“The minute you start hard selling, you’re losing.” – Laozi, Tao Te Ching
OK, obviously, that is not a real quote. But that thought popped into my head when I was reading Laozi’s work for the first time.
Ancient philosophy texts from around the world are great repositories of wisdom. But philosophy isn’t just something that old men sit in chairs and ponder. It’s something we all apply to our daily lives, whether we mean to or not.
I’ve had an interest in philosophy for a long time, and I’ve read many books over the years. But I only recently encountered the Tao Te Ching by the Old Master, Laozi. One thing that struck me was how appropriate it seemed for our time and, even more serendipitously, the particulars of my career.
How on earth can you get marketing lessons from Taoism?
As the foundational text of Taoist philosophy, you’d expect the Tao Te Ching to be a massive tome, but it’s not. Rather, it’s a lithe book, easy to read in an hour, but so deep that I don’t think anyone could get the bottom of it.
I was drawn to its poetic passages and the concept of Wu Wei, which I think can best be translated into English as “not-forcing.” The Tao Te Ching spoke to me as a workaholic, a person neurologically hardwired toward literal thinking, and as someone who – like so many young men looking for purpose – misread Nietzsche and the Stoics in my early 20s.
You can’t take his work literally. And if you overthink it, you miss the point. It’s heavy on symbolism and ambiguity, and that’s why it works.
Now I should say first that I have a superficial understanding of the philosophy I’m about to discuss. You should really read the text for yourself and study it, and try to understand its deeper meaning. Today, I want to set my sights on a very specific goal – to talk how the concept of Wu Wei made me rethink some aspects of my professional life. Nothing more, nothing less.
I should also say that it may seem crass to marry ancient eastern wisdom with capitalism. It probably is. After all, so much our current capitalist society is built on a sort of desperate, sweaty striving that Laozi would undoubtedly find tragically devoid of wisdom.
But we live in this world, and we have to deal with that fact. So consider what makes capitalism crass: transgressing on others’ boundaries and annoying them, ripping them off with bad deals, and refusing to listen. Greedily gobbling up money that isn’t needed and refusing to give it to others.
We have to pay our bills, yes. But we don’t have to do those evil deeds. As marketers, we can behave better as matchmakers, not hustlers. We may not be able to help people detach from their desires, but we can at least stop killing ourselves trying to craft new desires for others.
One of the core concepts of Taoist philosophy is Wu Wei. What exactly is it?
Like I mentioned earlier, one of the concepts I found most attractive about my brief encounter with Taoist philosophy is that of Wu Wei. You’ll often hear it translated to “non-doing” or “non-action”, but I think “effortless action” or “not-forcing” are more accurate.
The basic idea is that you should try to act in a way that is natural and spontaneous. You want to act in harmony with the Tao, which is the ultimate order of things. Stoics would probably call this Nature. Christians would call it God’s will. Those into New Age thinking might say the Universe. (Funny, isn’t it, that those who seek wisdom – regardless of where and when – seem to gravitate toward similar concepts.)
So you let go of your ego, your false sense of control, and your unhealthy attachments. Rather than desperately trying to make things go your way, you put in a sensible amount of effort over the things you can control or influence, and then let things play out the way they will. Instead of making things go according to some imagined, doomed-from-the-start plan, you adapt and change based on new evidence. You leave your expectations and the door, and open yourself to new experience.
Is this laziness? No, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that because Wu Wei can often look like it. Instead of what I like to call desperate, sweaty striving, you keep it simple. You stay humble and admit what you can and can’t control. Rather than looking at some project timeline in a spreadsheet, you pay attention to what’s actually happening. And from this mindset, stems peace, balance, and harmony.
I don’t know about you, but I think our Western world could use a dose of that right about now.
Forcing bad ideas in marketing is one of the worst things you can do
Wu Wei sounds lovely and all, but let’s ground this in the real world, and hopefully, you can see where my fascination comes from.
I tell you – 9 out of 10 times, what gets clients of mine in trouble is forcing bad ideas. But what does that look like?
- Trying to get media coverage when they’re not doing anything the media would care about.
- Making an unattractive offer, refusing to change it, and trying to hard sell it to a recalcitrant audience.
- Sticking to preconceived notions of how businesses must work rather than hearing feedback.
- Using hashtags to try to get impressions on platforms where people just don’t do that anymore, such as Facebook and Twitter.
- Clinging to an old product line that needs to be retired.
By the way, I am not holy here. I have made every single one of these mistakes, the worst of which was my ill-fated board game, Highways & Byways, which I spent over $8,000 to develop without noticing how uninterested people seemed to be in it. I figured if I generated enough leads, I could make it happen.
No amount of marketing and promotion can make an unattractive idea perform well. That’s why we talk about product-market fit in nearly every one of our posts. Every product has to be a perfect match for someone, somewhere.
