June 3 2017

A Marketing Lesson from Land Fertility



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.

Here are some thoughts about how the life in our soil could relate to marketing.

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.

How does this apply to your business?

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:

  • One common approach is to consider only what you can get or take from a market.
  • A second is to view one’s business and one’s markets as interdependent.

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…

  • Creating valuable free content (not sales material in disguise)
  • Pro bono work for good causes
  • Mentoring, speaking, or coaching without demanding direct reward
  • Freely sharing your experience on social media or forums
  • Promoting others without compensation

Which way is the right way?

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.

About the author 

Ben Hunt

My job is to look at the world and wonder... "How should we live?"

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  1. Wow Ben! Another brilliant post. So much business is built on a foundation of trust and community. I find it is better to build solid relationships than go for a quick sale. A solid relationship will provide work and opportunities in good times and bad. And because the relationship is built on trust, the marketing is so much easier.

    1. Thank you Garry. We are not isolated, and we don’t have to form cartels to protect our interests. Our interests should be OUR interests: yours and mine both.

  2. I kid you not, this one post of yours has helped me clear up a dilemma I’ve had for year’s.

    There are those who say you should never give away anything free; just the illusion of value through word play. And there are those, like you, who seem to think it’s better to give value unselfishly.

    I’m with you. I truly believe, one way or another, we’ll be paid back for it. And we’re helping others along the way.

  3. Ben, thank you for this post! We all live here, on this planet. It is our common house. Water, air, waves, soul… – we are connected in one organism. It’s better to care about your self 🙂

    1. Yes. I’m reminded of this New Testament passage:

      “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

      Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.

      And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

      All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

      For the first part, you may choose to interpret “The Lord your God” as the whole of the Universe, Natural Law, the force behind all life… which would mean that commandment is instructing us to love and respect the whole of creation (don’t worship anything else, including money, and don’t put yourself first).

      What I’ve always loved about the second commandment is that it does not only tell us to love our neighbour, but ALSO to love ourself. It’s as though you can’t do one without the other. You HAVE to love yourself, and you HAVE to love those around you just the same.

      It’s all starting to make sense to me, at lest.

  4. If only there were more of you, the world would be a better place. Sadly, I feel like we’re drowning in parasites in all areas of life – not just marketing.

    1. 🙂 So the only answer is: let’s make more symbiotic marketers. I guess that’s where Open Source Marketing could lead.

  5. Hello Ben Hunt san,

    Your idea about (parasitic & symbiotic) is great and it is easy to understand.
    Japan is surrounded by sea. So we are dependent on sea production. But recently, some other country launches fishing ships to get squid, so because of it the number of squid decreased. They are killing the host and exterminate natural resources.

    Any way, thank you for sending me precious informations. I’m sorry that I couldn’t attend your group meeting (marketing-strategy-course), because I couldn’t understand the conversation which was spoken in this meeting. But I watched the Video which you sent me and found it to be very useful.

    I read “Good to Great” by Jim Collins, the book which you introduced in the video #1. I bought this book (translated in Japanese). And “Circuit Questionnaire”, “Scientific Advertising” . These informations are bit difficult for me, but I will be able to apply it to my work. I’m not a business marketer or web designer, but I’m working now as a sales representative.

    In your blog “What’s true? Ultimately, it comes down to your world view”,” The life I enjoy today is not my own.” I like these words. Because these saying can be found in the teaching of Buddha.

    He (Buddha)told that our existence in this world is not by our own will, and our exisitence comes from cosmos ,ancestor, cell, some thing original root.
    Best wishes,

    1. Thank you Tyuma san. I love your words, and I appreciate knowing that these themes are also in Buddhist teachings.

      The core of this lesson is that, if we ALL commit to creating as much value (wealth) as possible, we ALL benefit.

      And the way to generate the most richness is to follow Nature’s example, to give as we take, and to ensure that we care for the environment of which we are part as we care for ourselves.

  6. Really nice analogy Ben. It takes some of the fever of marketing down a notch when thinking about the natural rhythms of the soil and cultivation. With healthy soil, a healthy base that feeds both you and your contacts it seems to be more congruent with our own speed of biology as living beings.

  7. Hey Ben,

    Great article. I really respect your generosity and mindset. It’s refreshing in this world of money, money, money.

    Obviously money is important but it isn’t everything. If we do our marketing and our businesses for more reasons than money it will be much more enjoyable and may make more money to boot!

    1. Thanks Dene. Yes, money is important. It’s pure potential. I’m not arguing against making money, but I guess arguing FOR letting money flow more freely, as well as knowledge, skill, education, and all other good things. The concept of “Mine” is the root of many of these problems, I think.

  8. You made my day because I always had the thought that if we help each other, the world will become for sure a better place. I become sad sometime for the reason that even for the word of inspiration people get free from the universal source they try to only make money out of it. No sharing at all.So keep spreading the good thoughts through your articles.

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