Enlightened Marketing Thom Van Dycke


“If you propose to speak always ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind.” The Buddha. 

Can you imagine if people approached marketing in this way? Truth. Necessity. Kindness. What an enlightened world that would be. A world where advertising that isn’t littered with fear-mongering, or selfish psychological mind tricks. 

I live with the belief that if an ancient worldview has survived into contemporary times, it warrants investigating. 

I’m not a Buddhist. But I love learning, and Buddhism has lots to teach. I also love the thought experiment of integrating lessons from history into the work I am currently doing. So, in what way can Buddhism enlighten marketing? I believe there are three key lessons Buddhism can teach us, but first, let me give you a brief overview of the life of Siddhartha Gautama who became known as “the Enlightened One” whom we call, the Buddha. 

A History Lesson 

Siddhartha Gautama, a prince, was born in 563 BCE into the ruling family of the Shakya clan. He lived a life of a privileged prince; his father keeping him within the walls of their family compound, safe from the tragic outside world. 

Siddhartha married within these walls and had a child. But one day he ventured from the safety of the compound and is said to have meet a sick man, an old man, a poor man, and a corpse on his journey. His perception of the world was shaken. 

Perplexed and bothered by his experience, he left his family including his wife and child at the age of 29, to search for truth in the chaos. 

Gautama wandered about for 6 years experimenting with many different Hindu practices which left him near starvation. Finally, at the age of 35 he sat down beneath a tree and vowed not to leave the spot until he attained enlightenment. Just days later, he felt he had attained enlightenment and spent the next 45 years of his life establishing communities of monks and teaching others how they may too experience enlightenment. 

Why did so many people follow the Buddha? And why do so many people still adhere to his teachings some 2500 years later? Here are three general ideas that can also help us as we strive to guide our customers towards solutions to their problems. 

Identify What Universal Problem You Solve 

All major world religions seek to solve the “human problem.” For example, Christianity says that the human problem is sin which separates people from their creator. Hinduism teaches that the problem is ignorance of our personal divinity and the cosmic debt-collector called karma. Even branches of humanism, a largely atheistic worldview, offers a solution, suggesting that the human problem is precisely that we believe in silly superstitions and keep ourselves locked in the past. 

The Buddha defined the human problem as suffering which is caused by desire. 

Who wouldn’t want to be free from suffering? 

According to Allan Dib in his excellent book, The 1-Page Marketing Plan: Get New Customers, Make More Money, and Stand Out From the Crowd, there are “five big motivators of human behavior, especially buying behavior.” These include:  

  1. Fear
  2. Love
  3. Greed
  4. Guilt
  5. Pride[1]

You can see that the Christian definition of the human problem being sin taps into the motivator of guilt while Buddhism might tap into the motivator of fear. If you fear suffering, as many people do, then the Buddha’s teachings become very attractive.

There isn’t anything wrong with using the five big motivators to help people see the value in your product or service. 

Identifying a universal motivator or struggle that people have can be powerful to create sales.

But just describing a universal problem isn’t enough, you need to prescribe a solution. 

Provide a Path to “Enlightenment”

The Buddha described the human condition and prescribed a solution in the Four Noble Truths. 

  1. Dukkha: The truth of suffering. All life is impermanent, imperfect, and involves suffering
  2. Samudaya: The truth of the origin of suffering. The cause of suffering is desire: the craving for things to be a certain way. 
  3. Nirodha: The truth of the ending of suffering. Suffering can be ended by detaching oneself from craving and desire. 
  4. Magga: The truth of the path to the ending of suffering. The way to stop craving is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path.[2]

So what is the Noble Eightfold Path? 

  1. Right understanding (Samma ditthi)
  2. Right thought (Samma sankappa)
  3. Right speech (Samma vaca
  4. Right action (Samma kammanta)
  5. Right livelihood (Samma ajiva
  6. Right effort (Samma vayama)
  7. Right mindfulness (Samma sati)
  8. Right concentration (Samma samadhi)

The Buddha taught that each principle was interconnected and didn’t teach these principles as sequential; they could all develop simultaneous in a follower of Buddhism. 

The point is, it isn’t good enough to stir up passion or fear or pride in a person and then not tell them what to do with it. It would have been a cruel joke for the Buddha to define the problem with humans and not give them a way out of that suffering. 

When we do marketing, we need to talk about problems our customer’s face and then position our products and services as the pathway toward a solution. And these steps should be given as simply and concisely as possible. 

Celebrate the Journey and Don’t Give Up

The Buddha said, “Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise man, gathering it little by little, fills himself with good.”

Something remarkable happens when we commit ourselves to making one small choice after another in the right direction. This is what Robert Maurer writes about in his book, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way.

Even though we intuitively know that the get-rich-quick stuff is nonsense, we still daydream about making it big with the least amount of effort possible. Consider that the Buddha said that even enlightenment can be attained by making small decisions one after the next. 

That’s enlightenment. From one small decision to the next. 

This means that while you might not have the company, brand, non-profit, product, or service you know is down the road, you can do the next step today. 

There is life to be lived along the way. One of the keys to having a happy life is recognizing that the journey is the destination. If you yearn so deeply for the success you will eventually realize, you might miss the precious lessons along the way. 

But this isn’t just about you, your customers need what you have to offer. If you abandon the path too quickly because things are going the way you want, you are robbing people of the fantastic product or service you have! 

Now go make it happen! Remember, “You yourself must strive. The Buddhas only point the way.” 

[1] Dib, A. (2021). The 1-page marketing plan: Get new customers, make more money, and stand out from the crowd. Successwise.

[2] DK Publishing. (2018). The religions book