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Marketing and Desire: What Can We Learn From Buddhists?

The cessation of desire leads to the cessation of suffering.

—Gautama Buddha (paraphrased)

The implication of this—the third of the Four Noble Truths—is that the enlightened are generally not good marketing targets. Fortunately for most marketers this is a very small group. Most people are as far from this notion of enlightenment as their minds can take them. We are—as a people, as a culture—wholly and utterly consumed and controlled by our desires and our attachments, and these manifest themselves in life and action as behaviors, knowable behaviors.

So what are the obvious implications that flow from our addiction to things, our attachments, or, as the Buddhists would have it, our state of ignorance? I’ve waded into an idea that would seem to indicate that marketing is fundamentally manipulative, taking advantage of ignorance. That’s messed up. Can it be something else?

I think it can.

marketing and desireBuddhism is an interesting religion because of its deep psychological inclinations, and also because of its original lack of any deity or formal worship. Early Buddhism’s prime directive could be summarized as know thyself. This stands apart from the more typical kind of religious instruction centered on knowing the deity, or his or her will. Put another way, Buddhism—at least in its earlier forms—is very practical. Deep and practical. I appreciate this combination, and I think it has application in our realm. I say this knowing that some would surely argue that marketing is the most distant vector from Buddhism in the universe—this universe at least.


I say this knowing that some would surely argue that marketing is the most distant vector from Buddhism in the universe—this universe at least.

But I am a believer, a believer in connections, a believer in the notion that even the most distant points are always closer than we at first realize. So, here I am writing on Buddhism and marketing.

The first step: Branding

Branding, for me, is first about understanding reality. It’s not about what we want reality to be. It’s about what the reality of our situation actually is.

From the standpoint of the marketer, the first step, therefore, is indeed to know thyself—as a business or organization. Who am I? What do I do? What do I care about? What are my values? What is my vision? What is my reason for being?

I would posit that if you are worth your salt as an organization, you are somehow trying to create value in the world, and you do not just exist to make more widgets, or just to make money.

The act of knowing oneself, and then understanding how you bring value to the world, is the first task of branding.

The act of knowing oneself—as a business, a nonprofit, a museum, a zoo, a service or a product—and then understanding how you bring value to the world, is the first task of branding. Your brand must be true. It should reflect what you are deep down, and it must sit well with the answers to all the fundamental questions noted above.

Once you know the truth of your brand, the next question is what are you doing with it? The most natural thing to do is to try and push it out into the world, to say, “I am here. I exist. I matter.” To this, a Buddhist might say, “No. You must simply be.” If you simply live your brand, will good things come? This, it seems, is where Buddhists and marketers must, of necessity, part ways.


The second step: Marketing and desire

Buddhists are also teachers. It is possible to see marketing as teaching about your brand. For me, teaching is simultaneously the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge. As marketers you must first find out what your consumers truly value and then help them connect with your brand by revealing the intersection of your offer and those things they value. If there is no meaningful overlap then you are either looking to the wrong consumer or you have to fix your product. (I’ll save product problems for another post.)

How do we coax this realization into being? The best teachers start at a place that their students understand; from there they gradually lift them up out of their smaller thoughts and into a world of greater awareness.

I would suggest that each consumer is a student, but one that is mostly a selfish bundle of desires and passions. My job as a marketer is to enlighten them to the value of my brand, and to be effective, I must start with their selfish needs. Otherwise I will not cue up sufficient interest or attention. Once I have the consumer’s attention, however, I am obligated to expose them to the true value of my brand.

The key to the kingdom, therefore, is to be able to enter the mind of my brand consumer. I must first see them as they are. I must understand the world as they understand it, for only then can I understand and predict their behaviors. I must not dwell on what I want myself to be or what I think of myself. I must recognize what I am, and what my offer is as they see it. To communicate with my consumers I must find out what it is in me, in my brand, that will reliably trigger in them some aspect of their desire.

In order for my brand to have salience in a consumer’s mind, I must awaken her desire.

Marketing is facilitating this connection between consumer desire and my brand offer. It’s all the actions that bridge the gap between my brand and what my consumers need from the world. The statement “No one buys what you sell. They buy what is of value to them.” makes clear the direction of the flow. In order for my brand to have salience in a consumer’s mind, I must awaken her desire, inspiring my brand consumer to see the light, as it were. This is the essential task of marketing.

My brand must indeed bring value to the world for this kind of marketing to be effective. If it does, then marketing can indeed be a means to make the world better.

This is as close as I can bring marketing to Buddhism. As usual, it’s an unequal transaction. Marketing is the primary beneficiary.


We have a persona creation method that is quite useful for getting into the heads of your consumer targets. You can read a bit about that in Customer Personas (What Sally Can Show You).

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

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  1. Buddha was one of the greatest marketers of his time.

    It is hard to think of him as a marketer, yet his perennial teachings are still being joyfully practiced after 2,500 years.

    Sitting under the Bodhi tree and having experienced Nirvana, he realized that this cannot be taught. The story goes in the midst of his dilemma he was encouraged by Brahma (the creator). There are only some people “with only a little dust in their eyes” who would be able to see the truth. So Lord Buddha sets out to find those thirsty souls who were actively seeking enlightenment and would be receptive to his message.

    A 101 marketing mistake: we try to sell people our stuff. Unfortunately, people will not be receptive to your offer unless they desire it.

    Moral of the story: Invest in customer-focused innovation. At the end of the day, it gives you the economic leverage, especially during times of economic hardship.

    Great article. Thank you.

  2. James Heaton says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful and heartfelt comments.

    Indeed, Buddhism’s success might be thought of, as you suggest, the result of a rather effective, organically evolving, long-range marketing endeavor. This points out, to me at least, the notion that world religions can all be thought of as marketing competitors. This is true even in the internecine battles within each. Who is conveying a message that better addresses the values and needs of their brand consumers? Evangelicals or Catholics? Sunni or Shea? Theravadans or Zen practitioners? There are myriad variations here, and while it might be controversial to describe the global historical religious missionary project as a marketing project, I’d be curious to hear a cogent argument that it is not.

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