Branding and the Art of Zen

The Rock Garden

While hosting a brand session in Kyoto, I was able to visit the Ryoanji Temple. Just like millions others, I didn’t come for the temple, I came for The Rock Garden. Built in the 15th century, the garden consists of raked gravel and fifteen moss-covered boulders, which are placed so that, when looking at the garden from any angle (other than from above) only fourteen of the boulders are visible at one time.  It is traditionally said that only through attaining enlightenment would one be able to view the fifteenth boulder.

No trees are to be seen; only fifteen rocks and white gravel are used in the garden. It is up to each visitor to find out for himself what this unique garden signifies. The longer you gaze at it, the more varied your imagination becomes. Some consider the garden as the quintessence of Zen art.

What do you see in the garden?

Some people see hills with their peaks poking above the clouds.

Some people see tigers crossing a river.

Some people see islands rising from the sea.

Some see a lake. Some see heaven itself.

Some people only see rocks.

What do you see in the garden?

What do you see in a brand?

Some people see a product.

Some people see a dream.

Some people see a bigger thought.

Some people see a passion.

What do you see in a brand?

Focus and simplicity.

Modern life is full of distractions. Our minds weren’t built to all the information coming at us constantly. Even when these temples and gardens were built, the outside city life was busy and full of entertaining distractions. Visiting a garden with a few rocks in it gives our mind just enough information to feel comfortable. It calms the mind, like calming water, allows the dirt to settle, and the water to clear.

Modern marketing and branding is full of distractions. We tend to to stray from the brand core, brand vision and mission – focus on diversions, things that have nothing to do with brand. The ever-changing marketing and technology landscape forces us to keep up, open new channels, engage and connect. Nothing wrong with that. But, once in a while, we have to go to back to the brand garden and calm the brand, like calming water, allow the diversions to settle, and the water to clear.

Perception is not reality.

Why is our thought deluded? Why can’t we perceive reality correctly? One reason is that we are usually limited to a single, subjective view. Our deluded perception constantly deceives us into making bad decisions. As mentioned above, at The Rock Garden 15 stones are arranged so that from any point, only 14 are visible. So how many stones are there? Like the stones, we can’t see everything all the time.

Why is our perception of brands deluded? Why can’t we perceive reality correctly? This is especially true when you are working every day on a brand. Because we’re so close, we’re becoming deluded. We’re projecting our own goals and objectives to our point of view. You might think you know your brand. Most likely, you’re just overlooking the blind spots.

There’s no “average”.

All things have an ultimate nature. A real existence that ordinary people’s minds are unprepared to see. When people see something, they immediately classify and label it. They are unable to make sense of reality without this process. This conceptualization process is based on our subjective experiences and always causes gross distortions.

Let’s say a new creature just arrived on earth. The creature doesn’t understand male and female, so you explain to the creature that women are on average shorter than men. The creature doesn’t understand subtleties like “on average” and will assume from now on that any shorter person is a woman. We’re all as stupid as the creature, constantly making incorrect assumptions about the world because of our limited system of thought.

All your focus groups, brand research and data analytics give you a “general” idea or an “on average” perception of your brand. You make assumptions about a brand based on subjective experiences working on it, and it will always cause gross distortions. When working on a brand, always assume you are as stupid as everyone, constantly making incorrect assumptions about the world because of your limited system of thought.

When facing a single tree, if you look at a single one of its red leaves, you will not see all the others. When the eye is not set on one leaf, and you face the tree with nothing at all in mind, any number of leaves are visible to the eye without limit. But if a single leaf holds the eye, it will be as if the remaining leaves were not there. – Takuan Soto

About Uwe Hook

Uwe Hook (@uwehook) is the CEO and Co-Founder of BatesHook, Inc. ( and a veteran of the advertising and marketing industry with the goal of building connections between people and brands. Uwe can be reached at



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