4 TED Talks Every Marketer Should Watch in 2017

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Mike Whitney
Mike Whitney



TED talks are not-for-profit conferences where leading thinkers discuss big ideas, trends, and innovations in their respective fields. The project was originally conceived as a forum for technology, entertainment, and design (hence the TED), but now has expanded to include topics ranging all across the human experience.

The talks have been lauded for their ability to take complex concepts and deliver them in ways that are digestible for everyday audiences. As marketers, TED talks are great examples of injecting compelling narratives into abstract sets of concepts. As someone with a product to market, this skill is definitely worth cultivating.

Think about all the different reasons you can provide value for your consumer base. If you can use those reasons to build a unique and inviting story, you’ll have built a strong brand and satisfied group of customers. Here are some examples of TED talks that exemplified this ability, and have something to teach all of us as marketers:

1) Malcolm Gladwell: Choice, Happiness, and Spaghetti Sauce



Malcolm Gladwell’s speech from 2006 was a watershed moment for both TED talks and the national discourse on marketing. Gladwell is an outsider to the marketing world and uses this – coupled with his uncanny ability to turn technical strategies into engaging stories – to his great advantage.

Here he tells the tale of Howard Moskowitz, a consultant who revolutionized the way companies align their product with their brand in the 1970’s and 80’s. There is much to be learned from Moskowitz’ example, especially as told by Gladwell, about how to use data driven buyer personas (sound familiar?) to provide the most possible value to your customer base.

Previous to Moskowitz’ research, companies were in the habit of seeing product development as a linear path towards one ideal item, as perfectly aligned with the desires of their customer base as possible. In order to develop an idea of what those desires were, traditional focus groups were used obsessively, rounding up endless groups of sample-consumers, and simply asking them what they prefer in a product.

Moskowitz saw two major flaws in this perspective. First, he saw that there was not any one perfectly optimized product. As Gladwell puts it, Pepsi was “looking for the perfect Pepsi, when they should have been looking for the perfect Pepsis”.

Companies of all sizes and from all industries can learn from this. Diversifying the value you offer doesn’t necessarily hurt your brand. Often, it will help you find untapped market share that you might not have even known existed. Secondly, it revealed an interesting shortcoming in people’s ability to express exactly what they desire in a product in a survey or traditional focus group.

This is not an insult to you or your customer base.

It’s just an interesting little tidbit of human nature that your company should use as a reminder: trust the data.

Also, it doesn’t mean you should ignore your customers’ individual voices. These can be extremely helpful as well and humanize the way you look at buyer personas. Just always remember that these individual pieces are part of a bigger picture, and empirical evidence should come first when thinking about your next marketing strategy.

2) Sheena Iyengar: How to Make Choosing Easier



I included Ms. Iyengar’s example after Gladwell’s for a specific reason. They are coming at the same problem from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum. This is the problem, of course, of finding the perfect level of variety in your product offering.

Gladwell found (via Moskowitz) that if you limit yourself to a singular idea of what your perfect product is, you will be ignoring large segments of your consumer base. But how far does this go? Is it possible to stretch yourself too thin, rendering your brand unrecognizable and hard to engage with? This is something that she refers to as the “choice overload problem”.

As a graduate student, Sheena executed a very interesting experiment with a local grocery store which was noteworthy for having a plethora of different options for all of their different product offerings (75 different olive oils, 348 flavors of jam etc.).

Sheena, though, was curious as to whether this actually promoted revenue or was a hindrance to it. To test this, she got permission from the store manager to set up a ‘Free Samples’ table in the store and do two trial runs: one with 6 options, and one with 24 options. She found that about 20% more people stopped when there were more options.

However, when tallying how many people actually bought a jar of jam as a result of stopping, she found that the table with fewer options was more effective as a marketing tool. Why might this be? This goes back to the choice overload problem. Sheena finds that if a consumer is bombarded with too many options, he/she will often ‘choose not to choose.’ For your business, that means lost revenue.

Does this mean that either Iyengar or Gladwell must be wrong? Not necessarily. What makes juxtaposing the two perspectives useful is that it drives home just how receptive to our consumer base we must be when developing marketing strategies. I think one of the most important aspects of Iyengar’s speech is the idea that consumers will be more likely to be overwhelmed by ‘choice overload’ if the choice is something of greater import.

So think about the product you’re offering. Is it high cost, like an in-ground pool, for example? If so, try not to overload the consumer with varying options right off the bat. Develop a way to show them a few different possible courses of action, and save the detail-oriented choices for afterwards. Research has shown that a failure to do this will result in a consumer becoming less engaged and procrastinating.

