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Seth Godin: Think of Your Customers as Weird, Not Dumb

'The idea that you need to dumb, dumb, dumb it down so you can reach everyone is exactly the opposite of what it means to lead.'
Seth Godin: Think of Your Customers as Weird, Not Dumb
Image credit: Laura Cavanaugh / Stringer | Getty Images

Even if you eat Chobani yogurt, drink Starbucks coffee, wear Warby Parker glasses and check Facebook regularly, you may not have noticed the one trait that all of these products and services share.

None of them found their way to mass audiences through traditional advertising, entrepreneur and author Seth Godin said on Tuesday during a talk at New York Advertising Week. Put another way, they weren’t created with the average person’s wants and needs in mind.

“When we think about great brands of the last 15 years, none of them were built for normal people,” Godin said.

Related: Seth Godin on the Practical Way to Pursue Your Passion (It Does Exist)

Godin encourages businesses and marketers to embrace the rise of weirdness, or the decline of the mass audience, and he cautions against the mentality that has prevailed for more than half a century. That is, the pressure to develop average products in hopes of reaching the maximum number of average consumers.

“The idea that you need to dumb, dumb, dumb it down so you can reach everyone is exactly the opposite of what it means to lead,” Godin said. “For the first time in the history of industry at scale, we can treat different people differently. Yet we refuse to do so, partly because of the creative arrogance of the ad business that says we have the right thing, the one thing, here it is, for everyone.”

It may seem like Starbucks, Facebook and the other brands mentioned above are mainstream. But when they debuted, they had niche -- not mass -- appeal. Consider 20th-century TV commercials for sugary breakfast cereals. Then consider how foreign Greek yogurt seemed to most American consumers a decade ago, and try to remember how it became so popular without billing itself as the preferred option.

“If you give people a choice, they’ll take a choice,” Godin said. “There are now more weird people than normal people. Because the weird people are choosing to be weird. They’re on the edges because they want to be.”

Reaching a particular audience takes more than targeted marketing, though. People are afraid to pitch ideas or build companies based on niche ideas. To get more attention and make more sales, they take the safe route and go with an idea that’s been proven effective and lucrative.

Related: Seth Godin: 'The Person Who Fails the Most Wins'

In 2012, Godin published The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly?, and he continues to share his thoughts about the balance between flying too high, or risking a too-far-out-there idea, and flying too low, or failing to make anything new. Because flying low wins out so often, he explains, people falsely believe they lack creativity. They become passive and lose sight of what truly matters.

"The cost of being wrong is tiny," Godin said. "It just takes guts."
Edition: December 2016

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