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Sun Tzu and the art of digital marketing strategy [Part 1]

Author's avatar By Danyl Bosomworth 25 Jan, 2020
Essential Essential topic

What can an ancient text do to help your digital marketing?

Sun Tzu's The Art of War is a widely studied piece of literature, so communicating its principles from reading it feels a little like learning to drive a car by watching a movie with a car chase in it.

What I'd immediately remembered (from reading it 9-10 years ago) was that the book itself is short and powerful. Each chapter layers onto what was taught in an earlier chapter.

Despite the title indicating otherwise, it's part science and part philosophy; it centres around the idea of winning without conflict, by competing based on position, not through 'warfare'. This is immediately powerful and relevant to marketers with experience in brand or marketing strategy.

I think that you can summarise the whole book (very crudely) with two questions:

How do I use information that is available to understand my strategic position?

How do I make the best decisions to advance my strategic position?

Simple, eh!? And, already applicable to digital marketing. Which is why it's been so popular in business and why we thought it would be good for us to think about at Smart Insights. The application isn't so easy, but we've outlined the broad context below in the hope that you can ask better questions of your current position - the decisions to advance that position will come along next week as we delve deeper.

Your strategic position - a sticky challenge that plagues modern marketing

We know that strategy fundamentally depends on acquiring and using information to best control situations around us, and we make strategic decisions based upon what we see, hear and understand.

For thoroughbred digital marketers, the guys and girls who live in data for decision making, this might hurt initially… we don't really "know" what's going on ...at least that's what Sun Tzu would say. We feel that we never have enough information, don't we? We get paralysed by not having enough information, and equally freeze and get lost if we  have too much. Sound familiar? It might feel easier where we can see what we think is under our control, in an analytics dashboard for example, but it's misleading according to Sun Tzu. We only see and control tiny elements out of the vast amounts of information. Sun Tzu believed that control is the infrequent and misleading exception and chaos is the larger reality, and realising this is where advantage lies.

Most information is unknown, or totally unknowable

Our perception of reality is full of blind-spots, it's incomplete, a mix of things that we don't know and things that are also totally unknowable. How many times do unexpected 'events' occur that throw your data upside down? A lot from my experience; it's business as usual! We never quite "know", do we?

In marketing, this problem is made worse as more and more data becomes available, more information isn't necessarily good if there's no model to process it.

By recognising that information is gathered on imperfect models from increasingly imperfect sources, and appreciating that we see "our" reality, not "the" reality, we can choose to widen our view, use better decision making models and make decisions those based on more of what is, rather than what we just think is.

Our opening primer on the 13 chapters of The Art of War

Though not so important as the above to make the point, we've laid out the 13 chapters of the book here as a primer, a "digested read"…