Think about your own daily choice-making process. If it’s something that involves a succession of complex choices, there’s probably a voice in the back of your head (we all have that voice) encouraging you to push it back, take care of the easy ones first. Well, in the case of a potential customer, everything you do should inspire action, not procrastination! So make it easy on them. Allow them to make one easy, high-level decision first; then let that funnel into the more detailed material later on.   

3) David Carson: Design and Discovery



David Carson’s innovative work as a graphic designer reshaped the industry and injected creativity into a field that was becoming a breeding ground for dull conformity. His work can be aggressive and controversial, which aren’t necessarily the first things you’ll think about when contemplating how to redesign your website.

Still, though, the ideas behind this style are super beneficial when applied to the realms of marketing and entrepreneurship. Your business does not exist in a vacuum. It is a small chunk in the avalanche of options each consumer is buried under on a daily basis. Intensify the way you approach individualism, and your revenue stream will reap the benefits.

As a marketer, I couldn’t resist writing down the following quote saving it as a reminder: “Don’t mistake legibility for communication.” This idea of “communication” over “legibility” is at the core of maintaining a strong brand in the 21st century. The age of forcing a simplistic (and idealistic) message down your consumers’ throats is well past over. Instead, market your product/service in a way that brings about unique, interesting, and two-way communication.

Perhaps the most illuminating portion of Carson’s speech was the last few minutes when he discusses what’s next for the field of design. He talks about how new technologies are complicating our world, and how injecting humanity into our design and marketing will elevate our brand from the rest.

No matter how big or small your company is, you’ll benefit from thinking critically about individuality in the world of design, and how to give your brand a personal touch that your customer base can trust. 

4) Seth Godin: The Tribes We Lead



Seth Godin thinks critically about the societal trends that lead us to where we are, this “cultural moment”, if you will. He sees this moment in time – right now- as extremely important in the human narrative of how ideas are generated and how they are spread.

He diagrams how in the fifties, as television advertising came into its own, the best way to spread an idea was to mass market it. If the idea itself was mediocre, no problem! So long as it could be deconstructed into an easily digestible 30 second ad and propped up by a widespread, high-cost marketing budget. As our lives become increasingly digitized, this model is being replaced by a seemingly endless series of tribes.

Tribes have been around since the beginning of humanity as a sociocultural grouping mechanism, but in this context Godin explains how they are representative of ideological groups in the 21st century.

The most telling example he gives of this phenomenon is that of TOMS Shoes. In this case, think of the “tribe” as the segment of millennials with a social conscience, but unsure of how to give back on a day-by-day basis. Founder Blake Mycoskie was able to target this idea – and all of the people it applies to – by creating a brand that tells a story they find appealing.

For every pair of shoes purchased, an identical pair is donated to a recipient without shoes. By using this strategy, TOMS has found their perfect audience, and turned them into promoters of their brand by giving back to those in need. Kudos to them for not only being radically advanced as a brand builder, but for behaving as ethically sound as you could ask from a major shoe manufacturer.

Plus, perhaps most importantly to Godin’s thesis, they have found an interesting and compelling way to challenge the status quo, building their brand and telling a brilliant story all the while.


I think it’s important – in a blog post that shows TED in a positive light – to recognize some criticism the institution has faced in recent years. Most of this criticism is aimed at TED’s tendency to take grandiose ideas – ideas that, in practice, require hard-earned expertise and incredibly complex execution in order to be successful – and boiling them down to an easily digestible ‘Aha!’ moment that any audience can comprehend.

I understand where this criticism is coming from; I, too, think it’s vital to remember that the complexity of what the speakers discuss cannot truly be expressed in a fifteen minute video. I also have come across examples of speeches that perfectly encapsulate the “all style, no substance” aspect of that criticism.

On the whole, TED represents intelligent people discussing important ideas. What you glean from them is your own responsibility. As a marketer and/or a small business owner, you can gain a lot of insight from these discussions. In this collection, I tried to find videos that all address innovative ways to think about audience and value: how you define – and then reach – the former and how you acquire – and then deliver – the latter.

With Gladwell and Iyengar, we saw two opposite approaches to the same problem: delivering the perfect amount of choice to your consumer base. With David Carson, we saw how an outsider can turn the design world on its head, and an example you can use in your marketing strategies of effective individualism.

And finally, with Seth Godin, we had an eloquently delivered reminder that your consumer base is no longer reachable with sheer force. Instead, understand how consumers form cultural and ideological groups so that you can deliver a brand with a story that is appealing to them. Companies of all sizes can use these examples of methods for growth, innovation, and brand-building.    



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