Good Will Learning – Bonsai and Marketing

Do you know what “Bonsai” is? “Bon-sai” is a Japanese term that directly translates to “plants in a container.” In Chinese the term used to refer to Bon-sai is Penjing(盆景), which means “scenery in a pot. “ Bonsai/Penjing is a way of showcasing trees or plants by vigilantly caring, pruning and shaping them so that, over time, they become stunning, living works of art.


I happened to sit next to a man named Will on the way back to Portland from Chicago last Thursday.

Will: “Is Portland home?”

Me: “Yes, I was gone for three days and can’t wait to go home. “ (Busy buckling my seat belt and struggling to situate myself in a tiny seat without looking up.)

Will: “Portland is such a nice city and I have been there a couple of times…”

Me: “Yeh, it’s my type of town, quirky and fun. Been there for over twenty years and love it. Do you go there for work?” (I finally looked at him. A big gray-haired dude with a nice buttoned shirt. Casually dressed with a sense of formality. I can tell he is a corporate guy from the East Coast. The survey says…..I was right!)

Will: “Oh, no. I am going to Portland for pleasure.”

Me: “Do you know where to go, what to do, where to eat? I have a list of restaurants that I can recommend.” (Ok, a little pushy. All of a sudden, I went into my Portlandia ambassador mode. :-) )

Will: “I won’t have time. I am going there for a three-day class.”

Me: “Oh, what class?”

Will: “Bonsai.”

Me: “What?” (I didn’t expect to hear the word “Bonsai” from a 6’10’’ gray-hair white dude. I literally asked him to repeat the word twice.)

Will (laugh): “I am going to Portland to study Bonsai with a Bonsai Master.”

Me: “Wow, get outa here. Really?! That’s awesome!”

It turned out he is an avid Bonsai collectors with overall 200 Bonsai trees in his backyard. He has been studying with this master for a couple years already.

Me: “I am a collector, too.”

Will: “Really?” (He gets all excited.)

Me: “A virtual on-line Bonsai collector calls Pam’s Bonsai Pinterest board.” (I started laughing.)

Will: “The pictures on Pinterest can’t do the justice of the magnitude of exquisiteness until you see them in person. Plus, you have not seen nothing yet, kiddo. Some of these Bonsai Junipers are 800 or 1000 year-old.”

These two Bonsai trees are located in Shunka-en in Tokyo and are more than 800 years old.


I couldn’t stop asking questions about Bonsai and his experience. How do Bonsai live in such a small container? Are they kept outside or indoors? How to choose a tree? How to measure the age of trees? How to choose a pot? A lot of questions are answered in this simple Bonsai FAQ page from the Huntington Botanical Garden site.

Who is this master? Why did the master choose to live in Portland? à His master/teacher is Ryan Neal. Apparently, there are two Bonsai masters living in Portland. The Pacific Northwest has the perfect weather to grow Bonsai (not mentioning all the beautiful trees around the area). I learned something new about my own town.

How does he for his 200 babies during severe winter weather that frequently occurs in the Northeast? That’s the time he regrets owning so many. When the weather is bad (like the 2014 winter storm), he had to move his babies into his garage. Yes, all 200 of them.

A collector’s job is to continue to learn

Bonsai is a “living” being. For its beauty to last, it requires care and attention. As a Bonsai collector, you need to know how to care and attend to them. Otherwise, they will die. You either need to hire a caretaker or you need to roll up your sleeves to learn the proper ways. Even if you hire a caretaker, you still need to possess a basic knowledge on do’s and don’t’s. You can’t totally rely on the caretakers.   That’s why Will is in Portland.

As a marketer, we will rely on our agencies, freelancers and contractors to help various marketing efforts. A lot of our partners and vendors are experts in their fields. We can rely on their help and services, but it’s also important for us to stay on top of the trends and overall technology developments. After all, we know our companies well and

It’s our job to provide directions to help us to help them to be successful. The learning never stops.

Balance of trees and pots

Throughout the conversation, I asked how he chooses pots for his trees. He told me it’s very hard. It’s important to pick a pot to showcase the beauty of the tree, but the pot can’t upstage the tree. He mentioned that it’s nice to have friends who can make pottery. Occasionally, he designs the pots and his friends will make them for him.

This reminds me about the balance of copywriting, images and iconography on websites, mobile apps and content creation.

Depending on the context, form factor of the devices and usage, one design element may play a more important role than others.

For example, copywriting may need to be short to showcase a beautiful image. Iconography is more prominent on mobile devices than copy. How do we balance the various design elements so that they complement each other?

Art needs to be refined

Continuous pruning, occasional repotting or even wiring to shape tree growth is all part of Bonsai art. Attention to detail is the only way to elevate the aesthetic element of Bonsai.

With our digital marketing effort,

A/B testing for different calls-to-action on e-commerce, website copy and headlines can be a way to optimize. Use tools to optimize the timing of the post, various formats of content, and even budget allocation between various channels. Measure, refine and measure some more.


What a treat sitting next to Will during the 4-hour flight! Who knew a conversation about Bonsai could turn into a blog post!

Will couldn’t have asked for a better weekend to come to Portland. Three sunny days and I just can image him sitting in his teacher’s garden soaking up the sun and the knowledge by working on some of the amazing Bonsai in the States. Will, I will stop by and check out your teacher’s garden this summer and I hope to see your collections one day.