Zen and the Art of Content Marketing

image of zen master

One of the best restaurants in the world lives under the fluorescent lights of a subway tunnel in the underbelly of Tokyo.

Of the hundreds of thousands of eateries across the globe, this one stands apart, not for its size, or its glitz and glamour, but for its Zen austerity and miraculous consistency.

Every day of the year, Chef Jiro Ono arrives at his cramped little 10-seat bar down in the subway to do the one thing he’s dedicated his life to … making the best sushi on the planet.

But his sushi doesn’t come with any bells or whistles, or even any appetizers.

At first glance one would never guess that this minimalist sushi bar had earned the highest culinary award in the world, three Michelin stars.

The menu has exactly one item: the chef’s seasonal choice of sushi. Put plainly, three courses of fish and rice.

Yet critics and celebrity chefs from across the world rave that it is easily the best (and most expensive) sushi they have ever eaten.

What is the secret to this humble establishment’s success?

As a content publisher you may be familiar with that feeling you get when you first taste a bit of marketing success.

There’s a buzz, an elation that arrives when ingredients come together, when you know you’ve finally created something that’s valued and shared by your audience.

It is something that you want to repeat, over and over, but do you really have the discipline and resolve to consistently create a high-quality content “recipe” every day?

Often the simplest answer is the right answer

Brian Clark’s own Zen wisdom on content creation is very similar to the dedication of great Japanese Shokunin sushi chefs.

Quality and consistency are always emphasized over quantity.

In the impeccable documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the humble master reflects, “If it doesn’t taste good, you can’t serve it.”

Simple ingredients leave little room for error

And the expert panel from Michelin Guides goes to great lengths to find those errors. That is why there are only 106 three-star restaurants in the world.

Michelin employs highly educated inspectors to secretly evaluate restaurants throughout the year using three baseline criteria:

  1. Quality
  2. Originality
  3. Consistency

And, much like creating extraordinary sushi, these foundational elements of culinary technique can easily be applied to the discipline of content creation.

The 3 Pillars of Content Mastery …

1. Quality

Master Chef Jiro starts every day with the freshest, cleanest ingredients possible, and he has a team of experts that help him achieve this.

As a content producer you must start with high quality ingredients to create rewarding content that becomes a habit for your audience no matter what type of media you are publishing online. You must learn from the masters.

If your content isn’t “fresh” — valuable to your audience — they’ll stop consuming it. Relying on the help of a network of experts and friends is also essential.

2. Originality

Jiro worked under brutal, exacting sushi chefs for years with little or no pay in order to build the basic skills to become a master. Through self-discipline and hard work he built a small, dedicated audience and kept his product simple so he could create something utterly unique and memorable.

By putting in the hard work and discipline that it takes to become a trustworthy authority in your niche you’ll organically (and simultaneously) build a Minimum Viable Audience, and adapt your content to their needs over time. Originality is inevitable through incremental growth and innovation.

3. Consistency

Chef Ono shows up every day and repeats the same process in an unerring ritual. He starts with the same basic ingredients to create a product that is transcendent.

By putting in the hard work of building an audience that knows, likes and trusts you through the demonstration of your growing expertise, you’ll build something extraordinary from simple ingredients and patience.

To quote Chef Jiro on mastery:

You must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work … You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success.

The techniques are no secret. Do you have the patience and the discipline to become a master content producer?

About the author

Kelton Reid


Kelton Reid is Director of Multimedia Production for Copyblogger Media, and an independent screenwriter and novelist. Get more from Kelton on Twitter and .

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  1. It’s ironic that businesses like Chef Jiro’s are exactly those rare examples that convince business owners that they don’t have to do marketing at all, much less content marketing. Just do great work and word will get out, right?

    Unfortunately, Jiro is the very rare exception to the general rule: we live in an astoundingly noisy world, where great work goes unnoticed and unappreciated daily. Potentially great businesses fail from simple underexposure.

    The great thing is, content marketing not only draws attention to the great stuff you’re doing. It also creates another aspect (and asset) based on the media component that allows you to do things you never imagined when starting out.

