What marketing looks like as biblical leadership
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If you’re a Christian entrepreneur or business owner, you probably struggle with the ethics of marketing and salesmanship.
I know this because I have experienced it myself.
I’d like to show you how to take every marketing thought captive to obey Christ. What I’m describing here is not a method; it is more like a manifesto. Method comes later, so poke around in the method category if you’re looking for specific tactics.
I use the terms marketing and salesmanship fairly interchangeably to refer to customer acquisition in general: the process of attracting strangers and getting them invested in what you do. And I include church-goers under the rubric of customers—they are people who make a custom of attending your church. If you don’t like these labels, substitute in whatever you prefer—but they are just that: labels.
As someone who believes that Jesus is God incarnate, that the Bible is his word, that I am saved entirely by his own merit—and that I should try to be more like him every day—I am well acquainted with the nagging suspicion that Jesus would not do marketing.
My day-job happens in a world of sleazy sales strategies and mendacious marketing methods. So there have been many days where I have pondered how Christians can compete—without dishonoring the savior who bought us.
How can we sell without selling our souls?
Let me reassure you that it can be done—I’ve been making a go of it since 2010. Not always perfectly; I’ve made false steps, and I’ve had to examine not only the practices and techniques that secular marketers take for granted, but also my own conscience and character.
But by God’s grace, I have become known for teaching a method of salesmanship that is both highly effective, and highly God-honoring. (It forms the backbone of my training program, Learn Copywriting Backwards.)
I’d like to help you steer that same path.
In fact, this may surprise you, but being a Christian is actually a natural advantage to being an excellent marketer; it’s not an impediment at all. If you’ve been struggling with the ethics of marketing, I’m going to show you how the truth can set you free.
Putting marketing in its proper place
The reason we have trouble with marketing is that we automatically think of it in terms of persuading people to buy.
That is the dominant, secular view. And it makes the whole process of acquiring customers seem suspect. It muddies the waters when we assess not just the idea of selling, but also particular methods or techniques.
The solution is to reframe marketing into a biblical category. As I’ve already said, marketing fits neatly into the category of leadership—a doctrine you likely understand quite well.
When we start thinking this way about marketing, we naturally find answers to tough questions like:
- Isn’t arousing desire for your offering playing on people’s lust and greed?
- Is it right to evoke fear to increase the sense of urgency?
- Doesn’t value-based pricing seem rather like using an unjustly weighted scale?
- Can I really make 6 figures without taking more than my share?
- And ultimately…how can marketing honor and glorify God?
If you learn only one thing from me, I want it to be how to take the very thought of marketing captive to obey Christ, by recasting it as leadership—a doctrine God has given us authoritative direction and guidance on.
Leadership applied to marketing
The key to effective selling is to help customers think of you as more than just a provider. Customers don’t merely want someone they can buy from; they want someone they can follow. And by following, I don’t mean slavish devotion or unthinking partisanship. That’s what the world often means—Hillary and Trump being two tragi-comical examples. But following, biblically speaking, means trusting someone who has legitimate authority to lead you.
I like to call my customer “Sam”—that way, I always remember he (or she) is a person. You’re welcome to do the same. Since it is much easier than writing “your customer” all the time, I’ll say “Sam” from now on.
Sam is looking for someone who has legitimate authority to lead him. But lead him where?
To understand this, we need to get behind the idea of “buying.”
What Sam is usually doing when he “buys” is not, in fact, purchasing a service or a product.
Rather, he is investing in you—whether monetarily or otherwise—in exchange for your facilitating a certain vision of his own future.
As the saying goes, no one goes into a hardware store looking for a drill. They go in looking for a way to make a hole in the wall. But really, they’re not interested in making a hole either. They’re interested in hanging a picture. And they’re not even interested in that. When you trace their desires all the way back, they are ultimately interested in bringing about a certain vision—a vision for how their future will be better by having that picture on their wall mounted in the hole that was made by the drill.
It will make them happier somehow. Perhaps because it is a modern painting that will make them feel more sophisticated. Perhaps because it is an expensive piece that will garner the admiration of their friends. Perhaps because it is a family photo that will make their spouse feel warmer toward them. Perhaps because it is a portrait of their son who they don’t want to forget.
Whatever the case, they don’t really care about a drill or a hole in the wall. (There are, of course, exceptions in those men who have a vision of their future with a cool drill in it; but again, they don’t ultimately want a drill, but rather whatever emotional benefit arises from owning the drill.) Whatever the object of their desire, they care about a particular future. When they go to the hardware store looking for a drill, it is this vision of the future they have in mind.
The hole and the drill are the means—the vision of the future is the end.
When your own customer, Sam, looks around for someone to help him with whatever you do, he is going through a similar thought process. He is looking for someone to lead him to his vision of his future. John C Maxwell put it well when he said that a leader is someone who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.
Therefore, whatever you sell, the mere act of doing so makes you a de facto leader—someone Sam believes can lead him to the future he envisions.
Now, as I said, the exciting thing about this is that it means you have a natural advantage. Contrary to what you have probably thought as you’ve struggled with the idea of salesmanship in the past, when you reframe marketing in terms of leadership, you find that following the Bible makes you better at it. More effective at it, rather than less. It doesn’t hobble you at all.
