What Wins Wars . . . And Markets

Dec. 21, 2004

Sun-tzu, the great Chinese military strategist, wrote The Art of War during the warring-states period between 480 and 221 B.C. It was a significant period in history, rich with new ideas (Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle) as well as fierce aggression (Alexander the Great). I was a teenager at the time, learning the lessons I would employ 2,400 years later against such formidable publishing adversaries as McGraw-Hill, Cahners, and other business-magazine publishers in the marketing wars of the 20th century. Here are some of Sun-tzu's warfare strategies (translated into Marinoisms) I learned to employ to win market share. They'll work for you, too:

  • Don't start what you shouldn't begin.
  • The impossible is impossible.
  • Don't attack a tank with a peashooter.
  • Attack what isn't defended.
  • If you can't attack, defend.
  • Illusion creates confusion.
  • Protect your ass-ets.
  • Do what they don't expect.
  • Rather than assuming they will not attack, position yourself so they cannot attack.
  • The overly reckless can be destroyed.
  • The overly cautious can be captured.
  • The quickly angered can be ridiculed.
  • The unprepared can be defeated.
  • The unknowing can be outsmarted.
  • The overconfident can be humiliated.
  • Do not challenge unless you have the means to win.
  • Do not fight unless you are determined to win.
Strategy No. 1: In publishing, in manufacturing, as well as in war, firepower will beat manpower. An understaffed, underfunded, underpromoted, and undersold product eventually will be destroyed by a well-staffed, well-financed, aggressively promoted, and smartly sold product. Strategy No. 2: In publishing, in manufacturing, as well as in war, expressions of personality and creativity will defeat intellect. On the battlefield or in the marketplace, you seldom win "by the numbers" or "by the book," even though we are often taught to think and operate that way. You may command a formidable force, a veritable armada, but outside every big, fat, and sassy company there are lean, shrewd, hungry, and fast-moving competitors that will capture market-niche opportunities by using guerrilla tactics. Strategy No. 3: Great generals and great chief executives take action when they see warning signals. The idea is to prevent surprises -- and to succeed in spite of them. Attack the hard targets first -- waste, inefficiency, incompetence -- rather than the soft targets such as education and training, investment in new technology, new-product development, market research, and advertising and promotion. Strategy No. 4: Great military leaders and great chief executives take calculated risks. They know that if they eliminate all risk, they create a new risk: the risk of eliminating surprise, enterprise, and innovation opportunities that lead to quick, decisive, and rewarding victories. Strategy No. 5: Military decisions are determined by the enemy -- or by his failure to act. Marketing decisions are determined by the marketplace -- and by the actions or lack of actions of your competitors. In both situations, the greater risk is not to do something, but to do nothing. Tactics: Improve your command staff. Recruit the best talent. Educate and train your troops. Improve your communications capability. Develop intelligence-gathering capability. Give yourself the strategic advantage. Build tactical strength instead of ego. When you're an old war horse with more battle scars than brains and your chain of command has lost a few of its links, you tend to confuse bravado with bravery. My gut tells me that most of you who read this are more concerned with winning today's battles than with preparing to win tomorrow's wars. Sun-tzu and I say, "Too bad!" Sal F. Marino is chairman emeritus of Penton Media Inc. and an IW contributing editor. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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