Marketing warfare strategies are a type of strategies, used in business and marketing, that try to draw parallels between business and warfare, and then apply the principles of military strategy to business situations. In business we do not have enemies, but we do have competitors; and we do not fight for land, but we do compete for market share. It is argued that, in mature, low-growth markets, and when real GDP growth is negative or low, business operates as a zero-sum game. One person’s gain is possible only at another person’s expense. Success depends on battling competitors for market share.
The use of marketing warfare strategies
Strategy is the organized deployment of resources to achieve specific objectives, something that business and warfare have in common. In the 1980s business strategists realized that there was a vast knowledge base stretching back thousands of years that they had barely examined. They turned to military strategy for guidance. Military strategy books like “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu, “On War” by von Clausewitz, and “The Red Book” by Mao Tse Tung became instant business classics. From Sun Tzu they learned the tactical side of military strategy and specific tactical proscriptions. From Von Clausewitz they learned the dynamic and unpredictable nature of military strategy. From Mao Tse Tung they learned the principles of guerrilla warfare. The main marketing warfare books were:
- “Business War Games” by Barrie James, 1984
- “Marketing Warfare” by Al Ries and Jack Trout, 1986
- “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun” by A Weiss, 1987
By the turn of the century marketing warfare strategies had gone out of favour. It was felt that they were limiting. There were many situations in which non-confrontational approaches were more appropriate. The “Strategy of the Dolphin” was developed in the mid 1990s to give guidance as to when to use aggressive strategies and when to use passive strategies. Today most business strategists stress that considerable synergies and competitive advantage can be gained from collaboration, partnering, and co-operation. They stress not how to divide up the market, but how to grow the market. Such are the vicissitudes of business theories.
Marketing Warfare Strategies
- Offensive marketing warfare strategies - Attack the target competitor with an objective such as “liberating” some of it’s market share
- Defensive marketing warfare strategies - Strategies intended to maintain your market share, profitability, sales revenue, or some other objective.
- Flanking marketing warfare strategies - Operate in areas of little importance to the competitor.
- Guerrilla marketing warfare strategies - Attack, retreat, hide, then do it again, and again, until the competitor moves on to other markets.
- Deterrence Strategies - Deterrence is a battle won in the minds of the enemy. You convince the competitor that it would be prudent to keep out of your markets.
- Pre-emptive strike - Attack before you are attacked. (see Defensive marketing warfare strategies for a description)
- Frontal Attack - A direct head-on confrontation. (see Offensive marketing warfare strategies for a description)
- Flanking Attack - Attack the competitor’s flank. (see Flanking marketing warfare strategies for a description)
- Sequential Strategies - A strategy that consists of a series of sub-strategies that must all be successfully carried out in the right order.
- Alliance Strategies - The use of alliances and partnerships to build strength and stabilize situations.
- Position Defense - The erection of fortifications. (see Defensive marketing warfare strategies for a description)
- Mobile defense - Constantly changing positions. (see Defensive marketing warfare strategies for a description)
- Encirclement strategy - Envelop the opponents position. (see Offensive marketing warfare strategies for a description)
- Cumulative strategies - A collection of seemingly random operations that, when complete, obtain your objective.
- Counter-offensive - When you are under attack, launch a counter-offensive at the attacker’s weak point. (see Defensive marketing warfare strategies for a description)
- Strategic withdrawal - Retreat and regroup so you can live to fight another day. (see Defensive marketing warfare strategies for a description)
- Flank positioning - Strengthen your flank. (see Defensive marketing warfare strategies for a description)
- Leapfrog strategy - Avoid confrontation by bypassing enemy forces. (see Offensive marketing warfare strategies for a description)
Companies typically use many strategies concurrently, some defensive, some offensive, and always some deterrents. According to the business literature of the period, offensive strategies were more important that defensive one. Defensive strategies were used when needed, but an offensive strategy was requisite. Only by offensive strategies, were market gains made. Defensive strategies could at best keep you from falling too far behind.
The marketing warfare literature also examined leadership and motivation, intelligence gathering, types of marketing weapons, logistics, and communications.
Learning from Napoleon
To understand how business strategists used military strategies, we can look at the innovations of Napoleon and apply then to business situations. Napoleon made four key innovations. They were 1) increase his army’s marching rate, 2) organize the army into self contained units, 3) live off the country, and 4) attack the opponent’s lines of supply. All four provide lessons for business strategists:
1) By increasing the speed that the army marched and fought, they created a military advantage. They could implement their tactics faster than the enemy. Hitler used the same strategy with his Blitzkrieg. The enemy was overrun before they were able to organize a viable resistance. But once these innovations were used, other armies made adjustments and the nature of warfare changed. All armies had to increase their pace of operations to be effective. Businesses, like armies must operate at a faster pace than their competitors in order to have a competitive advantage. They must develop and introduce products faster, implement strategies faster, and respond to environmental factors faster. They must be proactive.
2) Napoleon returned to the cohort organization of the Greek phalanx. These were self contained fighting units of citizens that knew each other in daily life, and had a wide variety of skills and various skill levels. Under the Roman Empire the phalanx was replaced by specialized legions containing 100 fighters (centurion). Each legion had a specialized skill (such as the archer legions from Thrace). For more than 100 years, businesses have taken Adam Smith’s advice and organized by functional specialization, just like the Roman legions did. Accountants populated the finance department and technicians populated the operations department. According to Adam Smith this is the most efficient way of organizing. But as the speed of business increases we need a more flexible system. We use cross functional teams (like the Greek phalanx) that have enough breadth of knowledge to see the big picture, are objective enough to get accurate and unbiased perceptions of environmental factors, and are flexible enough to act quickly.
3) Napoleon’s armies lived off the country instead of bringing supplies with them. This allowed them to march faster. The disadvantage is that stealing from the local population created resentment. But this was a longer term problem. It could be dealt with when the time came. The short term advantage outweighed the long term disadvantage. In business we no longer stock inventory based on an EOQ model. We use a Just in Time model and this reduces costs considerably. However it makes us vulnerable to our supply channel partners. Just as Napoleon had to manage the local people that supplied him his provisions, businesses today have found supply chain management to be a critically important part of doing business.
4) Striking at the opponents lines of supply is known as a flanking strategy. It is effective because it eliminates the need to fight the enemy head-on. An attack on a poorly defended supply line can render the whole enemy army unable to fight. In business today we attempt to do this with exclusivity agreements with suppliers (if you sell Pepsi, you can’t sell Coke). If Pepsi has an exclusivity agreement with Pizza Hut, Coke will effectively be eliminated from that part of the market.
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