The 4 Basic Principles of Marketing in the Modern Age (Seth Godin)

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "This Is Marketing" by Seth Godin. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Who makes up your smallest viable market? What do they truly want and need? Should you adjust your product story over time?

In This Is Marketing, Seth Godin says that old marketing techniques no longer work. He outlines his guiding principles of marketing in the modern age: create something of value, focus on your smallest viable market, match your story to the story your audience tells themselves, and leverage word of mouth.

Continue reading to learn about each of these four basic principles of marketing.

Principle 1: Create Something of Value

To be an effective marketer, you must first create something of value. Godin explains that many people make the mistake of creating a product and then trying to figure out how to sell it. Effective marketers do the opposite and follow Godin’s first basic principle of marketing: Identify a group of people with a problem, and then provide a solution to that problem.

Godin argues that, to create a product that solves a problem, you should identify an unmet desire or need and make sure that your product addresses it. Godin suggests that people’s needs are often rooted in unmet emotional desires. People don’t buy a product for the product’s sake but for the feeling the product gives them. For example, no one needs a nose hair trimmer or a new set of headphones. But, people do need the self-confidence or social status that those products give them.

Godin suggests that most people, regardless of age, gender, or geography, are driven by the same basic human needs, things like safety, security, belonging, or respect. Godin argues that these desires are universal and apply to people from all walks of life but look different depending on whom you’re speaking to. For one person, security might mean a high-quality life insurance policy, while for another it’s an in-home video surveillance system or a paid-off mortgage. By understanding people’s most basic emotional needs, marketers can create products and services that meet those desires, and, by doing so, offer them a solution to their problem.

Principle 2: Focus on Your Core Audience

But which people are you trying to help? According to Godin, effective marketers don’t try to reach everyone. Instead, they focus on serving a specific group of people well. Godin argues that to be an effective marketer, you need to focus on your core audience, what he describes as your smallest viable market. 

According to Godin, your core audience is the smallest group of people who share a common need or desire that can sustain your business or project. Depending on your product or service, your core audience might be coffee lovers passionate about specialty coffee beans or DIY enthusiasts new to woodworking. He explains that by focusing on your niche market, you’ll be able to develop a deeper understanding of your customers’ needs and wants and create products and services that best address those needs. This approach allows you to stand out in a crowded marketplace and build a loyal customer base that will help you grow your business.

Your core audience should be defined by a shared value system (what Godin refers to as their “worldview”) rather than demographic traits. Demographic traits may vary, but shared values transcend those differences and are more influential in driving meaningful connections and engagement. By focusing on shared values, you can create a loyal community based on a strong foundation of shared ideals. For example, an eco-friendly clothing brand may target individuals who prioritize sustainability and environmental consciousness, regardless of their age, gender, or location.

Principle 3: Match Your Story to the Audience’s Point of View

Once you know your core audience, you need to match the story you’re telling to their point of view so they understand that your product or service is for them. Godin explains that our decisions, including decisions about what to buy, are based on the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. For example, “I am the kind of person who…” shops at the local co-op, or uses coupons, or wears a luxury watch. To effectively market to your core audience, make sure that the story you tell aligns with the story your audience tells about themselves.

How to Match the Story to Your Audience

In his 2005 All Marketers Are Liars, Godin goes into greater detail on how to match your story to your audience’s point of view. He suggests three possible tools:

Frames: Framing a story involves providing a specific context or perspective to shape how the audience perceives and interprets the information. For example, if you tell someone “the glass is half full,” they’ll look at it more favorably than if you tell them it’s half empty.

Euphemisms: A euphemism is a different name for the same idea. You can use euphemisms to steer attention away from negative connotations or biases that already exist to present your product or service in a more favorable light. For example, a marketer might call something “economical” rather than “cheap.”

Oxymorons: In the context of marketing, oxymorons let you present two seemingly contradictory ideas together, allowing you to appeal to someone with worldviews that are potentially at odds with each other. For example, by marketing “non-alcoholic beer,” you appeal to someone who doesn’t drink but still wants to participate in drinking culture.

Use Tools for Alignment

Two of the tools you can use to align your story with your audience’s self-perception are branding and price.


