Did Seth Godin Steal My Deal?

The inimitable Harper Reed from Skinnycorp (which owns Threadless), just sent me a rather dire email. The title was “Did Seth Godin just Steal your Deal?” And then there was link to Seth Godin’s new, upcoming book which is called “Tribes: We Need You to Lead.”

Well, gee. I dunno. Seth’s new book is about tribes, apparently, although there isn’t a lot of info on it available just yet. The Amazon.com copy on the book does, however, say this:

“According to Godin, Tribes are groups of people aligned around an idea, connected to a leader and to each other. Tribes make our world work, and always have. The new opportunity is that it’s easier than ever to find, organize, and lead a tribe. The Web has enabled an explosion of all kinds of tribes — and created shortage of people to lead them. This is the growth industry of our time. Tribes (the book) will help you understand exactly what’s at stake, and why YOU can and should lead a tribe of your own.”

Well, okay, a definition is a good start. But a group of people aligned around an idea, connected to a leader and to each other could also be the definition of a community, a group, a hierarchical organization, a network, or any variation or manifestation of one of these things. A number of very respectable scholars like Michel Maffesoli and Bernard Cova, not to mention armies of anthropologists, have come up with careful and nuanced definitions to help differentiate the idea of a tribe from those other concepts. But it’s just Amazon back cover blurb, so I’d suggest we all wait for the final version.

In general though, and this doesn’t have anything to do with this book or with Seth Godin’s work, I always try to read pop business books to see whether the author has taken some care in writing them in a somewhat intellectually meaningful way which would include thinking about defining terms, being precise about what actions are being advocated and why, and using and crediting the work of others (literary and scientific) who have thought about these ideas before them. There are still few pop authors who do this, but they are few and far between. Even academics often fall into these bad habits when they write popular books.

I obviously can’t write a book review of a book that hasn’t yet been distributed (unless Mr. Godin kindly sends me a copy). The book does look intriguing. Some other popular books that deal with this big topic of tribes, marketing and consumers, are Alex Wipperfurth in his very solid Brand Hijack book, or of Douglas Atkin in The Culting of Brands (both of whom develop and talk extensively about marketing to “tribes”; Atkin cites a number of other authors, including Bernard Cova).

I’m not particularly enamored of the subtitle for this Tribes book. “We need you to lead us.” To me, it insinuates that tribes crave marketers. Yeeks. I’d say that some tribes, perhaps many tribes, do not want to be “led” by some all-knowing business manager or marketer. Actually, according to Mr. Godin’s blog, he is trying to promote this book by leading his own Godin tribe. I think that he is used to leading his own “Brand tribe”–and in fact I can see how marketing managers be happy to anoint a charismatic author and speaker into that role. But…

I’d argue that many other real-world brand tribes won’t ever be led by marketers. A deep, grounded understanding of tribes and what they are, and the social and cultural conditions that create and sustain them, leads to that contention. It could also lead to a much more precise, delimiting, useful, and grounded definition of what a tribe consists of. You can see I’m stretching here…offering a critique of a subtitle. The actual book might be a lot more nuanced than this. I’ll let you know.

Here is the book cover.


I just want to return to Harper’s question about Mr. Godin “stealing my deal.” Obviously, there was nothing stolen. The word tribes belongs to everyone. And the phenomenon of communities, tribes, gatherings, pow-wows, or whatever else you want to call this micro-collectivization of society is a happening big enough and important enough that many of us should be writing about it, and will have lot to write about for years to come.

So on this, I say bravo to Mr. Godin for seeing fit to write about such an important topic. I agree, wholeheartedly, that it deserves our careful attention.

To me, Harper’s question has the ring of asking a journalist whether they got scooped on their story. It’s also a question I hear a lot from Ph.D. students and other scholars who are worried about their ideas being stolen.

The thing is, academia isn’t journalism. When a journalist breaks a big story like Watergate, it’s broken. But academics develop theories, and others continue to develop them, and then the theories get overturned, and brought back, construct developed from there, and so on. There are many ways to make a contribution besides being the first one in with some big new construct or theory or relationship. In fact, sometime you can be later to the field and make the biggest contribution of all.

That said, one of the things that powers the development of our understanding as a civilization is the fact that people get credit for their ideas. In the world of intellectual property, as we all know, there are major shifts and battles underway, covered nicely in the work by Lawrence Lessig, Henry Jenkins, and others. Stealing others’ ideas or content is for the most part seen as a bad thing. And let me be clear here that I’m not insinuating anything here about Mr. Godin’s upcoming book, which I have not read; I’m talking in general about a pet peeve, a tension between academic writers and popular business writers.

Just like a patent holder likes to have a license paid on the use of their property, the people who originally think of and develop an idea like to be cited, to be given credit for their heavy intellectual lifting. Most of course want to have their ideas and terminology reach wider circulation. But it never ceases to amaze me how many writers in the popular business press rip each other off, and ignore established popular and academic work that tackles the same topics, often in very similar ways.

So, in general, as you read popular business books, try to see where the author has worked with other people’s ideas, and where credit has been given. For any book on Consumer Tribes or tribal marketing, I think the single person whose work is most important is Bernard Cova, who has been working with these ideas and concepts (building on Michel Maffesoli’s important theoretical work and developing it in the marketing context) for over a decade.

Two key citations for this topic are:

  • Bernard Cova (1997), Community and consumption: Towards a definition of the “linking value” of product or services, European Journal of Marketing, 31 (3/4), 297 – 316
  • Bernard Cova and Véronique Cova (2002), Tribal marketing: The tribalisation of society and its impact on the conduct of marketing, European Journal of Marketing, 36 (5/6), 595-620

To talk about marketing to tribes or tribal marketing and not cite Bernard Cova would be like talking about brand communities and not citing Al Muniz and Tom O’Guinn. That’s my opinion and I’ll stand by it.

Now is it fair to expect consultants and other laymen to act like professors, to read deeply and broadly and to cite like scholars? That’s a fair question. I think that doing so is more possible and simpler than ever, because of the Internet and the way it makes information accessible. Certainly, the expectation about an author writing a book about, say, coffee marketing, would be that the author would read all the books that show up on Amazon with coffee marketing in their title or subtitle. And then probably, to go the extra mile, to read some of the articles that show up on Google Scholar from a similar search, and from a good scouring of the footnotes and references in those book that were found on Amazon (and in one’s local library). I don’t think that is holding any non-fiction author to too high of a standard.

Similarly, I don’t think academics can ignore good books simply because they are popular or written for a broader audience. On the contrary, I think it’s our job to try and locate the good, novel, practical ideas in these books and bring them to an academic audience. This has been done quite a bit by scholars in my field. For example, a number of us have written about Naomi Klein’s book No Logo, and cited it quite extensively. Ditto Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks. And Thomas Franks’ books, like The Conquest of Cool.

As for whether I or anyone else can still write a book about this topic of consumer collectivities on the Internet, there’s little doubt here. The phenomenon is way, way, too big for a single book, or even a single series of volumes of books (need I mention Manuel Castells’ masterwork The Information Age volumes here?).

So, to answer Harper’s question, no way. In fact, Seth Godin is making my deal. Whatever is in his upcoming book about tribes, he’s helping all of us who are interested in this important topic.

I’m looking forward to reading this new book, some other new ones (another brand-new volume called Electronic Tribes also looks very interesting--thanks to Ingeborg Kleppe for the heads up on this one), and to continuing to think about this fascinating time we find ourselves in and the phenomena it presents us.


  1. alshebil August 2, 2008
  2. bonnieL August 29, 2008
  3. EliaMorling March 31, 2009

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