I want a relationship with the brand. And not because I think of puppies every time I buy toilet paper.

I would buy Andrex because it is the obvious choice: instantly recognisable and slightly more instinctively appealing than the alternatives. And this marginal advantage would mean nothing if my experience of using Andrex was not a good one. Without getting too gross about this, if Andrex did not live up to delivering the basic need of a clean bum it would not sell no matter how many ads for puppies the brand put out there.

Laura Keeley stated that she loved her toilet paper because it is environmentally-friendly and donates money to building toilet facilities for people who need them. But here again, the brand is solving a need, even if it is a higher order one. I too use a green toilet paper - but I hate the fact that it is thin and the two-ply often comes apart when I am using it. Do I have a relationship with Seventh Generation? If I do it is dysfunctional and analogous to ‘we have to stay together for the children's sake’. I am willing to put up with a bad experience because I care more about doing right by the planet.


Brands tell stories in order to gain attention and, if executed right, build an affinity with the brand that will last over time. But if the brand cannot walk the talk it does not matter how good the story is, people will not give the brand a second chance, there are too many good alternatives out there all vying for attention. And if there is a ‘relationship’ involved, for most brands it is a low-key, barely-appreciated and instinctive one barely worthy of the label.

And what about magic? Magic happens when a brand does something unexpected which makes life better in some way. I just wish it happened more often. But what do you think? Please share your thoughts. 


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  1. Bennet, March 05, 2019
    Doesn't your Seventh Generation anecdote support Seth's point and undermine yours? Maybe you're taking issue with the phrase "relationship" and I agree it may be a little too loosely applied to brands. But telling a story about sustainability would seem to impact your choice of that brand over another, despite its functional flaws.
  2. Mike B, January 14, 2019

    I am reminded of the wit that said if you condense the history of the world into 1 year - we HS have been around for the last 12 secs before midnight on Dec 31. The 200k year old brain between our ears has developed to reflect the challenges our historic past, characterised by small communities, relying on each other to survive and adapt. One key element of the dynamics of small groups is that trust among group members is essential to survival of the group. So I believe "trust in relationships" (an emotional benefit)  is hard-wired into our brains and we are immediately suspicious of distrustful behaviour - the original concept of a brand was literally to deliver "trust" (this is my cow and that's your cow, and I look after my cows so buy the better one...) and it is still the pre-eminent condition for success. To assume that the last millionth of a second (to extend the analogy above) that we are suddenly wandering around looking for stories and magic from our brand relationships is to me nonsensical. 

    On a more interesting note, I read somewhere that studies of modern hunter gatherers have also described their habit of disparaging anyone in the group who big notes themselves (bringing back a large kill for example and boasting about it ...) and rewarding humility ( really its a massive pig I know, but I was very lucky...) - I do wonder whether or not brands which retain a sense of humility would also naturally tap into this. Anyway another thread maybe...

  3. Carie L. , January 10, 2019
    I second Jeremy’s point. Seth Godin is probably assuming that the product already lives up to the promise (fulfilled the basic required functions) hence going beyond that to talk about storytelling and forming relationship. Which is true because for most common products that provide similar benefits, it is difficult to differentiate from competition without using storytelling to built trust, relevance and rapport with your consumers.
  4. Shah Mohammad Didarul Hasan, January 09, 2019

    His magical skills couldn't save Yahoo with stories, relationships, and magics! Could they?

    He was a VP, Marketing in Yahoo! 

  5. Jeremy Diamond, January 09, 2019

    Hi Nigel,

    They may not WANT 'relationships, stories and magic', but it's harder to make a case that this isn't what they NEED.  I don't relate to SG's floral language but the basic point that people want more than a functional benefit which is why they choose brand A over brand B (assuming equivalent functional benefit) holds.  After all, the defining characteristic of a product is that it delivers a functional benefit and the defining characteristic of a brand is that it delivers an emotional benefit.


  6. Carol Udell, https://canview.com, January 09, 2019
    Very much agree. While many brands want to sell relationships and magic, only some brands are actually in the position to create that magic. Disney creates and delivers an experience. The industrial carpet throughout a 50 story building is 100% form and function. No number of cute puppies will sell that brand. We need to know what a brand is really all about and not force it into a mold built for another category.

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