Five Marketing Lessons from Confucius

Despite his disdain for the profit motive, Confucius had a strong entrepreneurial streak in him, especially during his twenties and thirties when he was scrambling to establish a foothold in the bureaucracy of his home state of Lu in order to build a successful official career. Consciously or not, he also possessed a very strong marketing sense that he deployed to build up a name for himself in Lu and beyond. Here are five marketing lessons that we can learn from him:

Build Niche Expertise
During his childhood, Confucius developed a deep interest in the subject of ritual and is said to have enjoyed playing with toys of objects used in formal ceremonies. As he grew this knowledge, he became an expert in ritual known as a rujia (儒家) and found himself being invited by local families to make sure that they conducted funeral and mourning ceremonies in the correct manner. This enabled him to boost his branding and build up a network of relationships he could draw on in the future to further his career.

According to the great historian Sima Qian, Confucius gained such a reputation for his ritual knowledge and expertise that he was even able to secure a meeting with Laozi, the author of the Daodejing (though this account is disputed by many others). That would certainly have made for some great TV.

As Confucius’s fame grew, he attracted students eager to learn about ritual and the classics. Rather than focus on young scions of the nobility, he differentiated himself by saying that he would teach anyone who was willing to learn from him. In Analects 7.7, he famously declares:

“I have never refused to teach anyone who has asked me to, even if they were too poor to offer no more than a token offering of a bundle of dried meat for their tuition.”

This approach was revolutionary in many ways, not least because it enabled Confucius to address an underserved but fast-growing segment of the education market comprised of ambitious young men known as shi (土) who were eager to build careers in government service but lacked noble familial backgrounds and connections. His openness also allowed him to attract a talented and diverse body of students ranging from Zigong, who was possibly the richest man in China, to Gongye Chang, a convicted criminal who Confucius gave his daughter in marriage, some of whom became lifelong friends who supported him through thick and thin.

Build a Community
By attracting a group of passionate early adopters, Confucius was able to build up a base of deeply loyal base of followers. Quite a number of them went on to big official jobs in the governments of the many different competing states that Zhou dynasty China was made up of — thereby boosting the Confucius brand by making an education with him the equivalent of a modern-day university degree.

Some even accompanied him almost literally to the ends of the earth during the fourteen years he spent tramping around the highways and byways of China in what might be described as longest job search in history following his exile from Lu. Talk about the value of building a strong community!

Establish Thought Leadership
Through his teaching, Confucius was able to establish thought leadership by redefining the meaning of ancient concepts to make them more relevant to the times he lived in. Perhaps the best example of this “new and improved” approach is how he succeeded in changing the meaning of Junzi (君子), which has been variously, and non-too-successfully, translated as “gentleman”, “nobleman”, “superior man”, “man of virtue”, “ideal man”, and “exemplary person.”

Originally, the term Junzi applied only to men of inherited noble rank, but Confucius cleverly shifted its definition to cover men who embodied noble qualities such as goodness and filial devotion. By saying that any man could become a Junzi if only they worked and studied hard enough, he was successful not only in getting people talking but also in appealing to the aspirations of ambitious young men who lacked noble bloodlines.

Accelerate Awareness
Although many of Confucius’s contemporaries scoffed at his ideas, his talent for original thinking that leveraged changing social trends meant that his name spread far and wide. Even if people had no idea what his teachings were, they would have heard of him, and the rulers of his time were happy to welcome the great sage into their courts just to hear what he had to say.

More important for the long-term development of his brand, some of the young students Confucius taught towards the end of his life such as Zengzi, the filial devotion king, went on to establish their own schools to promote his teachings after his death. Without their foundational work and the contributions of later scholars like his grandson Zisi, Mencius, and Xunzi, it is unlikely that his fame would have survived the Legalist purges — much less reached the levels it has today.

Of course, the biting critiques of Confucius in the Zhuangzi also helped, proving the old adage that there is no such thing as bad PR, but that’s a story for another day.



I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.

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Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.