Godin argues that a brand isn’t merely a logo but the sum of all customer experiences and expectations. He therefore defines a brand as a promise to deliver a specific level of quality, reliability, and value to customers. Although a brand encompasses more than just visual elements, Godin acknowledges branding elements like symbols, fonts, and language still play a significant role. These elements help shape customers’ perceptions and expectations and serve as signals for conveying the brand’s values, personality, and positioning. To establish effective branding, Godin suggests utilizing simple and consistent symbols, language, and colors.

Coca-Cola is an example of a company with simple and consistent branding that has ingrained Coca-Cola in popular culture, establishing instant recognition and positive emotional associations. With its classic red color, logo, and familiar commercials and slogans, Coca-Cola has successfully built a globally recognized brand that symbolizes happiness and shared experiences.


Godin argues that price is also an important part of a marketing story because price can be used to strategically position a product or service in the market. For example, a high price can signal that a product is exclusive and high-quality, while a low price can signal that a product is affordable and accessible. One isn’t better than the other; they just appeal to different audiences. The price you choose should align with the point of view of your audience. 

McDonald’s and Gucci both effectively use price as a part of their marketing strategy, albeit differently. McDonald’s emphasizes affordability, targeting a broad consumer base by positioning itself as a budget-friendly choice with a focus on value and convenience. In contrast, Gucci takes a luxury approach, using higher prices to create an exclusive and desirable image associated with prestige, craftsmanship, and indulgence in high-end fashion. McDonald’s appeals to a wider audience with affordable pricing, while Gucci caters to a more selective segment seeking luxury and status. Each brand’s pricing strategy aligns with the self-perception of its target market.

Apply Pressure to Inspire Action

To effectively engage your target audience, it’s important not only to communicate that your product or service is tailored to them but also to inspire them to take action. Whether it’s convincing them to sign up for a newsletter, purchase a new product, or support a candidate, motivating people to act requires applying pressure. This can be achieved by presenting a relatable problem and offering a solution that resolves it. By presenting this combination of problem and resolution, you can motivate your audience to alleviate the pressure they feel by actively engaging with your brand.

One way to apply pressure is to challenge the status or position of your core audience. Godin defines status as an individual’s perceived position or rank within a particular social group or hierarchy.

Godin argues that many of our decisions are driven by the desire to maintain or shift our status, but we do so in different ways. Some people seek to maintain or shift their status through a sense of belonging, while others do it through superiority.

Belonging is about the desire of people to connect with specific groups or communities whose opinions they value. To apply pressure on people who seek belonging, provide opportunities for them to belong. Jones Road Beauty exemplifies a brand that skillfully utilizes the concept of belonging to apply pressure on its customers. By promoting natural beauty and authenticity, Jones Road Beauty taps into individuals’ longing to be part of a community that shares these values. Through inclusive marketing campaigns featuring diverse models and fostering active online community groups, Jones Road Beauty cultivates a sense of inclusivity and creates opportunities to belong.

Superiority, on the other hand, is fueled by people’s desire to differentiate themselves and demonstrate their dominance. Godin writes that to apply pressure to this audience, you need to provide them with opportunities to excel and outperform others. Tesla effectively applies this concept to exert pressure on its customers by showcasing groundbreaking electric vehicles with cutting-edge technology and performance. Their marketing campaigns highlight exceptional features, positioning Tesla as a leader in the electric car industry. This motivates individuals to invest in Tesla vehicles as a means of showcasing their superiority and staying ahead of the curve.

Transform a Culture

Ultimately, the goal of the story you tell is to transform the culture of your core audience because you want what you’re offering to become a part of their cultural norm. When something becomes embedded in a culture, it becomes deeply ingrained in people’s behaviors, beliefs, and values. This cultural integration ensures that your offering isn’t merely seen as a transactional product but rather as an essential and meaningful aspect of their identity and lifestyle.

(Shortform note: Stories are a particularly effective tool for cultural change because they can capture people’s attention and engage them emotionally, making them more receptive to new ideas and perspectives. According to Kindra Hall, author of Stories That Stick, one of the reasons that stories are such a powerful tool is because storytelling is a collaborative process. As you tell a story, regardless of the format, your audience mentally fills in the gaps. They add images, feelings, and context to the details you provide, and in doing so, become personally invested in the outcome of the story.)

