Sun-Tzu The Art of Branding Strategy

Sun-Tzu Marketing Wisdom

By Tom Dougherty

Sun-Tzu was a branding strategist
Sun Tzu

This is not the standard paper from Stealing Share. Rather, it is a quick look at some of the Sun-Tzu marketing wisdom that Stealing Share adheres to. We have reinterpreted those salient ideas as they apply to branding strategy and brand development. Each section begins with a translation of what Sun-Tzu wrote, followed by a Stealing Share version of the same statement.

Of Vital Importanc-

“The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.” Sun-Tzu, the Art of War

Here the Sun-Tzu marketing wisdom is of vital importance to the company. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to profitability, preference or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.” Developing your brand (the germinal root of your brand strategy) is a matter of life and death for your marketing strategy and product preference. Within the foundations and DNA of your brand, all the successes or failures in the life of your product or service are predetermined. It is the primary responsibility of your company to ensure that your brand strategy is on target and reflects the way in which your most coveted customers choose. All marketing communications must flow out of that strategy and must receive permission to be important and believable from that self-same brand strategy. Adjusting your marketing message and tactics alone, will not steal market share. Only when you begin at the root cause of your unsatisfactory sales results (your brand definition) can you alter the course of your business fortunes.

Know Your Enemy

“If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”  Sun-Tzu, the Art of War

Sun-Tzu Marketing Wisdom in Chinese script
The art of strategy

If your competition is well established and aggressive, be prepared for them. If they have greater marketing budgets and are reactive, seek to incite them and they will spend foolishly. If they see your brand as weak, they may get reckless. If their brand is well developed and their brand architecture is smart, look for smaller opportunities and engage their customers where they are unprepared, appear where you are not expected. A strong competitor has a brand that fosters loyalty and initiates trial because customers see the brand as important. They believe that the brand offers them advantages, not necessarily in terms of product or efficacy, but in terms of self-appreciation and identification. Going straight after such a brand is difficult and can be expensive because you are attempting to convince the target audience of two things simultaneously:

  1. You will need to prove that you are at least as good of a choice, from a product or service point of view, and;
  2. You must convince them that the way they feel about themselves when they buy the competitive brand (a brand face) is wrong. Sun-Tzu suggests that you should, under these circumstances, build your brand strategy where you are not expected. He suggests that you find a precept (customer belief system) that is not only fundamentally meaningful to your prospect but one that also plays on a different and hopefully superior emotional connection.

For example, if you were selling soap powder and your competitor owned “whiter whites” you might wish to own “caring mom” because such a brand position is superior. If you are able to own the brand position of “caring mom” then all you need to do is convince the target that your product needs to be considered as having parity with the competition. Once you do so, and overlay the brand essence of “caring” on top of this parity position, your brand would begin to foster preference.

Planning = Victory

Sun-Tzu has much to teach marketers
Sun-Tzu the Marketer

“The general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple where the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: how much more no calculation at all! It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.” Sun-Tzu, the Art of War

The marketer who wins the battle for brand preference makes many preceptive calculations and researches the beliefs of the prospects in the market space and category where the brand competes. The marketer who is destined to lose the battle does not look deeply at the prospective customer’s beliefs beforehand. REAL preceptive research leads to preference and looking at the market from your own perspective leads to defeat. It is through thorough understanding of the preceptive fabric of your prospects — and the extent to which your own internal politics do not get in your own way, that Stealing Share can foresee who is likely to win or lose.

Practical Solutions

“In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an entire army than to destroy it.” Sun-Tzu, the Art of War

In the practical battle for category dominance, the best strategy is to build and define your brand with the customer’s self-description (preference) in its fabric. It is a mistake to gain trial through price alone. Competing solely on price is to train the customer to make purchase decisions on price alone and it is destined to shatter and destroy your margins and profits. This is true even if you gain dominance, as the customer always believes that the sale price is the REAL price. The value of building your brand around the precepts of your customer and prospects is that you develop the ability to engage them without necessarily being the best or the cheapest.

Supreme Excellence

“To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” Sun-Tzu, the Art of War

Sun-Tzu Marketing Wisdom in the original Chinese script
Sun-Tzu in the original script

To market and win in all of your branding efforts is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists of beating the competition without having the same spending levels and share-of-voice. Measure your value to your company and your brand, not by how large you are able to make the marketing budget, but by how often you are able to win when outspent. It is not necessary to have an MBA to figure out that when you outspend the competition and have a substantially larger share-of-voice that you might just take market share from your competition. You are worth your salt only when you are able to make the competition’s ad budget seem foolishly large for the results that it garners.

The means to succeeding in this endeavor is in outsmarting your competition by making your brand more meaningful to the customer you wish to steal. The most common error in trying to accomplish this is by finding some heretofore unspoken benefit that your product (not your brand) has over the competition. The problem with this strategy is that it assumes that the customer in dispute is currently unhappy with the brand they are using. For example, If your brand was beer, telling the potential customer that your beer “tastes better” or that, in the case of COORS, it “is Cold” assumes that the customer believes that they want a “better” tasting beer or they believe that their beer is somehow not “cold.”

If we were truthful to ourselves as marketers, we would acknowledge that everyone likes the taste of the beer they are currently buying or they would not buy it, and, that if they are an American beer drinker, they are also drinking their beer COLD. So much for an incentive to switch. It is no wonder that Budweiser is the “King of Beers” — no one challenges them for the customer beyond easily dismissed product claims. The truth is, customers find THEMSELVES important and memorable. Build your brand around THEIR self-identity and not only will they remember you (needing less media frequency) but they will covet you because they see your product or service as an expression of who they wish to be.

 (Read the marketing wisdom of Coach John Wooden here)

(Read the marketing wisdom of Napoleon here)

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