In 2009 German carmaker Volkswagen started a campaign to promote its diesel cars. Americans associated diesel with big, loud trucks and semis with smelly, smoky exhaust, so VW needed to show that their cars were different. VW wanted to market their cars as “clean diesel” vehicles. The campaign included a video where testers place coffee filters on the tailpipes of diesel cars (and then made coffee!).
Diesel vehicles need to meet emissions standards set by the government to reduce air pollution. Volkswagen’s cars did great on the emissions tests. In addition, the diesel VW Jetta won The Green Car of the Year Award in 2009.
The only problem—Volkswagen was cheating.
In 2015 VW admitted to installing a cheating mechanism in their diesel cars. The cars were programmed to run without the extra emissions controls during normal use, which gave them better performance and fuel economy. When the cars sensed they were being tested, the emissions controls would automatically turn on so the car would receive a passing grade on the emissions test.
At the same time that VW was marketing its vehicles as good for the environment, its vehicles were emitting more pollutants than the law allowed.
VW’s problem was neither an emissions problem nor a marketing problem. It was a sinful human nature problem.
The Bible, human nature, and marketing
Business in general and marketing in particular offer temptations that, if accepted, lead us into downright disobedience to the Bible’s teaching.
You might wonder if the Bible even addresses the marketing challenges we face today. Yes, Jesus was a carpenter, but what did He know about the stiff competition we face today? Paul was a tentmaker, but how could he have envisioned the kind of harried, distracted consumers whose attention we need to attract?
Human nature is no different today than it was two thousand years ago. God’s principles are no different either.
Though the world is a very different place that it was when Paul wielded his needle (and quill), the commands and principles in the Bible are timeless. “Lie not one to another” is not just a verse that our children memorize, but it is also a command we must take to work with us and apply right along with other business practices like strategic planning, lean manufacturing, and cash flow management.
Here are some Biblical principles that apply to marketing. Can you think of others?
Marketing as serving
Following are two ways of thinking about marketing. One is self-focused and the other is customer-focused.
The self-focused view brags on the “great” qualities of your company and your products and services. This perspective leads you to toot your own horn. Self-focused marketing is driven by an urgency to persuade the prospect to fork over his money because you want your business to succeed.
On the other hand, a customer-focused approach explains how your company, products, and services can solve the customer’s problem. Why? Because you understand that the customer may feel overwhelmed and unsure how to find a good solution to the need they have. As you serve the customer with honest, helpful information, he is able to gain understanding and confidence to make a good buying decision. If you have done your job well, you will be happy with his decision whether he decides to buy from you or move on to a competitor whose offering is a better fit.
The self-focused view is driven by selfishness. The customer-focused view is driven by a desire to serve others.
Applying Biblical principles to marketing
Life always works best when we do things God’s way. Marketing and business are no different. How can we apply God’s principles to the way we market our products and services? Here are some ideas of do’s and don’ts for you to consider.
Don’t stir up covetousness. Do offer hope and satisfaction of real needs. In Luke 12, someone came to Jesus and asked for Jesus to help him in a family financial conflict involving an inheritance. Jesus rebuked the man and said, “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Luke 12:15).
Is our marketing causing others to covet things they don’t need or cannot afford? We do not want to cause others to break the tenth commandment: “Thou shalt not covet” (Exodus 20:17).
We may be tempted to suggest that our products or services will help the customer find true happiness or contentment, but that is simply not the case. True satisfaction is found only in surrender to Jesus. Legitimate businesses do satisfy real needs, but we should be realistic about the satisfaction our customers can experience.
Don’t promote a lifestyle of selfish luxury. Do work to make people’s lives better. The average consumer is chasing the American dream, where a successful life includes enjoying wealth and a sunny retirement. As incomes rise, more people are able to pay for luxurious and indulgent lifestyles.
But let’s not forget Jesus’ parable of the prosperous farmer who said to himself, “I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry” (Luke 12:19). Though others may have admired the farmer’s wealth, God called him a fool and took his life that night.
That said, every person whether rich or poor has needs that we can serve through our businesses.
Don’t manipulate or appeal to sensual pleasures. Do appeal to emotions and show positive results. Worldly advertisers know that beautiful women get attention—that’s why we see so many of them on advertisements. But we are commanded to flee youthful lusts (2 Timothy 2:22).
Proverbs says that wisdom, discretion, and understanding will guard us and rescue us from evil men who speak “forward things” and the “strange woman” who “flattereth with her lips” (see Proverbs 2:10-22).
