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BOOK REVIEW: You can't be seen until you learn to see

Feb 09 2019 08:00
Ian Mann

This is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn To See. By Seth Godin

With the title of “This is Marketing”, what marketing isn’t should be described upfront.

Marketing has become synonymous with advertising, and it is the default many turn to as the solution to attracting more buyers. To a large degree it is the “shameless pursuit of attention at the expense of the truth”, says Godin.

While advertising might have worked in the past, repeating old-fashioned tricks won’t work anymore. The assumption that everyone ‘is just like us,’ but uninformed, and so can be addressed widely, is simply wrong.

Godin describes marketing as "the generous act of helping someone solve a problem. Their problem.”

This book describes a compass for what marketing is today. Its focus is on the human condition, and the culture within which we function. Marketing involves very little “shouting, hustling, or coercion”.  The approach is simple, but requires patience, empathy, and respect. There is no obvious road map or a description of a set of steps and a series of tactics. It is more of a compass that provides a pointer to true north.

Just a few moments of thought will confirm Godin’s assertion that it “doesn’t make any sense to make a key and then run around looking for a lock to open.” It is far more effective to find a lock and then make the key to open it. 


Effective marketing focuses on understanding our customers’ worldview and desires, so that we can connect with them. It starts with identifying the product or service worth offering, with a story worth telling, and a contribution worth talking about. Then you design the product or service and build it in a way that a few people will particularly benefit from it, care about it, and miss it if it is not available.

The next step is to tell a story about your offering that resonates with the needs and dreams of that tiny group of people, the ‘smallest viable market for the offering’. If this is a perfect fit, everyone using it gets excited about what you have brought to the market - and spreads the word for you. To make this enterprise a success you will have to give your ever-changing clients what they want regularly, consistently, and generously, for years.

To connect with your target market requires that you shed the belief that people make rational choices – they don’t. “When in doubt,” Godin urges, “assume that people will act according to their current irrational urges, ignoring information that runs counter to their beliefs, trading long-term for short-term benefits and most of all, being influenced by the culture they identify with.”

We all tell ourselves stories that, as far as each of us is concerned, are completely and totally true, and it’s foolish to try to persuade us otherwise.

It was Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt who famously said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill bit. They want a quarter-inch hole.” While this is undoubtedly true, Godin doesn’t believe it goes nearly far enough. What people want is the shelf that will go on the wall once they drill the hole. People don’t want what you make, they want what it will do for them, and how it will make them feel.

They may want to feel safe and respected. They may want to feel that they belong, are connected, have peace of mind, have the status they expect, or any of the other desired emotions. Do this and you are doing something worthwhile.

Godin suggests beginning with the smallest viable market for your product or service that you can survive on. Your search is for people who want you to succeed so badly, that they’re willing to pay you to produce the change you want to make for them. The ‘smallest viable audience’ you are seeking are people who will understand your intentions and will fall in love with what you want to give them.

The pool, not the ocean

This requires the discipline of deliberately walking away from an ocean of potential clients and looking for a large swimming pool instead. To the smallest viable audience, you then make a simple marketing promise: My product is for people who believe ___________ (fill in the missing words). I will focus on people who want _________(fill in the missing words). I promise that engaging with what I make will help you get _________ (fill in the missing words).

Now, make it easy for your clients to spread the news of your offering.

Consider Way Bakery, the largest gluten-free bakery of its kind in the world. The promise they are making to a very small segment of the market is that by buying their products, no one is left out. “By offering people gluten-free, dairy-free, and kosher baked goods that happen to be delicious, we let the entire community be part of special family occasions. We change hosts from exclusive to inclusive, and guests from outsiders to insiders.”  

Empathy is at the heart of marketing, and it starts with grasping the unacknowledged fact that people don’t believe what you believe. It further requires that you realize that everyone around you has an internal life as rich and as conflicted as yours.

Marketers have virtually no chance of insisting that their potential customers ‘get with our program’. Rather, if the customer understands what’s on offer, and chooses not to buy it, then it’s not for them.

Offerings can be lined up in simple forms by their cost: a Hermès bag is more expensive than a Louis Vuitton bag, which is more expensive than one from Coach. However, these offerings fall naturally in more subjective categories like ‘stylish’ or ‘fashionable’ or ‘status’, where we pick the best one – for us. These subjective categories cannot be lined up as cost can.


Even objects that have a practical benefit have different meanings for different people. For a teenager, a car enables a change from dependent child to independent adult. That’s a shift in status, in perception, and in power. For the parent, it offers the children freedom, but raises its own concerns.

The central question is always who is the product or service for? What do the people you seek to serve, believe? What do they want? Whom we wish to serve must be based on what they dream of, believe in and want. As such, psychographics is more useful than demographics.

Consider the marketing efforts of a neighbourhood music teacher. If he simply marketed himself as a local teacher, other teachers might be just as local. Saying he is a good teacher and won’t yell at your child, is a presupposition, not an attraction.

When he defines himself as serious, and my students are serious, and this is about rigour, or my students win competitions, he has selected the group of people who will be his small viable market of right students. Being completely satisfied, they will likely share their excitement with other right students. The teacher’s work from here on is to exceed the students’ expectations.

When you know what you stand for, you don’t need to compete. The heart and soul of a thriving enterprise is the pursuit of becoming irresistible. The people who don’t choose you are correct in their decision not choose you, because, based on what they see, what they believe, and what they want, you simply aren’t for them.

This is a refreshing perspective well worth considering carefully.

Readability         Light -+--- Serious

Insights                High -+--- Low

Practical               High ----+ Low

Ian Mann consults internationally on strategy and implementation and is the author of "Strategy That Works" and the "Executive Update". Views expressed are his own.

opinion  |  book review  |  advertising  |  marketing


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