If you want a corporate version of this, check out my post on Rax Roast Beef. This well-regarded fast-food chain nearly wiped itself out in the 1990s after a series of ill-fated, unwanted attempts to rebrand.
Long story short, you cannot force marketing to work. The ideas themselves need to have some kind of underlying appeal. If they don’t, it’s like “trying to make ‘fetch’ happen.”
What happens when you stop forcing ideas and take the Taoist approach instead
You might think that taking a Taoist approach to marketing would mean only running with ideas that are so great that they practically market themselves. Alternatively, you could interpret what I’m saying to mean you shouldn’t put in the effort.
Neither is true. In fact, you can actually make ideas work even if you don’t think you can.
The Kansas tourism board has done a remarkably good job of making their state look attractive to visitors, despite Kansas having a reputation for being boring. That’s because they lean into their adventurous side, which resonates with people who drive through the country rather than fly through it.
The famous roadside attraction of Wall Drug might seem like a classic case of forcing something to work – and, indeed, I seemingly frame it that way in my own article. And yet, when you realize that anyone driving through that part of the country is looking for a reason to get off the road, engaging in some good old-fashioned American spectacle…then it feels natural, despite looking unnatural!
Dungeons & Dragons – several years ago – was seen as a very nerdy hobby. Not very marketable at all to the mainstream! And yet with the natural charisma of a handful of actors, you have famous online shows like Critical Role doing phenomenally well.
Bob Ross showed up time and time again in his little TV studio to paint on TV. The way he painted, the way he talked the camera, all felt natural. He did some hard work, yes, because the level of commitment needed to maintain a TV show that long – and to acquire painting skills in the first place – requires work. But he didn’t force it – he did what felt right, over and over again, giving him the balance needed to stick to it long enough for people to catch him on TV. And that’s why, at least in my view, he’s still super popular online.
3 ways to take the Taoist approach to marketing
If you find my arguments compelling, you may want to take a Wu Wei approach to your own marketing efforts. But how, precisely, can you do that?
1. Focus on strategy over tactics, every time.
You have no idea what is going to happen when you click Publish. It’s anyone’s guess what’s going to happen when that ad starts to run. You should track metrics, yes, but if you’re sweating over every slight drop in performance and cheering over every slight gain, you need to step back.
Marketing comes down to this:
- Have you made something worthwhile?
- Have you told people you made something worthwhile?
If you get the answers to those two questions right, you can make a million mistakes and still make a million dollars. Of those, #1 is by far the trickiest – so focus on that.
2. If people don’t like what you’re pitching, change your pitch first, then change your product.
If your sales are weak, your ads are underperforming, and you’re not getting the attention you want, then you probably have an offer problem, not a marketing problem. The actual work of marketing, while it requires patience, diligence, and sustained effort, is not particularly complex. Most of what I do ultimately comes down to:
- Talking to clients and their audiences and helping them find the right pitch.
- Writing useful articles or making useful audio/video recordings.
- Scheduling some content on social media.
- Putting together some simple email copy.
- Sending the occasional email to a media professional to book an interview.
My work requires skill, but it’s not that complex. I can log in, do my work, and log off at a reasonable hour. But if the offer that my client is willing to provide is not good, my job and theirs become ten times harder. We have to sweat every penny on ads, every word on emails, and so on.
So my advice to you: if your marketing is underperforming, make a different pitch. Pitch to a different audience, or change the benefit you’re emphasizing, or tweak the price point. Give it a few tries.
But if you can’t find the right pitch after giving these things a decent effort? Sell something else. Cut your losses and move on.
3. Don’t run yourself into the ground.
Much has been said about the American proclivity to work until we’re desiccated husks hunched over our desks in the middle of the night. After all, 2018 was the year of burnout. As was 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022…
The vast majority of what we occupy ourselves doing does not actually need to be done. If you’re lucky enough to have agency over what you do and don’t do in a day, be smart about what you do with your time. I recognize not everyone has this privilege, especially if you have a jerk boss or you’re raising small kids or a sick loved one or something else like that.
Still, odds are, you are probably striving to complete something that need not be completed. See if you can root that out of your life so that you can have more headspace – however minor or incremental – to do the consequential, important things that so often get forgotten.
My first encounter with Taoist philosophy, though I am a Westerner at heart and have a superficial understanding of the Tao Te Ching, was a meaningful one. I’ll keep reading the ancient texts, searching for wisdom. But in the meantime, I hope that my own realizations give you a sense of comfort in your professional life.
Marketing, when products or services are intrinsically good and being pitched to the right people, feels almost automatic. It’s a beautiful thing.
So when that feeling is absent, I think we’d do well to step back, ponder the concept of Wu Wei, and see if we can find a more natural way to make things work.
We should be matchmakers. Not hustlers.