    • I think Chef Jiro has the advantage that any artist does (thinking of Kelton’s post last week about Shepard Fairey) — his creative output is remarkable, so it gets people talking.

      For businesses whose output isn’t necessarily creative in nature (chiropractors or real estate agents or accountants), the addition of a creative component — content — will add that missing element.

      That’s how it struck me, anyway.

      • I agree with you completely. Creativity is inherently passionate which, to me, is the missing link for great content and promotion of any brand. For Chef Jiro is an evangelist for his brand, that evangelism is built into the product he serves. If more traditional companies and services can internalize that same kind of passion they would likely see a similar excitement develop.

      • Chef Jiro also doesn’t appear to be worried about most of the things that worry business owners. He isn’t trying to “scale” his idea. He’s just consistently filling his 10 seats over and over.

        Do we really want to get up everyday and be great or do we want to be great for a little while and then cash out? Do we want something to sell down the road or something we wake up and create even if we don’t “need” to?

        Maybe can copy Chef Jiro as a creator while holding on to our own business model.

        • This is exactly why I question the traditional notion that a business must always be growing, or else it’s dying. What’s wrong with simply making enough that you can live your life comfortably and be happy with what you do?

      • Excellent point, Sonia. I think most businesses lack the engaging experience factor that Jiro’s business inherently has, which content can add. It’s this whole enhancement of the sales experience thing I’ve been riffing on lately — it’s not just about attracting attention, it’s about positioning and differentiation — content marketing as the new branding AND persuasion.

      • I agree. For ventures which have a creative side, it is prudent to focus on getting the best product/creation out. If it rings the right bells, people will act as the marketers free of cost and if it doesn’t, the money spent would be a waste. Agreed that one may need an initial push through friends/inner circle of people or even a marketing campaign, but the best ones would be viral in any case.
        But other kinds of ventures like you so rightly said, need constant marketing to be on the face of the audience. else its like “Out of sight……” you know better..!

    • There’s a great documentary called Search for the Sugar Man about a failed and forgotten 70′s rock star who is a huge success in South Africa now. Cass Sunstein in the Bloomberg uses this story to talk about how social dynamics make you successful:

      http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-09-25/sugar-man-s-lesson-for-markets-and-politicians.html

      Money line:

      “Social dynamics — who is conveying enthusiasm to whom, and how loudly, and where, and exactly when — can separate the rock icon from the demolition man, and mark the line between stunning success and crashing failure. An understanding of those dynamics tells us a lot about the role of serendipity in cultural markets, business, politics and other domains — and about why success and failure can be impossible to predict.”

      Thoughts?

      • yep, I saw that thing on TV sometime back…some Latino guy I guess now in his 60s or sumthing getting all the affection of his fans in SAf..thts kool…

    • That’s an important epilogue, thanks for adding that. If every business could harness Jiro’s single-minded work ethic and self-discipline in their content marketing and media publishing, surely that added dimension would open up a world of creative possibilities.

  2. You don’t need a lot of flash, or pomp and circumstance to have a great content marketing campaign. It is exactly like you say–it comes down to quality and consistency. One shining moment is great, but you have to repeat it every day to stay the best.

    • Talent is great, but discipline is what creates talent 99% of the time. And when talent does show up without discipline, it’s nearly always a sad story of what might have been.

  3. I agree with Nick. It’s the repeat that makes creating great content hard. Especially after the initial shining moment. Excellent post.

  4. Although I completely understand the concept of Jack of all trades, master of none, I find it exceedingly difficult to narrow my blog down to a single specific line of thought to master. I want to write about and photograph all that inspires me and I suppose that is the antithesis of the metaphor of Chef Jiro’s scope. In the meantime I am trying to learn new ways to get more traffic to my blog. Hmm…re-evaluation time?

    • That depends on what you want your blog to do for you. It may be that right now, it’s a space for you to work through ideas, which is totally fine.

      You might also pick up a copy of Barbara Sher’s _Refuse to Choose_. Some of us are wired to a more Renaissance nature, rather than buckling down to One Thing Forever. Either one can work beautifully.

