Yale School of Management

Center for Customer Insights

Advancing the frontiers of consumer understanding

A Conversation with Seth Farbman

We sat down with YCCI Executive Fellow and former Chief Marketing Officer of Spotify, Seth Farbman, to hear his thoughts on the future of marketing.

May 7, 2020

Photograph of Seth FarbmanThere is an ongoing shift today in marketing from selling a product to selling an experience. How have you seen that transition play out?
Marketing has gone through a transition from the what to the how to the why. It started with the what: “What product do you have to sell and what features does it have?” Next came the how: “How do you use it in your life and how can you connect with it?” And then the next level, which requires much more storytelling, is the why: “Why was it invented in the first place, why does it exist, and why should the customer think about it differently?

Today, many products and services are so similar, almost commoditized, that marketers must create differentiation beyond the product. Storytelling is not just important to marketing, but core to how humans communicate. People make emotional decisions first, and then they rationalize them. If you give somebody a list of facts, they will remember almost none of them. Yet if you give someone a narrative that they can follow and repeat, it creates an indelible imprint on their brain. No matter how clever we get in marketing, stories will always be the most effective form of communication. We have social media, digital media, and so many new ways to communicate, but it still comes back to that core thing that we learned as cave people.

Taking that emotional connection one step further, while you were at Spotify you led several values-based campaigns such as “I’m With the Banned.” Increasingly, it seems like consumers are expecting corporations to take stands on societal issues. How do you think about managing a brand in relation to larger cultural events?
Cultural connection was essential to our strategy at Spotify. If a brand is aligned with culture, people talk about it in a way that is much more meaningful, but also unprompted. Before you have an operating system, you must have a belief system. So before you figure out what your brand stands for, what your positioning is, how you’re going to organize your marketing, all these things, you have to have a belief system. If you don’t, something is going to happen in the business, and you will realize in real-time that you don’t have a belief system and will be unsure how to respond and then do a terrible job.

Fundamentally, one of the first principles of Spotify is if you create greater access and greater discovery for people, they will value music more. And if they value music more, they will expand the types of music they are open to listening to. This allows artists to produce the art they want to produce, rather than the art that they think the label will accept. In that sense, there is a strong orientation towards the platform to enable previously unheard voices to be heard. Things like “I’m With the Banned” really came from that. So you can look it as a progressive view, or in a political way, but at Spotify we looked at it as a principle of the company: to give voice to those who don’t have voice, to expand and diversify the voices in the world, and to allow people to make decisions on what they like and what they don’t. The core of that campaign was that if you don’t allow people into the country from very specific backgrounds then you’re actually not sharing enough voices. That’s exactly what music needs to do and has always done.

If you’re a company, you need to figure out what you believe in ahead of time. And the actions that you take should be less about what you believe as management, and more about how your product can help.

The future of marketing is much more about taking action, making content, sharing content of others, and having that content be meaningful, then it is simply about well-crafted communications that we now are almost immune to and typically think of as advertising.

Another interesting campaign at Spotify utilized large billboards to uncover and showcase unique listening habits of users, which is a great example of how marketers can leverage data to create that emotional connection we’ve been discussing. What role do you see data playing in marketing?
The marketing function has a lot of self-inflicted wounds because marketers were traditionally unsure of what to do with data, so they either rejected it or buried their head in the sand. But it’s really not that complicated. What data does is simply allow you to learn at scale about your customers—it is an insight engine. Not a decision engine, but an insight engine. Most effectively, marketers should think of data as a way to answer their questions. So if you have a theory or an idea, you can go into the data and validate it. The data gives you a powerful peek into what people think and do and how they act, and if you leverage it, you can grow your relationship with your customers.

What we did at Spotify was dig into the data to uncover really fascinating ways that people engage with music and find real stories to share with the world. We looked for storytelling opportunities that were unique and powerful and that allowed others to see themselves in. When it’s a real person, who has done a real thing, people respond to it. It’s a better story. So when we saw that someone streamed “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” during the day of the Brexit vote, we knew that there was a cultural conversation going around, and if you turn to music to express it, people can relate to it and it seems humorous, so we are all joining in the fun.

Where things go wrong is when people follow the data as if it’s a series of answers. Data is only being captured at a portion of people’s decision-making process and we typically are only able to collect it towards the very end. If you only pick it up then, you can have some value, but not all the value. You have to be aware of that.

Another pitfall is that if you are only looking at data to come to a decision, then you are only looking at things that already exist. You may be able to make a better decision from that data but if you are looking to create a new idea, that data won’t take you there directly. It will give you insight, but then you yourself must generate a new idea. Data can inform original thought, but data will not lead to original thought. That’s where discernment comes in, instinct comes in, empathy for humans comes in. There has to be the combination of both the quantitative and the qualitative signals.

Our projects with YCCI focus on uncovering customer insights—specifically, the need to differentiate between what people say and what they do. How does data play into that journey?
That’s one of the things that was key to our discovery of how people use Spotify. For instance, if you ask me what my musical tastes are, I’m just going to say I like really cool bands. I’m going to give you a subset depending on how I want you to think about me. If I want you to think of me as really cutting-edge, I’m going to give some new artist you’ve probably never heard of. If I want you to think I’m really well-rounded, I’m going to tell you that somedays I just listen to Chopin, and others I’m listening to Ed Sheeran, oh but I’m really interested in The Who album from 1960-whatever. But the truth is, the actual data will show that I am way less adventurous, way less diverse listener, and in fact, I kind of just listen to three albums over and over. Oh and by the way, I didn’t mention Ariana Grande, but I actually listen to her all the time.

So we would see that all the time. Our “Year in Music” campaign (later changed to “Wrapped”) would give people a look at their own data and immediately see that they are not so avant-garde as they think they are, but it’s done in a way that they actually enjoy it.

Switching gears to today, during your time as Executive Fellow at Yale SOM, you’ve had the opportunity to interact with students and staff. What has surprised you the most during your time here? What have you learned?
I didn’t have an appreciation, though perhaps I should have, for how deeply diverse the student body is at Yale SOM. I’ve found that incredibly exciting. I get a lot of students sharing their thoughts, their business ideas, and what they’re excited about in the world. As a result, I’m able to see what is resonating and where students see culture and business going.

I’ve spent 20 years in a career where I was responsible for results and responsible for hundreds of people in an organization. What happens is your mind actually changes and you become quite good at a sort of triage. Something comes in unexpected every day, you use pattern recognition to make decisions, you live with those decisions, and you fix things when you get them wrong. While your mind becomes very nimble, you don’t spend enough time on anything really deeply. Now in an academic environment with incredibly smart professors, students, and staff, it encourages and stimulates thought that’s more broad-ranging, philosophical, which I enjoy tremendously.

Is there something recently that you’ve been thinking about deeply?
Oh, many things. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to live in a post-truth world. If we lose that belief in truth, we lose an entire democratic system that comes from the single pillar of “Do you swear to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth.” If you take that away, everything collapses. So I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact of communication, of channels like social media, on the very nature of truth and what the massive societal impact will be if we are unsure what truth is.

So those are the kind of heady things that I have the time, space, and different viewpoints to build around. I think that’s how you can come up with new ideas: to step back from the day-to-day and think about what we are doing and not doing to impact our generation.

Which is, in a sense, parallel to the student experience at Yale SOM where we can get away from our day-to-day jobs and enter an environment to think and have meaningful conversations about those issues.
Exactly. If I were to enter another corporate role, I hope that I’d hold on to this and do it very differently. I would be much more professorial with my team and have a different kind of leadership than before. So hopefully I’m growing as human being!