However, culture does not change all at once. It begins with a few. When you first begin your marketing journey, before anyone has heard of you, your story should focus on the trendsetters (what Godin calls adopters), people who are always looking to try the next new thing because your product is new and no one has tried it before. The story you tell will be about innovation. You need to explain how your product pushes the boundaries of technology or revolutionizes an industry.

How to Market to Trendsetters

In Perennial Seller, Ryan Holiday explains how you can use price as a tool to market to trendsetters. He suggests lowering the price of your product or making it free. Lowering the cost barrier almost always gets more people to try your product or service, which gives the product a fighting chance at proving its value. 

Here are some potential pricing models to attract early adopters:
Freemium models that provide a feature-lite free product, with options to upgrade for a price
• An excerpt of your product for free (for example, free book chapters)
• Limited free trials before the user has to pay
• A promotional period at which you offer the product or service at a lower cost
• An entirely free product or service funded through another business model (for example, ad-supported social apps or sponsorships for videos that are free to viewers)

As more and more people hear about what you do, your audience will shift from trendsetters to assimilators (what Godin calls adapters), people who tend to follow the crowd. You need to adjust your story accordingly, communicating how what you offer also provides a sense of familiarity and fits seamlessly into your audience’s existing routines. 

(Shortform note: TikTok has become a valuable tool for bridging the gap between early adopters and a broader customer base, making it a top platform for consumers to discover and purchase new products. By leveraging influencers on the platform, businesses can reshape their narrative and effectively market to assimilators by showcasing how their offerings align with popular trends and provide a sense of familiarity that a broader audience seeks. The platform’s algorithm-driven content discovery also ensures that influencer content reaches a wide range of users, further amplifying the exposure and acceptance of early adopter trends.)

Principle 4: Capitalize on Word of Mouth

While your initial fans, the trendsetters, appreciate your unique approach, it may not resonate with the wider public. To make the jump to a broader audience, you need a product or service that people want to talk about. Godin explains that the products and services that people will talk about are the ones that become more valuable the more people know about them. 

Consider the example of dating apps. Early adopters of dating apps, like Tinder or Bumble, had a reason to talk about the product with other people. More users meant a wider pool of potential matches and increasingly diverse profiles. Additionally, the accumulation of user data allowed apps to refine their matching algorithms, suggesting more accurate and compatible matches. Moreover, the more people that use the apps, the less social stigma there is around using dating apps as a tool of connection. 

(Shortform note: Godin suggests that people want to talk about products that will become more valuable if more people use them. This assumes that people only talk about products or services out of self-interest. In Contagious, marketing expert Jonah Berger suggests other strategies for harnessing the power of word-of-mouth marketing, including generating an emotional response and providing practical value. These strategies go beyond self-interest and tap into the innate human desire to share experiences, emotions, and valuable information with other people.)

By creating a product that thrives on word-of-mouth and effectively addresses the needs of your core audience, you can tap into their network power and transform them into invaluable marketing assets. As your core audience witnesses firsthand how your product or service meets their needs, their passion for your company grows, prompting them to voluntarily spread your product’s message to attract more people, all without incurring additional costs. 

However, Godin says it’s crucial to consistently fulfill the promises you’ve made and provide effective solutions to the problems you claim to solve. By delivering on your brand promise, you establish trust with your customers, increasing the likelihood of repeat business. This consistency also enables you to cultivate a community and foster a strong brand culture over time. As a result, your customers become your most fervent supporters, advocating for your company’s mission and products.

(Shortform note: Pat Flynn, the author of Superfans, says that consistency is key to cultivating superfans, a small core of passionately devoted customers that are the lifeblood of any organization. He explains that as fans repeatedly have positive experiences with your brand, they tend to move through different levels of connection to your brand, from casual, to interested, to connected, before reaching superfandom.)

The 4 Basic Principles of Marketing in the Modern Age (Seth Godin)

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  • Why traditional marketing strategies are no longer effective
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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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