Indeed, it is secular marketers who are often hobbled, inasmuch as they may buy into the lies the world tells about leadership. This is why you see so much salesmanship that revolves around:
- Boasting to customers
- Getting together with other equally poor leaders to endorse each other and create the illusion of authority
- Relying on the low-hanging fruit of the industry to create fanboys through a cult of personality
- Driving sales via preying on the desperate
This all just reflects a self-centered, worldly attitude to leadership. And because it is a “me-me-me” approach where “leaders” are just the people at the top of the food chain, it is ultimately not sustainable—there’s always a bigger fish.
Leaders aren’t men with sticks. They are men with chests.
What the Bible says about leadership is 90 degrees to worldly thinking. And it is as effective as it is counterintuitive. (It’s also grossly misrepresented by hysterical feminists acting out against “the patriarchy.”)
Because the striking thing about leadership, in the Bible, is that it involves authority which is set up for the purpose of serving.
Leadership is a serving role
So, a man is the head of his household, the leader in the marriage (Ephesians 5:23; 1 Corinthians 11:3)—but before the shock and horror can set in, the apostle instructs husbands to love their wives, not by buying them flowers and lingerie, but in the same way that Christ loved his own bride, the church (Ephesians 5:25ff; cf 1 Peter 3:7). In what way was that? It was by being willing to give up his rights, his status, his preferences, and being made the lowest scum in order to save her (Philippians 2:6-8).
Now, you’re not going to these kinds of extremes in marketing, because your relationship to Sam is not as extreme as Jesus’ relationship to his people. But selling biblically does mean serving the people who really want your help—and showing them that you have their interests at heart. That you are serving them first, rather than yourself. Biblically speaking, you don’t get self-serving leaders.
When you market and sell, then, don’t think in terms of trying to persuade anyone—think in terms of serving Sam by helping him make an informed decision about whether you can lead him to the vision of his future that he wants.
If your marketing is well-targeted, that decision should be “yes.”
Of course, you don’t put Sam ahead of yourself to the point that you go out of business. For instance, you might want to help him even if he can’t pay—but in the long run you can’t help anyone with that approach, because your business would go under. It would actually be bad leadership. Moreover, take it from me that people only tend to put as much value on your expertise as you do—so giving it away free is actually very unhelpful in most cases, and therefore demonstrates poor leadership. Tough love is a serious part of good leadership; as is balancing the needs of various people, including you. The point is not that your needs and goals are irrelevant, but rather that you are not pursuing them at Sam’s expense.
This also raises another important element of biblical leadership, which is protection. Good leaders serve those who legitimately need their guidance—not everyone without exception. They exercise discernment in picking out the troublemakers and dealing to them.
So for instance, I like to quip that the role of a pastor is to take care of the sheep (the legitimate people of God) and take care of the wolves (the scoffers and troublemakers). But if you catch my drift, the two kinds of “taking care” are not exactly the same.
Your role in marketing is similar. Exposing the charlatans and crooks in your industry may be a duty you have to take seriously if you’re committed to acting in Sam’s best interest. You’re not doing it to make yourself look better (although some will accuse you of that). You’re doing it to help him avoid making costly mistakes by trusting the wrong people.
This also gets us to the most important quality that unites all good biblical leaders:
Faith issuing in grit
Aristotle reckoned that courage is the most important virtue, because it is what enables you to practice all the others. But while having a backbone is definitely important, it can also make you rigid and unbendy. (Stiff-necked, as God would say.) Courage is usually inward-focused, so thinking in those terms can lead to pride and self-aggrandizement—the opposite of what a leader should be. If you’re always thinking about your backbone, you can easily slip into a combative mindset.
Faith, by contrast, naturally issues in a virtue rather like courage—a virtue I think is best captured in that wonderful Westernism, “grit.” Because it is an outward-focused confidence in God, because you’re not doing things for the approval of people, or for your own advantage, it is naturally virtuous. And because you’re always focused on how God sees things, what God would have you do—because God, as it were, “has your back” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14; Isaiah 3:10; Romans 14:12)—it means you have the determination and the wherewithal to not only be strong and bold, to not only say hard things, to not only keep going in the face of adversity, to not only make difficult decisions, but also to do things that are even harder. Like being honest when you’re tempted to “tweak” the truth. Or like taking correction humbly when you’re wrong.
This is actually more important than you might realize, because marketing, like all leadership, is relational.
It isn’t just one-way.
And like all leadership, it comes with plenty of temptations to abuse (eg Acts 5:16-18).
This is especially so because money is involved (1 Timothy 6:9); and even more because of the nature of secular marketing that will influence your thinking (1 Corinthians 15:33).
Sometimes it gets so bad you can forget there even is a line, let alone that you’ve crossed it. So a major focus of this site is dealing with these difficult questions. But before we get there, I need to explain something very simple, but very counterintuitive—what could rightly be called the secret to removing the tension and unease from selling.
Next: the instinctive mistake that makes selling seem hard and icky