To varying degrees, emotions are part of every person’s buying decisions. While appealing to emotions can be helpful, this does not mean we need to use alluring or provocative language or pictures to show the positive results we offer.
Don’t bad-mouth the competition. Do differentiate based on your USP. I don’t know the origin of this saying, but “blowing out someone else’s candle won’t make yours shine any brighter.” Apostle Paul wrote that we should “speak evil of no man,” but rather be “gentle, showing meekness unto all men” (Titus 3:2).
No two companies are exactly alike. Even different stores with the same chain will give you a slightly different experience. Discover or create a Unique Selling Proposition (USP)—something that makes your business or product unique—and communicate that advantage through your marketing.
Don’t proudly self-promote. Do show humility about your abilities and accomplishments. Have you ever considered the Biblical basis for using testimonials? “Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth” (Proverbs 27:2).
Consumers today are wary, and know that words are cheap. In the end, your business’s reputation and credibility will not be built on what you say about yourself, but on your deeds and character. A good reputation is very powerful. It results from our own actions and what those actions motivate others to say about us.
Humility affects the claims we make about ourselves as well as the way we present our business and products. Always remember this stern warning: “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).
Don’t promise more than you can deliver. Do underpromise and overdeliver. God commanded His people to do fair and honest business: “Just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin, shall ye have: I am the LORD your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:36).
Keeping your promises is what God expects, and it’s also good business. Tom Peters, who may have coined the term “underpromise and overdeliver,” also wrote, “While getting faster at responding to customers is imperative, living up to commitments has never been worth more.
What claims are you making in your marketing about your product, the experience of using your product, and the result your product brings? Those claims are serious—they are commitments you are making to the customer.
Can you not only fulfill your commitments, but also go above and beyond to exceed the customer’s expectations and leave no doubt that you are treating them well? “Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom” (Luke 6:38).
Don’t deceive. Do tell the truth. What thought crosses your mind when you read claims like the following? Do you think everyone who makes statements like these is telling the truth?
- The best _____ that you can buy.
- No other _____ delivers these results.
- Superior to any other _____ on the market.
- You’ll never need another _____.
In marketing, there are countless ways to shade, bend, twist, and otherwise tamper with the truth. We need to evaluate our marketing claims to always stay on the safe side of the line. Another aspect of being truthful is simply doing what we said we would do.
Not only God, but also the government requires truthful advertising. The Federal Trade Commission’s website says, “When consumers see or hear an advertisement, whether it’s on the Internet, radio or television, or anywhere else, federal law says that ad must be truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence. The Federal Trade Commission enforces these truth-in-advertising laws, and it applies the same standards no matter where an ad appears – in newspapers and magazines, online, in the mail, or on billboards or buses.”
Don’t make risky spending decisions about marketing. Do plan how to use resources carefully for good return. We often think of our resources in terms of money. In the parable of the talents, the servant who hid his talent instead of investing it was reprimanded (see Luke 19:12-26).
One of the resources God has given us is time. In Psalm 90:12, Moses wrote, “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” Marketing is one area where we do well to ensure that we get a good return on investment and a good return on time.
Sometimes when business is slow, cash is tight, and we need more sales, we are tempted to cut back or stop marketing to conserve cash. While slow times are a good time to scrutinize the benefit of each item on your expense accounts, cutting advertising will often make the problem worse.
Instead we need to risk a reasonable amount of our resources in an effort to find more customers to serve. If cash is very limited, look for ways to invest your time and/or your employees’ time to generate sales.
One of the best investments you can make is to test and measure the results of your marketing. Would you invest money in an account at your local bank if they would never tell you what the interest rate is? Neither should you keep putting money into marketing if you never bother to determine if it is returning an increase. Don’t wait for sales to slump and cashflow to get tight to start testing and measuring. Start today so that when sales slump and cash gets tight you know exactly what to change to increase short term results.
The Bible is full of practical teaching for us today. Here are several verses you can take with you and ponder as you work heartily this week:
- For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? – Mark 8:36
- And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men. – Colossians 3:23
- A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favour rather than silver and gold. – Proverbs 22:1
When it comes to evaluating marketing claims, consumers today are jaded, wary, and smart. Let’s give them a refreshing break from the kind of marketing tactics they are accustomed to dealing with.
As Christians who love our neighbors as ourselves, let’s practice the Golden Rule and become known for delivering strong value and a pleasant customer experience that truly serves the customer’s best interest.