Endpoint: Q&A with Seth Godin

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At what point should a marketer decide to stage a reinvention-of brand, marketing process or product?

Seth Godin, author of "All Marketers Are Liars," "Free Prize Inside" and "Survival Is Not Enough," among others, says that clearly, the best time to do this is before you need to. Here, more of his thoughts on brand reinvention.

Must a reinvention always be reactive-that is, borne out of desperation and a need to change?

A brand is many things. One thing: a totem for the privilege of having a conversation with a consumer. Starbucks can talk to you about a movie or a new beverage because they've earned that permission. One of the first things that disappears when a brand is desperate is this permission. And without it, it's awfully difficult to change anything.

In "Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable," you urge marketers to be remarkable-not invisible. How can marketers stage remarkable reinventions?

Remarkable means that the consumer believes that your offering is worth talking about. Notice that I didn't say anything about your thinking it's remarkable... it's up to the consumer. So the marketer must not worry about committees or excuses or focus groups. The consumer doesn't care.

You say a Purple Cow is not a marketing function that you can slap onto your product or service; it's built in, or it's not there. So is there no hope for marketers with no inherent Purple Cows? Is there nothing they can do to create a Purple Cow?

Well, we've seen commodities like coffee and water become remarkable. We've seen people pay extra for computers with neat boxes and for grilled cheese sandwiches on eBay. So I think anyone who believes all they have is a commodity is probably right ... not because they have no options, but because if they believe it, it's unlikely they'll see the opportunity.

How must marketers break out of their ruts, their fear of change and of risk, and stage a rebirth?

One of the most effective techniques is to become MORE frightened of the status quo than of change. And that's largely a management function. I believe that once you WANT to be remarkable, you're 80% of the way there.

How much of a successful brand or marketing reinvention starts with the CMO? What are his or her responsibilities in such an initiative?

The CMO has a chance to fulfill the real promise of the new marketing-that everyone in the organization is in the marketing department, that everything from the product to the way it is produced, shipped and sold is part of the marketing opportunity. Unfortunately, it seems as though many CMOs have sold out to move up, and too often, the marketing function is about incremental increases in market share that can be accomplished on time without ruffling feathers ... which is awfully difficult to pull off.

How best can a message of change, or rebirth, filter throughout a marketing organization-and then filter out to customers?

Burn your boats. Cancel your existing projects-18 months out. Once people know that there won't be a cash cow to pay the bills in a year and a half, it focuses their attention on finding some purple ones.

What marketers, in your view, have successfully, remarkably reinvented themselves, their marketing processes, their brands? What did they all have in common?

Giorgio Armani has, a few times. So have Bruce Willis and Merv Griffin. Dunkin' Donuts is trying, but I'm dubious. I think Yahoo has successfully stayed ahead, and certainly MTV. In each case, the brand has used its leverage to enter new markets. Sometimes because they wanted to, but often because they had no choice ... they saw the old business disappearing or flattening out.

What reinventions have you attempted in your own career, and what has been the outcome?

I've actually had several careers, and discovered that only by embracing the new one wholeheartedly have I been able to leap from one to the other. It's always tempting to compromise, to hold back. Insurance is compelling, especially if you decide that you have a lot to lose. But hedging your bets only decreases the chance that the new opportunity will work out. Shaving my head and walking away from my business as a book packager was a bold, but smart move for me. Selling my Internet company was incredibly frightening, but it opened new doors for what I could do. On the other hand, my career as a Hasidic rap star never really took off. Stuff happens.
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