5 September 2011

Meatball Sundaes and Cat Litter: Seth Godin’s Unappetizing Arguments

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango LLC + Business Lit Taste Tester…

Meatball Sundae by Seth Godin

About as sloppy and nutritious as its title.

Seth Godin’s book Meatball Sundae lives up to its name: it’s a big mess. I won’t fully review an old publication here, but the following two paragraphs made me want to hurl the book against the wall (or just hurl). On pages 68-69, Godin writes about the superiority of “permission marketing” versus “interruption marketing”:

“Pets.com used every tactic they could find — TV ads, sock puppets, and accelerated e-mail marketing with a veil of permission. They blew through a hundred million dollars by interrupting people who didn’t want to hear from them. They failed.

Dailycandy.com did the opposite. The daily e-mail newsletter has hundreds of thousands of subscribers to their fresh e-mail newsletters on style. They are extremely profitable and growing every day. They used no TV, no puppets, and a very calm and patient approach to permission marketing.”

Comparing Pets.com to Dailycandy.com is like comparing Home Depot to MTV, or Amazon.com to the Huffington Post. The two businesses don’t even have .com in common: the official name of the newsletter company is DailyCandy.

Pets.com mascot

More credible than most business writers.

Pets.com failed NOT because people didn’t want to hear their marketing. In fact, viewers LOVED the Pets.com sock puppet so much they bought copies of it. The puppet appeared on Nightline, Good Morning America, and the pages of People magazine, and the Pets.com Super Bowl ad was ranked #1 by USA Today‘s Ad Meter. Had Pets.com been a media property, it might have succeeded.

The reason Pets.com failed was that it offered free shipping on 20-pound bags of cat litter that it sold below cost (Pets.com sold most of their products for 1/3 their cost). In other words, their business model was a disaster from the start. In addition, Pets.com played the stock market game, necessitating a massive awareness-building campaign, and the ensuing dotcom-bubble burst took down all its financing.

Conversely, DailyCandy doesn’t buy, sell or ship anything. It started as a freakin’ newsletter — an excellent newsletter, but its logistical challenges involved how to find parking near trendy fashion boutiques. DailyCandy was also not a public company. It sold first to private investors excited about the huge mailing list of fashionistas, before being swallowed whole by a voracious Comcast. Had DailyCandy been a stand-alone stock during the dotcom boom, it would have been urged by its investors to run ads next to spots by E-Trade, Outpost.com and Pets.com. As for DailyCandy being “extremely profitable,” I’d love to see those numbers, since the company made money primarily from investors and recently had to shut down in 7 cities.

Seth Godin has a basic grasp of marketing, and he should be congratulated on building a large, lucrative brand for himself, but most of his arguments are based on NOTHING but what’s off the top of his shiny head. He excels in creating catchy metaphors, but his lazy, unsubstantiated observations could get a business in hot water — or at least a shallow and tepid bowl of meatball sundae.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

3 Responses

  1. Wow! Someone else who doesn’t think that Seth Godin always walks on water. First thing I read by him was the “purple cow” book — and I wasn’t impressed. Godin has some good ideas, but I don’t think he’s the be all and end all that so many people claim. He is good though at writing short books that sell a lot.

    Freddy’s Comment: Thanks for your comment, Nancy. I agree with you on all points.

  2. Not a surprise to see this from Godin. Any positive trait (real or assumed) seen in a successful business must be due to the positive trait. We have seen his idol Tom Peters do that in his search for excellence.
    It is the classic case of selection, survivorship, recency, availability etc biases. Most of his observations and books are rife with such cognitive biases.
    His articles and books find taking among his fans as they seek comfort in his certainties and broad generalizations and congregate around their cognitive similarities.
    (of course similar comment could be said about me choosing to comment on a post that mirror my preconceived notion).



    Freddy’s Comment: Great point. I’m guilty of a few of those biases myself…

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