  1. Laying Plans- The first chapter is around the five fundamental factors (mission, climate, ground, command and methods) so that a commander (or marketer!) can calculate his or her chances of victory before setting out. Consider the factors for achieving strategic marketing over tactical…. In warfare, as in business, there are three key factors that can determine who will be more likely to win. These three factors are: The moral law; the commander or leadership, as well as the method and management. Much of Sun Tzu's teaching are about respect and gaining the trust of your army (organisation) and of course your customers. Strong virtues and the discipline of each team member's roles and responsibilities, including your own provided leadership and clarity, matters enormously. We'll take a look at this in more detail in the post, next week.
  2. The Challenge - the economy of warfare (marketing) recognises that success requires winning small decisive engagements quickly. Successful military campaigns require limiting the cost of competition and conflict. "In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns." Defeat your opponent fast, so that you won't become fatigued and you won't lose strength in resources. This means putting forth all your best efforts to defeat your opponents at the right time and on the right areas, so that competitors lose the desire to win.
  3. The Plan of Attack - a key source of strength is unity, not size, Tzu discusses the five factors that are needed to succeed: Attack, Strategy, Alliances, Army, and Cities. Ensure good preparation and apply the correct strategy, such as working out when indirect approaches will be more effective and less energy-draining than direct approaches. This means knowing your market and marketing thoroughly, learning about the tactics, competition and allies (influencers) that have been around for years, before your time in the game. Look for the strategies that prove most beneficial by using your intelligence and competitive advantage.
  4. Positioning - "Know your enemy and know yourself", Sun Tzu warns. If you do so, then you will win a hundred out of a hundred battles, he promises. Detailed knowledge of your opponent means that you know their brand behaviours, their strengths and their limitations. But in order to not have this same tactic applied to you effectively, you must defend existing positions until a commander (or marketer) is capable of advancing from those existing positions in safety. Recognise and pursue opportunities without creating opportunities for the enemy. This also means being able to change tactics when it's clear that your usual approach is failing – Sun Tzu summed this up as: "He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain".
  5. Energy  - the use of creativity and timing in building an army's (or organisation's) momentum. In war, this concerns directing the momentum of the army to focus its energies in the most creative and timely manner without burning all of those precious resources. Having the focus and organising resources around the goals. The best organisations are the ones with talent and where those people commit to their strengths throughout the course of the campaign, they are recognised, organised and encouraged by the leaders.
  6. Illusion and Reality - an army's (or organisation's) opportunities come from the openings in the environment caused by the relative weakness of the enemy in a given area. "Strike the weak and avoid the strong", Sun Tzu advises. Again, you need to know your enemy well in order to spot their weak points, and then attack them. Being first to attack puts you in the stronger position because you lead the way according to how you have chosen (imposing your intent), and for your opponent, playing catch-up is much harder.
  7. Engaging The Force - the dangers of direct conflict and how to win those confrontations when they are forced upon the commander. Manoeuvre with intelligence. You can lead an army of 1000 soldiers as easily as 10 – it is only a matter of signs and communication. Establish a common language between you and your organisation, a strong sense of 'brand purpose' is powerful. Implement good communication and trust in your team. Remember that the base for a cohesive and cooperative team is clear, constant communication and mutual support.
  8. Variation in Tactics - focus on the need for flexibility in an army's (or organisation's) responses. Respond to shifting circumstances successfully. Vary your tactics, and you win. There are two attack methods: the direct and the indirect. The direct method may be used openly, they're expected, but indirect methods to secure victory are the unforeseen, the unexpected, they throw the confidence of your competition. Be sure to disguise your intentions as best as possible, to avoid detection when you're about to vary your approach.
  9. Moving The Force - the different situations in which an army (or organisation) finds itself as it moves through new territories, how to respond to these situations, understand the intentions of other organisations. As your army (organisation) progresses, remember to sustain all your aims on winning throughout the campaign. Try to understand your opponent's strategy and destroy it, and bear in mind at all times that: "The clever fighter imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy's will to be imposed on him". Watch for the competitors changes in tactics and situation.
  10. Situational Positioning - the three general areas of resistance (distance, dangers, and barriers) and the six types of ground positions that arise from them. These are the six ways of ground. They are the general's responsibility, and must be examined. In warfare, they are flight, insubordination, deterioration, collapse, chaos, and setback. These six situations are not caused by Heaven or Ground, but by the general and the situation. Success and Failure in any organisation starts from the top. The leader (strategist, CEO) is responsible for any and all events that occurs in the organisation.
  11. The Nine Situations - describes the nine common situations in a campaign, and the specific focus that a commander (marketer) will need in order to successfully navigate them. Use the best position and tactics in relation to the environment and to your competition. Threaten your competition's remaining valuable strategies and positioning to prevent them from connecting their weakness with their strengths. Know how to drive your competition into a position where their weaker self is all they have left to rely upon. Where it is clear that your opponent has failed to adequately prepare for the situation, strike fast if they let a door open.
  12. Fiery Attack - the use of weapons (tactics and techniques) and the specific use of the environment as a weapon. Be "fast as the wind" and as "unmovable" as the forest. That means that your attack must be very quick, but your campaign and positioning should remain very consistent. Remember that the army who wins is the one that shares the same spirit throughout all its ranks, keeping true and remaining consistent. This section examines the five targets for attack, the five types of environmental attack and the responses to attacks.
  13. The Use of Intelligence - the importance of developing trusted information sources. When you have the opportunity, inquire about your competition's type of campaign, weaknesses and strengths from people in a position to know best; of course, with the advent of the Internet this has never been easier, something Sun Tzu didn't have available! Make the most of your sources of information to learn all that you can about your opponent. The secret of great princes and warriors that were regarded as geniuses was in actual fact principally only previous knowledge, noted diligently and then well applied.

Some great Sun Tzu resources - I've referenced multiple great resources (including the book here) which you can see here, here  and here. Check them out, it's genuinely useful stuff to help move from purely tactical decision making to strategic decision making. 

Author's avatar

By Danyl Bosomworth

Dan helped to co-found Smart Insights in 2010 and acted as Marketing Director until leaving in November 2014 to focus on his other role as Managing Director of First 10 Digital. His experience spans brand development and digital marketing, with roles both agency and client side for nearly 20 years. Creative, passionate and focussed, his goal is on commercial success whilst increasing brand equity through effective integration and remembering that marketing is about real people. Dan's interests and recent experience span digital strategy, social media, and eCRM. You can learn more about Dan's background here Linked In.

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