Sun Tzu, a Chinese military leader in the 4th or 5th century, wrote an ancient Chinese treatise entitled The Art of War. Even though historians are uncertain when the book was first published and whether Sun Tzu was a real person, The Art of War is still regarded as one of the most influential books on military strategy and tactics.
What is the purpose of blogging about a book on military tactics? Because its teachings have become influential in business, politics, and even marketing, the Art of War has maintained its immense popularity.
One of my favourite quotes from The Art of War is:
“What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins but excels in winning with ease.”
Here are three marketing lessons from The Art of War that will greatly improve the marketing efforts of your business.
1. Don’t use “limited resources” to justify poor marketing
“There are not more than five primary colours (blue, yellow, red, white, and black), yet in combination, they produce more hues than can ever be seen.” – Sun Tzu
It’s unlikely you’ll be able to devote unlimited resources to your business’s marketing strategy unless you’re Ogilvy & Mather, Leo Burnett, or Weiden + Kennedy. As easy as it is to use limited resources as an excuse for an ineffective marketing strategy, you should learn how to make the most of the ones you do have.
You can do anything if you try harder, but I’m not on a soapbox telling you that. That’s not the case (sorry, Adidas). There are limitations to time, money, and knowledge when it comes to marketing your small business. You probably don’t have $10,000 to spend on marketing each month. Being aware of your company’s marketing shortcomings, however, is a strength in itself.
Even when facing perceived limitations, Sun Tzu points out that creativity can open up new possibilities. The world has infinite colour potential based on only five unique hues. In the beginning, only blue and yellow combined to create green. However, red and yellow combined to create orange. This is how it works.
How do you choose your colours? How can you create new ones?
In order to build and implement an effective marketing strategy, you must first identify the resources you have, as well as those you do not. Is your time abundant but you lack the resources? If you are a marketer with limited knowledge but a large budget, what would you do? There are combinations that can be found even with a limited amount of resources.
This lesson can also be applied at the micro-level. A/B tests are essential for a business (or an agency that you hire) to produce successful marketing campaigns. You must integrate them into your marketing strategy.
Test the click-through rates of ad copy, the conversion rate of landing pages, and the open rate of email subject lines. You can only improve campaign performance this way. The number of iterations is infinite even when starting with only two groups.
A/B testing of the headline is typically my first step in designing a new landing page. After a sufficient amount of traffic has been gathered, I will review the data to determine which headline produced the highest conversion rate. My first headline test will be this winning headline, then a new headline will be tested as my “B.” test.
After I’m satisfied with the page’s performance, I will start testing other elements (subheadlines, body copy, forms, buttons, etc.).
The process will take months, but I’ve already created dozens of possibilities that were not possible when I began. The first step in creating a new colour is mixing two colours you already have.
2. Discipline and execution are necessary for successful marketing
“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy are the noise before defeat.” – Sun Tzu
The key to success is having a smart strategy, right? If that’s true, then why do so many businesses fail? How come the Cleveland Browns are still the worst football team in the league? At one point, there was a strategy in place there.
You can think of a marketing strategy as a long-term vision of your business’s marketing objectives. Marketing strategies are like the rudders of ships. You’ll be guided in the right direction, but the boat will not be powered by it. In the end, the strategy will get you to where you want to go, but you may be at sea for a long, long time.
Because of this, you also need tactics. The tactics you perform on a regular basis are your low-altitude responsibilities. This is your marketing ship’s engine. It is tactics that propel your business forward.
In order to be successful in marketing, you need both discipline (strategy) and execution (tactics).
I agree with Sun Tzu that developing a sound strategy is more important than anything else. Marketing efforts are pointless without a well-devised strategy. No matter how hard you work, unless you know what you’re aiming for, you’ll never succeed. If you don’t have a strategy, you can’t measure success.
The Cleveland Browns are terrible because of this. The Browns have amassed a disastrous 87-185 record since returning to Cleveland in 1999. They have also undergone significant changes.
Coaches and quarterbacks likely worked tirelessly on execution, day in and day out, for those teams. Also, I bet some combinations would have worked if they had been given more time. When you start over every time you face a little adversity, you will never progress in your organization. This suggests that your last strategy wasn’t very good, to begin with.
3. Agile marketing is essential for success
“Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.” – Sun Tzu
Having a home run hit in his first at bat is one of the worst things that can happen to a baseball player. But why? An undisciplined hitter is likely to try to repeat the outcome, even when circumstances have changed. He saw a pitch with a different location, velocity, and rotation in his next at bat. A shift in the wind and a change in temperature has occurred. It is likely that the same uppercut swing used in the first at bat will result in a lazy fly ball in the next at bat.
In marketing, the same principle applies. A business’s early success can thwart its marketing strategy because it changes behavior as a result of its success.
Psychologist B. F. Skinner coined the term operational conditioning to describe a form of learning whereby an individual change his or her behaviour in response to rewards or punishments. When a marketing tactic is successful, positive reinforcement will increase the frequency at which the original behaviour occurs, hence increasing the chances for the desired outcome to be achieved again.
Nevertheless, circumstances have changed, and that’s the problem. Over and over again, you’ll eventually fail if you repeat the same marketing tactics. Nothing stays the same. You need an agile methodology if you want to sustain a successful marketing strategy.
Engineering teams use Agile Software Development to respond quickly and flexibly to changes. Agile methodology assumes that circumstances change and regular adaptations are essential. By embracing chaos, you will be better equipped to deal with it.
What are some ways to make your marketing strategy agile? Taking into account external factors is the first step. What’s happening in your industry or marketplace? Is there a new marketing platform or application available for you? What marketing methods do your competitors use? How are your prospects and customers responding to you?
Become an expert in marketing analytics (or hire an agency or person to handle this task). Data-driven decisions drive success. Look at the numbers and discern what they mean. Which strategies are working and which aren’t? Is there anything that needs to be done to continue moving the needle?
When you see an opportunity, you shouldn’t be afraid to take it. Agile methods require quick action. You should strike while the iron is hot (because it will eventually cool) if your $500.00 paid advertising budget generates $1,000.00 in new business every month.
The greatest generals in history were master strategists and tacticians. A battle can be won by anyone, but winning a war requires discipline and execution. Marketing follows the same rules. Utilize your resources effectively. Consider your decisions carefully. Take advantage of opportunities quickly. Effective marketing requires planning.