Interview With Seth Godin

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Seth Godin speaking at an event with a black background.

Rachel Lovinger / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Seth Godin has published seven best-sellers on marketing including his recent "All Marketers are Liars". His blog was recently voted "best blog on marketing", He founded, a remarkable forum for ideas that published the controversial "the Death of Environmentalism". Readers may wonder why Treehugger is interested in "All Marketers are Liars"- but the subtitle is "the power of telling authentic stories in a low-trust world"- something Treehuggers and Environmentalists try to do daily. He has graciously agreed to an interview.Tom Peters has called global warming a lousy brand. Dave Roberts in Gristmill pointed out that it is a hard sell- too far away and too nebulous, and to those of us suffering through harsh winters in the middle of the continent, what could be wrong about a little warming? What is wrong with our story?

SG: It doesn't fit the worldview of the very people you're trying to reach and influence. Most Americans care about a very very short time horizon, and are easily swayed with group pressure on things like patriotism and faith. (Just try to criticize people for spending time and money in church and you'll see what I mean.) Global warming is vague and distant.

Acid rain is a much more powerful story. Acid = death and rain is omnipresent and supposedly pure and lifegiving. Put them together and you get something that feels tangible and an emergency.

You need to remember that people evolved to be civilized white collar workers only over the last 200 years. That means that deep within us is a time horizon of a week, the desire to hunt and to feed our family and not die this week. Selling something so far away is antithetical to our genes and it's just not easy enough.

Spray painting baby seals is far more effective a story that talking about running out of gas in 2020.

Much of America identifies Prius drivers with Leonardo, Susan Sarandon and sniveling leftie treehuggers. Should we put a hybrid on the NASCAR track? How do we change the worldview of the majority of America?

SG: There's no question that a souped up Prius would reach a certain group, but I don't think that's the best way to get Prius adoption. The prius tells a story "you're smart". There are a group of people that want their car to tell them that they're smart, and the prius does this.

I think the way we kill the gas guzzlers is to tell the story: SUV = terrorism, SUV = unpatriotic, SUV = dead soldiers. Careful! It would backfire if the story was interpreted that you should get rid of your SUV If you're a chicken (these colors don't run!) Instead, the story needs to be based on a simple fact: if we get rid of all the SUVs, America becomes Oil Independent. Oil Independent is an achievable goal that people on both sides of the aisle should grab.
You admit to filling your shopping cart with organic food while writing that it is probably no better (and a lot more expensive) than conventional produce. But I cannot believe that you would pay more if you knew it was a lie. You believe the story or you would not do it. Are you just being provocative? Like discussing organic lard?

SG: What does "believe" mean? I have faith. I have faith that if everyone did it, we'd be better off. I believe that spending the money is patriotic, not selfish. That I don't want to be a freerider, that I want to cause change. But I also know that the pricing is exorbitant and unfair and it doesn't go to the farmers, and that there's no real research that carrot for carrot, it's worth much extra. So, I have faith and it makes me feel good. But the scientist and accountant in me has a hard time with it.

I would be interested in your thoughts on "the death of environmentalism" published on

SG: Another provocative title, and another manifesto about storytelling. I believe that there's no reason at all why environmentalists should be seen as anti-progress. Honda is a terrific example of this—they make efficient cars because it pays off in lots of ways, not just in clean air.

Americans have always admired thriftiness and efficiency. And that's environmentalism at what it could be. Don't be a slob, don't waste. Do great stuff, but neatly.

Treehugger is about living a green lifestyle- a well designed, comfortable and trendy lifestyle that is easy on the environment and does not include tie-dye shirts or Birkenstocks. Our story is that you can live well and in style while making intelligent choices that reduce our impact on the environment. That a smaller better meal is better than a big burger; that a small, well designed prefab is better than a mcmansion; that a Prius is better than a hummer. Quality is better than Quantity. Less is more. How would you spread that brand?

SG: We need to be a lot less fractious, and need to focus on the emotional actions that matter. Getting a new refrigerator should be an act of national security. Ask ten greens what we should spend our money on next, and they'll give you ten answers. That's crazy. We need a priority list. The fundamentalists have one.

For example, if we focused all our energy on selling "don't eat cow", it might hit critical mass. And if it did, the side effects would be spectacular.