  5. I know that I have so many different interests that I have a hard tome focusing. I also know that focusing very intently on a single minded task leads to success. Chef Jiro has the ability to focus only on one thing and that is why he has became the master. Because he is so good he has created a huge following with people promoting his sushi without hi having to do any work. What a great place for hi to be. The lesson that I came away with is to have ore focus not only will it be easier to market you message – directly to people who are looking for your message – but those people will be advocates of your message increasing your marketing exponentially.

  6. It’s like when people talk about seeing B.B. King play the blues. He was never a flashy guitar player. People always talk about that “one note” he plays. It’s the same note he’s been playing for probably sixty years. But when he plays it he does it to perfection. That note cries. It sings. It tells whole stories. Because he puts his entire soul behind that note.

    That’s the work of a master.

  7. I’ve seen the movie about Chef Jiro on Netflix. I’ll have to check it out to glean some tips from it. Thanks!

    • Hey Malinda,

      Been a long time subscriber (and customer) of Copyblogger and I have to say this article really hit me. I would say one of the TOP 3 I’ve ever read in my entire life.

      I saw the movie TWICE on the first night I got my hands on it. I’ve never seen a short film with so many lessons on life (personal and business). And it all comes from a very wise and elderly businessman with an immense desire to reach his ultimate level of ZEN (even at 85). Jiro’s dream of mastering his skill is the level of ZEN he wants to reach.

      I’ve been watching this film once a month ever since I first heard about it here, and I always will until I reach my own ultimate level of ZEN no matter how long it takes.

  8. I can totally relate good sushi to a good content quality blog post! It makes so much sense. Simple, quality ingredients presented in a unique way…

    Having an artist mindset is a nice way to approach your writing. Never quite put it in that perspective before. Fun! Thanks for pointing that out Sonia. I’ve been getting caught up in quality and having a blog article flow and somehow that creative spark was missing. I feel newly inspired :)

    PS: I have “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” sitting in the #1 position on my Netfilx queue! This just reminded me to watch it.

  9. It helps that Chef Jiro Ono sells sushi, which people have an irrational love for.

    And it helps that Gary Vaynerchuk sold wine.

    And it helps if you’re anyone that sells health, status, money, or sex.

    The biggest lesson I get from Ono is to start on 3rd base with something people are clamoring for. Then “market” yourself home.

  10. I agree that adding a creativity will make a huge difference. Difference is the key to get attraction to your newsletter.

  11. Mindfulness practice has taught me the discipline to stay focused. My tag line is ‘Move away from the business of life to get on with the business of life’. With each post I answer that question, that way I hope not to sway too far from the topic.

  12. Quality, Originality and Consistency.. Three simple characteristics or traits. Great. How I wish I an achieve just one of them.

  13. I couldn’t have said it better myself,” dedicate your life to mastering your skill. So simple, yet true; if put into practice, you can see how someone can become the best at something.

  14. Good stuff. totally agree…3 main pillars to content marketing yet sometimes can be the hardest thing to accomplish Quality, Originality and Consistency.

  15. Wow, this was a surprisingly beautiful and eloquent way to express these thoughts. Thank you!

  16. Simple but so hard to attain. Why do Japanese always are the perfect example of mastery? I love the final quote, I’ll post it on my desk!

  17. Simply excellent post! I really enjoyed going through such a beautiful post of content marketing. Most of all the example of Chef Jiro Ono sells sushi is so noteworthy and it would definitely be so helpful if put it into practices. Thanks for sharing it.

  18. Well written site! I love the quote of being in love fully with your work, actually encouraging and inspiring. You can love what you aren’t in love with; it is a matter of loving and gaining love in return. Very impressing work. I look forward for your next shout out, otherwise very helpful points to me Reid, thank you!

  19. Quality, originality and consistency, I add to this list creativity. Bloggers should master their writing skills and be focused not to write topics that are not of their niche.

  20. Dipping yourself in your work is quite a good gesture. Adoring it is one way to the breakthrough towards overcoming these fears. I so love your post and the info it comes with. I am looking forward to more of this.

  21. Sometimes, simple is the hardest. The constant practice got him to mastery. The mastery of the most basic and simple thing. All we need to do is focus on one thing and do that one thing very well. Successful people focus only on one thing.