My job is to look at the world and wonder... "How can we make things better?"
If you know anything about me, you probably know that I think a lot about land, soil, the way we live, and where our food comes from.
One of the reasons for my fascination with dirt is that it’s extremely important. (Soil erosion may be the single biggest threat to humanity there is, as it’s happening at a predictable and frightening rate.)
But I also love to learn lessons about life, business, and marketing from meditating on dirt. It’s increasingly clear to me that everything follows the same natural laws, which are as beautiful as they are complex.
The same patch of dirt could be abundant with life, or it could be practically dead.
You can change soil from being fertile to infertile very quickly. You can also make infertile soil fertile again, but it takes longer.
If you take too much from your soil, and put too little back, it becomes impoverished.
Strip away the dirt’s natural protective “skin” of decaying matter, leave it bare and open to the elements, and it will become parched and dry. When the rain comes, the precious topsoil will be washed away into watercourses, rivers, and eventually oceans.
So short-term thinking can be catastrophic for the land. When we take Nature for granted and think that we can take and take and take, without a care for her natural balance, the net effect is rapid impoverishment.
But when we work with Nature, revering the soil and caring for it, it will remain productive indefinitely. That approach is simply more profitable over time.
There’s a saying in gardening that I love…
Don’t feed your plants. Feed your soil; let your soil feed your plants.
I see two distinct approaches to business and marketing:
The first way is a kind of parasitic or cancerous behaviour. As Alastair Smith put so well in this interview before his passing, a cancer cell has “broken the sacred covenant with Life” in its quest for endless resources.
Ultimately, of course, cancers or parasites can destroy their hosts. Sometimes they are able to jump to new hosts. In marketing terms, that means taking so much that you constantly have to find new customers.
The second way is more symbiotic. Your business is not there only to take resources, but to enrich its environment, in the knowledge that, when we build up our ecology, everyone benefits.
The first approach seems to be short-term and separate; the second is longer-term and integral.
What would a symbiotic marketing approach look like? Some initial ideas might include…
Is there a right way?
Does it all come down to how one defines success? Do we measure success as short-term profits, long-term profits, value created, or through other, softer factors?
And does it really matter if we set out to take what we can? Life is short, so why not take everything it has to give? If there’s always a big enough market to sustain everyone who wants to take, can caveat emptor (buyer beware) provide all the cover we need?
It’s certainly clear that it’s possible to take the parasitic approach, bleed customers dry, cut corners, bend the truth, and “win” — at least through the measure of making good profits. I know plenty of people doing this.
And there is also plenty of evidence to support the idea that, when we give value with no expectation of reciprocation, that that value can come back to us in complex, fuzzy ways at some later time. (I’ve had people who have followed my work for years who suddenly pop up with a proposal or join a course etc.)
One way to answer the question would seem to be to choose a time scale. If we work quarterly, then long-term benefits may not factor. This seems to me a reductionist approach.
On the other hand, if we aren’t counting our returns and assigning them to specific actions (with associated costs), can we actually prove a return on investment from a more symbiotic approach?
This is anti-reductionism. We would actually have to let go of the notion that all returns are, or should be, measurable.
What’s true? Ultimately, it comes down to your world view.
Just like morality, ethics, politics, or spirituality, the way you see the world is a framework that you use to gather feedback. There is no right or wrong, only your truth.
Me, I see the world as one huge, messy, lovely, interconnected, symbiotic mess. To me, my market is like my soil. I have a duty of care to create value that I can’t measure, and that echoes beyond my lifetime.
The life I enjoy today is not my own. It is the result of the gifts of past generations, my parents, my educators, the peers who invited me to their conferences, the bloggers and podcasters who shared their wisdom, the crazy folk who let me interview them. So who am I to hold back my knowledge or gifts as “my own”?
Those are my values, and I really don’t care if they’re yours. You are free to judge me by your values, and I will judge you by mine. That’s the freedom we enjoy.