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Marketing Insights from the 'Parable of the Sower'
By: Mark Sanderson
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In 1925, BBDO co-founder, Bruce Barton released The Man Nobody Knows, a book that examined the personality traits and methods of Jesus that enabled his teachings to grow into one of the world’s great religions. Showing how these traits and methods — patience, the ability to recognize hidden capacities in others, sensing an objection, and meeting it before it is advanced, etc. — are key to success in the modern business world, he proclaimed Jesus: “the founder of modern business.” Barton also explained that the parables of Jesus are “the most powerful advertisements of all time,” as they are based on a “keen knowledge of human motives” and exemplify “all the principles on which advertising textbooks are written,” not to mention that they are still part of our pop culture 2,000 years after they were first spoken.

If Barton’s estimation is correct, that Jesus was a gifted entrepreneur with an uncanny ability to communicate, then perhaps his teachings contain some useful insight into marketing and how to reach different audiences — which would make sense since his teachings would eventually be preached to “all nations.” Indeed, his “Parable of the Sower,” found in Matthew 13, provides such an insight.

The “Parable of the Sower” tells of four types of soil (each representing different conditions of the human heart) and how each responds differently to a seed (a message) planted by a sower (a messenger). Although Jesus was focused on spreading the message of Christianity, this parable can be applied to any type of message — even, as Barton might say, an advertising message.

The first type of soil is the way side where the “fowls came and devoured [the seeds] up.” According to the interpretation Jesus provides, this soil represents anyone who “heareth the [message] and understandeth it not, then cometh the [competition], and catcheth away.” This is a customer who doesn’t understand your ads or doesn’t see any reason why he should buy your product, and ends up purchasing a competing brand.

The second type of soil is stony places, who “heareth the word; and anon with joy receiveth it; yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended.” This is a customer who loves your product, but due to bad customer service, negative peer pressure, or a product flaw, develops a bias against your company and no longer purchases your product.

The third type of soil is one overgrown with thorns, who “heareth the word; and the care of deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful.” This is a customer who initially purchases your product, but who favors a competing brand rather than becoming your loyal customer.

The fourth type of soil is the good ground, who heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” This is a customer who purchases your product, becomes loyal to your brand, and who influences others to do the same.

While our preference for short-term growth generally encourages us to focus our marketing efforts solely on the “good ground” customers, this parable teaches us that it is possible to target each type of soil in such a way that they will eventually be loyal to our brand, causing us to reap a greater harvest in the long run.

As theologian, James E. Talmage, a contemporary of Barton, wrote:

“[Jesus] neither said nor intimated that the hard-baked soil of the wayside might be plowed, harrowed, fertilized, and so be rendered productive; nor that the stony impediment to growth might not be broken up and removed, or an increase of good soil be made by actual addition; nor that the thorns could never be uprooted and their former habitat be rendered fit to support good plants.”

We can approach the way side customers in a way that is relevant to them and that prepares them, when the time is right, to purchase our product and become loyal customers. We can approach the stony places customers in a way that rebuilds their trust in our company, brand, and products. We can approach customers who are overgrown with thorns in a way that persuades them to see our product as superior to or more appealing than their current choice or loyalty.

Although this application of the “Parable of the Sower” may seem idealistic or implausible, as our marketplace continues to fragment across various mediums and as the voice of the consumer becomes more amplified, this approach may become more of a necessity if we want to see continued market growth and customer loyalty.

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About the Author
Mark Sanderson has a Master's Degree in Advertising from The University of Texas at Austin and lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife, Emily. Visit him online here
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