6 TED Talks every marketer should watch

As a marketer TED talks are a great source for motivation and insight from not just thought leaders, but marketers and entrepreneurs who have valuable experiences they want to share.

The issue is there are thousand of TED talks.. many of which are fascinating in their own right. So which ones do I believe are a must watch for all marketers?

I have already mentioned one in my previous post about the pain of losing clients by Dan Gilbert. This is definitely one that you should check out and here are a handful that will get your marketing mindset dialled in.

TED talks are short talks by experts in many areas that aim to inspire and spread ideas. It was started in 1984 as a conference on Technology, Entertainment and Design, but has since grown to cover m any areas. One of their main areas is “Ideas worth spreading.” Marketing is an area that can always benefit from good ideas. With technology changing on a daily basis, most marketers realize the importance of this aspect of their jobs. Part of their work also involves entertainment, but is more about ideas than anything else.

Marketers sell ideas as much as they sell products, so these talks can benefit them on many levels. Here are six TED talks that are significant and should be watched by serious marketers.

Malcolm Gladwell: Choice, Happiness and Spaghetti Sauce

This talk was first given in 2006, and has been called one of the most significant moments in recent marketing history. It has been 10 years and it is still being talked about, so there must be something to this one.

Gladwell is an entertaining storyteller, and that is part of the appeal, but his ideas go deeper to the heart of marketing. For decades companies have sought to develop the perfect product, and used many focus groups to try to determine exactly what consumers want. Gladwell draws on research done by Howard Moskowitz, who worked in the 70s and 80s. He talked about how the Pepsi company sought to make the perfect Pepsi, but they would have been better off trying to develop perfect Pepsis. He sees that there is no model consumer, and no product optimized well enough for that non existent model consumer.

His idea is to diversify to appeal to as many groups as possible, which is a more broad based approach. That is not to say one should ignore individual voices, but we should see those as parts of the whole instead of the ultimate goal. This was perhaps the beginning of the idea of “buyer personas.” Giving customers more choices wa also a key point.

Sheena Iyengar: How to make choosing easier

Sheena Iyengar takes a different attitude towards diversifying. While choice is good, customers can get the the point of choice overload, and that can hurt sales more than choices can help sales. Her approach is aimed at understanding where the point of overload is, or when to present choices to consumers.

She once ran an experiment with a grocery store. She offered free samples of a product, one with just a few options and one with many more options. What she found was, people were more attracted to the samples when there were a lot of them, but they actually bought the product when there were fewer options.

When people feel things are too complicated, like picking from 25 flavors of something, they are more likely to procrastinate and not even make the purchase. Still, some choice is good, it is just finding how much and when that is the key.

The problem is even worse on a big-ticket item like a car or pool. She suggests giving simple choices at first, and then give them more options later. Let people decide which of the four Fords they want, and then begin introducing the possible options.

Seth Godwin: The Tribes We Lead

Seth Godwin tackles the modern era of people groups, or what he calls tribes. A tribe can be any group of people as long as they have at least one thing in common. It could be Millennials, a minority group, sports fans or even owners of a certain brand of car.

Godwin talks about how during the development of television the idea of mass marketing a simple slogan or idea was how things were done. It was a one size fits all approach, and with limited media available, it worked for a time.

With the advent of the modern digital age, we see endless groupings and tribes forming. Godwin seeks to understand a specific group or tribe, and then tell them a story they can relate to.  The story can get that group to buy into your product as an idea.

He told the story of TOMS shoes, who gives away a pair of shoes for everyone pair it sells. This appealed to millennials who want to give back to society. It in essence told them a story they could relate to and made their product more desirable at the same time.

Rory Sutherland: Life Lessons from an Ad Man

Rory Sutherland is an ad man that understands perception is reality, or even more important than reality. Value itself is subjective and ideas are relative, he says. Advertising is often criticized because of its reputation, but he relishes in it, knowing that it is the perception advertising creates that matters. It does not matter how good your product is, people will not want it until they perceive the value of the product.

He tells the story of the king that wanted to get his subjects to grow potatoes, but no one would because they did not like them. Instead of pressuring them, the king declared the potato to be a delicacy for the royal family. He put guards around the king’s potato field. Soon people believed they were valuable a the food of kings, and they wanted them enough to grow them. The king had also instructed his guards to not guard the field very carefully, making it easy for people to steal some of them. The plan worked because the perception of the value of the potato had changed.

He also raises questions on how to look at things. He told thee story of a study for improving the train ride from London to Paris, and for millions of dollars, they found they could cut 30 minutes off the trip. Sutherland questioned why making it shorter would make it better. What if you made it a lot more fun, have super models serve expensive wine for free, for example? That would cost something but millions less than the other plan, and who is to say which is better? His point is to bring unconventional thinking and value into your marketing.

Clint Smith: The Danger of Silence

Clint Smith is talking about justice in society and in the workplace, and how silence stifles justice. He says when you do not speak up for yourself, for a coworker, for a customer, or for anyone, you are preventing justice.  He spent some time intentionally not speaking – he gave up talking for Lent – and that helped him to see how he had silenced himself already all too often.  He gives several stories and examples of bad things happening when people do not speak up. Following that experience he vowed to not shut himself up any longer.

This relates to marketing in that people need to have the freedom to speak up when ideas are being discussed. When marketing plans are being made, a lowly employee may not feel free to speak up, but could have input that would be very valuable. He encourages people to speak up, and for those in charge to allow them to speak and be heard. As a teacher, he has four key points: read critically, write consciously, speak clearly, tell your truth.

Dan Cobley: What Physics Taught Me About Marketing

Cobley takes the principals of physics and shows how they relate to marketing. He brings in ideas like Newton’s Second law, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, the Scientific Method and the second law of thermodynamics and relates all that to branding.

He says the scientific method does not prove things to be true, but observation can only disprove hypothesis. In marketing, years of building up a great reputation an be destroyed in a single incident, which he says is the same principle. Or in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty, he notes that you cannot measure anything because by measuring you change the substance. In surveys no one will admit to not brushing their teeth, for example.

His overall thesis is that marketing can be precise at times, and can be very practical, just like various scientific theories.


In these six talks we see a pattern emerge, and that they all fit together. In these six we see a balance between ideas. First, you do need to diversify your product to reach more people. Secondly, you can do that too much, so it is important to know where to draw the line and when to introduce those choices.
Even beyond the choices, marketers should understand their audience, and how to relate to each different group in that audience. Then, as Rory Sutherland suggested, we need to understand that even the message itself depends on the perceived value. Listening is also important, and it is important to speak up for ideas to get ideas heard. Finallyl, in marketing we need to understand that reality is reality, and add a dose of that to our strategy.