3 Essential Marketing Lessons from Sun Tzu's The Art of War
The Art of War is an ancient Chinese military treatise that was published in the 4th or 5th century by Chinese military leader, Sun Tzu. And although historians are unsure when the book was first published and if Sun Tzu was even a real person, The Art of War has remained one of the most influential works on military strategy and tactics.
So, why am I blogging about a book that details military tactics? The Art of War has maintained its immense popularity because of its applications outside of military strategy - its teachings have become influential in business, politics and even marketing.
Today, I’m going to share with you three lessons from The Art of War that will greatly improve your business’s marketing efforts.
1. Never Use “Limited Resources” as an Excuse for Bad Marketing
“There are not more than five primary colors (blue, yellow, red, white and black), yet in combination, they produce more hues than can ever be seen.” – Sun Tzu
Unless you’re Ogilvy & Mather, Leo Burnett or Weiden + Kennedy, there are limitations to the amount of resources you can devote to your business’s marketing strategy. And while it’s easy to use the excuse of limited resources as the cause of an ineffective marketing strategy, you should learn to maximize the resources you do have.
I’m not standing on a soapbox and telling you that anything is possible if you just try harder. It’s not (sorry, Adidas). When marketing your small business, there are limitations of time, money and knowledge. It’s not likely that you have a $10,000 monthly marketing budget. However, understanding that your business has marketing weaknesses is actually a strength, in itself.
Sun Tzu points out that even when facing perceived limitations, creativity can lead to new possibilities that didn’t previously exist. From only five unique hues, the world has an infinite amount of color potential. Green wasn’t possible until yellow and blue were combined. Orange is created only when red and yellow are combine. You get the idea.
What colors are you working with? What new ones can you create?
When building and executing an effective marketing strategy for your business, you need to start by identifying the resources you do have, as well as the ones you don’t. Do you have an abundance of time, but no money to invest? Do you have a limited amount of marketing knowledge but a sizable budget? The idea here is that even with a scarce amount of resources, you can find combinations that produce good results.
Additionally, this lesson is applicable on a micro level. To produce successful marketing campaigns, your business (or an agency that you employee) should continually run A/B tests. It needs to be a foundational part of your marketing tactics.
Test ad copy for click rates, landing page design for conversions and email subject lines for open rates. This is the only way your marketing campaigns will experience consistent performance improvement. Even when starting with only two different groups, an infinite number of iterations are possible.
When designing a new landing page, I'll typically start with an A/B test of the headline. After enough traffic, I’ll review the data to see which headline produced the highest conversion rate. I’ll promote this winning headline as my “A” test and then introduce a new “B” headline to test.
Eventually, I’ll start testing other elements of the page (sub headlines, body copy, form, buttons, etc.) until I’m satisfied with its performance.
This process will take months, but after starting with only a couple variations, I've introduced dozens of new possibilities that would have been impossible when I began. To create a new color you have to start by mixing two of the colors you already have.
2. Successful Marketing Takes Both Discipline and Execution
“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” – Sun Tzu
Everyone knows a smart strategy is the key to success, right? So why do so many businesses fail? Why are the Cleveland Browns still a terrible football team? I have to believe there was a strategy in place there at one point.
A marketing strategy is a high-altitude plan – it’s a long term vision of your business’s marketing goals. A marketing strategy is similar to the rudder of a ship. Yes, it'll steer you in the right direction, but it doesn’t power the boat too. Eventually, strategy will get you where you want to go, but you’ll probably be at sea a long, long time.
This is why you need tactics too. Tactics are your low-altitude day-to-day tasks and responsibilities. They are the engine of your marketing ship. Tactics power your business towards its marketing goal.
Successful marketing takes both discipline (strategy) and execution (tactics).
It’s clear that Sun Tzu places more importance on developing a sound strategy, and I don’t disagree. Without a well devised strategy, all of your marketing efforts will be frivolous. You can work as hard as you want, but you’ll never achieve success unless you know what you’re working towards. Without a strategy, you can’t measure progress and performance.
This are why the Cleveland Browns are still terrible. Since returning to Cleveland in 1999, the Browns have compiled a disastrous 87-185 record. In the same time frame, the organization has gone through
nine head coaches and 24 starting quarterbacks. (Note: I wrote this blog post before the Browns cleaned house on Sunday, so it looks like this list is growing.)
I would bet that a handful of those coaches and quarterbacks worked tirelessly on execution, day in and day out. I also bet some combinations could have been successful if given more time. But when you press the restart button on your organization’s strategy every time you face a little adversity, you'll never make any progress. Frequently changing strategies suggests that your last one wasn’t very good to begin with.
3. Successful Marketing Requires an Agile Methodology
“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
In baseball, one of the worst things that can happen to a hitter is launching a home run in his first at bat. Why? Well, an undisciplined hitter will likely try to repeat the outcome even though circumstances have changed. In his next at bat, the pitch’s location, velocity and rotation are different. The wind has shifted and the temperature has changed. The same uppercut swing used in the first at bat will likely lead to a lazy fly-ball in the next one.
The same principle holds true in marketing. Often, early success can thwart the development of a business’s marketing strategy because the positive outcome causes changes in behavior.
Operate conditioning, an idea made popular by American psychologist, B.F. Skinner, is a form of learning that causes an individual to change his or her behavior based on perceived rewards or punishments. When certain marketing tactics are successful, the reward of positive reinforcement will increase the frequency at which the original behavior occurs in hopes to achieve the desired outcome again.
However, circumstances have changed and that’s the problem. If you repeat the same marketing tactics over and over again, you'll eventually fail. The only constant is change. If you want to sustain a successful marketing strategy, you need to adopt an agile methodology.
Agile Software Development is a popular development method used by engineering teams that encourages rapid and flexible response to change. What the agile methodology assumes is that changing circumstances are a certainty and regular adaptation is a necessity. By embracing the chaos, you can be better equipped to respond to it.
How do you make your marketing strategy agile? You start by taking notice of the external factors. What’s developing in your market place or industry? What new marketing platforms or applications are available to you? How are your competitors marketing their businesses? What feedback are you receiving from customers and prospects?
You also need to become a master of your marketing analytics (or hire a person or agency to head this responsibility). Successful decisions are data driven. You must have the ability to look at the numbers and discern their meaning. What is working and what isn’t? What tactical changes need to be made to continue moving the needle?
You can’t be afraid to act aggressively when you see an opportunity. An agile approach requires you to move quickly. If your $500.00 a month paid advertising budget is responsible for $1,000.00 in new business, you need to strike while the iron is hot (because it will eventually cool).
History’s greatest generals were masterful strategists and tacticians. Anyone can win a battle, but it takes someone with tremendous discipline and execution to win a war. The same principles hold true in marketing. Take full advantage of your resources. Deliberate on your decisions. Be agile and act quickly when an opportunity presents itself. Successful marketing is intentional.
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