At an American Marketing Association presentation I recently attended, my ears perked up when the presenter, Tom Martin of Converse Digital, recommended using a technique he called “aikido selling.” Now, I’ve been training in aikido, a Japanese martial art, since 1997. My rank is currently shodan (1st degree black belt), and I’m an occasional instructor at Aikido of New Orleans, the dojo where I practice. Needless to say, I’m quite familiar with aikido.
The topic of aikido selling was only a portion of the presentation, but it got me thinking about how aikido principles could be applied to marketing. Of course, there’s no one-to-one correspondence between the two. Aikido uses some very specific terminology, in Japanese no less, and I can’t see mapping a kotegaeshi, (forearm-return throw) onto a sales funnel or a shihonage (four-directional throw) onto a demographic analysis. But some of the greater principles of aikido can shed some insights and new thinking onto what makes effective marketing.
1. Neutralize aggression and conflict
Many salespeople and marketers adopt an assertive, take-charge attitude when addressing prospects. The attitude is aggressive, taking a general form of “You need this product and let me convince you why.” But the problem is people don’t want to be sold to. In their minds, they will resist assertions about how they feel or what they want. This dynamic creates tension between the salesperson and the prospect.
This idea was Tom’s main one about aikido selling. Unlike other martial arts, the idea in aikido isn’t to emerge triumphant from a conflict. It’s simply to neutralize it, to change the situation so there is no opposition. If someone is committed to striking you, your goal is to put yourself in a position where you can guide your opponent’s power away from you. In essence, you’re taking an aggressive situation and rendering it neutral.
So as I understand Tom’s take, he advises a salesperson to identify areas of doubt in a prospect and to use that doubt to lead them to the benefits of a product or service instead of trying to aggressively sell to them. Here is a blog post of Tom’s explaining this concept in more detail.
2. Deal with what you’re given
In aikido, you learn to be sensitive to the energy your opponent is giving you. If someone attacks you in a particular way, you blend with that attack as it’s given, not as you might prefer it to be. Likewise, if you’re executing a technique and your opponent doesn’t end up moving the way you were intending them to move, you don’t keep powering through the technique as you envisioned. Rather, you gauge where the energy has shifted and change your technique to respond the new information.
One thing Tom mentioned was that researching your target audience might unearth that they’re into, say, tattoos. If you, the business owner, don’t happen to like tattoos, you don’t pretend that the information isn’t there or ignore it. Instead, you might see how you can incorporate it into your marketing by using models with tattoos or a graphical style appealing to tattoo aficionados, for example.
3. Find where your opponent is unbalanced
In aikido, brute force is unnecessary, even unwelcome, which is why a small person can successfully throw a much larger one. One of the reasons aikido practitioners don’t need strength is because they learn to locate areas where the opponent has poor stability. When the opponent is off balance, throwing them is much easier.
In marketing, you must show why your product or service fills an unmet need. You must lead the prospect to a place where it becomes apparent your offering can fulfill that need. In other words, go where the person’s needs or desires are off balance.
4. Guide your opponent
A common misperception about aikido is that it’s passive or entirely reactive. Advanced aikido practitioners know how to elicit or shape an attack through strategic hand or body positioning and ateme. Ateme are sort of strike, but they don’t even have to land to work. They are meant to distract, to make an opponent flinch, or to encourage a grab. Sometimes without knowing it, the opponent will be doing what the aikido practitioner wants.
The parallel in marketing is in how marketers and salespeople should strategically lead their prospects along a path to a sale.
5. Stay ready and alert to your options
In aikido, the default stance entails extended arms and the body weight slightly on the front foot. This stance allows for optimal mobility and options when being grabbed or attacked. When the attack comes, you can respond by sliding in to one side (irimi), pivoting 180 degrees (tenkan), or retreating off the line of attack (tenshin). Which to choose depends on the particularities of the situation.
To apply this concept to marketing, one should also be aware and prepared to react however is necessary. There is no state of equilibrium, one must adapt to changes in the marketplace, new ideas, and new tactics.
In aikido, like marketing, you have to look for where the openings are and use those openings to your advantage.