Of Meatballs and Millennials: Seth Godin Returns

Blogger Offers Tips on Resurfacing in the Age of New Marketing and Surviving the Death of Mass Media

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Imagine Procter & Gamble as a maker of meatballs instead of diapers. Think of MySpace as a cherry. Combine the two -- P&G and social-networking sites, meatballs and cherries -- and you get the unpalatable results that Seth Godin warns against in his latest book, "Meatball Sundae: Is Your Marketing Out of Sync?"

"Blecch!" say the big, traditional marketers. "Yummy!" squeak the more agile players of the digital age.

While P&G continues to top the list of U.S. ad spenders--the packaged-goods giant came close to $5 billion in 2006, by Ad Age's reckoning--and during its history has created a handful of interesting ad mediums (soap operas, anyone?), Mr. Godin warns it's an exercise in futility for a venerable old marketer to wield the sharpest of cutting-edge new media platforms. Unless, of course, the old marketer is willing to change.

"There's something really big happening, and it's going to be messy," Mr. Godin said during his keynote at the Search Engine Strategies 2007 Conference & Expo in Chicago last December. (Search Engine Optimization, by the way, is a cherry.)

He's talking about the survival of bare-bones, time-honored products in an age of new media, younger consumers and brands built on buzz. "You can't grow with meatballs because they're ubiquitous," Mr. Godin writes in "Sundae."

Here's how he describes the sweet, promising taste of New Marketing:

"New Marketing is whipped cream and a cherry, a collection of techniques that offer huge payoffs--but the New Marketing works only for organizations that can get in alignment, stop making meatballs and start making something that goes very well indeed with hot fudge and marshmallow sauce."

We're told New Marketing demands better products. (How dare a marketer try to graft new tactics onto an old product line!) The only consolation for a big, old marketer whose only opportunity for change is the variable speed of an aircraft carrier is continued demand for its branded, albeit commodity, meatball products. Meanwhile, the newest, nimbler marketers go cruising by.

Mr. Godin, prolific author of marketing books "Small Is the New Big" and "The Dip," claims the solution is "an integrated approach, one that combines the New Marketing tactics with fundamentally different products and services." It's a fast-paced read, the written equivalent of one of Mr. Godin's on-stage presentations. At the same time, he packs the book with industry models--from Sears to Squidoo, Josiah Wedgwood to Chris Anderson--to bolster his assertions.

Readers are offered 14 trends they "can't ignore"--can't ignore because, for good or ill of the marketer, these trends are "transforming organizations that have the right products and the right approaches and are crippling organizations...stuck with nothing but meatballs."

Most of these trends won't be new to marketing professionals. Trend No. 5, for example, recalls Mr. Anderson's "Long Tail" concept that consumers prefer choices to a one-size-fits-all prototype. E-commerce is among the millennial influences widening this lucrative marketing world of niches. Mr. Godin warns marketing powerhouses that embracing this trend is inadvisable unless these parent companies are willing to take a fresh look at what they make and how they push it: "If the factory makes meatballs and the marketing now supports sundaes, you've got troubles (not to mention indigestion)."

The demise of "mass" is a theme Mr. Godin touches on several times throughout. Mass media are meatballs in a world of mushrooming "micromedia," he writes. Trend No. 8 introduces "infinite channels of communication," a phenomenon spawned by a public with "extremely short attention spans due to clutter" (Trend No. 4).

Concise observations from the "guru" blogger, though the real centerpiece of the text is a wake-up call to marketers that mass is not only "no longer achievable," but more importantly, "no longer desirable." And that principle applies to those of us who sell words as well as washers.