Editor’s Preface: The following article has drawn more response than any we’ve ever run. Heading into what is likely to be the most contentious political contest in recent history, a number of readers have asked about this piece all over again. I wrote it in the first place, and run it again, because of the marketing principles involved; no political position is expressed or implied.
Back in the 1980s, Philip Kotler formulated five attack strategies and six defense strategies that together compose a novel way of looking at marketing. I got to thinking the other day that our current president has displayed an uncanny mastery of these strategies, whether instinctive or learned. We’re going to review Kotler’s strategies later in this article, but first, let’s look at some of the principles that our unlikely Commander‐in‐Chief employed to win the nomination, win the presidency, and continues to employ to solidify his position. In other words, the seemingly random behaviors, utterances, and tweets that emanate from the Oval Office might actually be based on solid marketing principles. What is interesting about the president’s application of these principles is that he seems to be playing both an offensive and defensive game simultaneously, using a mash‐up of strategies from both columns.
Here’s what I’ve observed:
KEEP IT SIMPLE. Trying to communicate complex, nuanced concepts is futile in a marketing environment. Use short, catchy, memorable phrases; the fewer the words, the more likely the message is to be understood and repeated. Examples: “Lock Her Up,” “Drain the Swamp,” “Build the Wall.”
REPOSITION THE COMPETITION. Whether it’s “Crooked Hillary,” “Little Marco,” “Fake News,” or “The Failing New York Times,” the average consumer (a.k.a. voter) is likely to be swayed by the appellations when they are repeated, consistently, often enough.
This is a particularly effective technique in that the competition is powerless to fight it—because they can’t even acknowledge it. If Ms. Clinton were to say something like, “I’m not crooked,” or The New York Times were to adopt a slogan like, “We’re Not Failing,” they would be playing into the president’s hand. (Neurolinguistic Programming teaches us that the mind ignores a negative. “Not failing” is “Failing”; “Not crooked” is “Crooked.”) Naturally, the marketer who has effectively repositioned the competition would love nothing better than for the competition to respond; that merely gives more exposure to the repositioning.
BE CONSISTENT. Whenever referring to Ms. Clinton it’s always “Crooked Hillary.” It’s always “The Failing New York Times.”
BE REPETITIOUS. Any good marketer knows that anything repeated often enough seeps into the public consciousness and becomes “fact.” (Coca‐Cola has certainly proved that over the years by taking truly awful taglines and making them work by pouring billions of dollars into their promotion.) This rule is a corollary of “Be Consistent”; the two work together to build up impressions and solidify viewpoints.
BE PREEMPTIVE. This is one of Kotler’s defense strategies. A great example is this whole “Fake News” business. By using that epithet early and consistently, the groundwork has been laid for a response to any unfavorable reporting. Since the constant repetition of the phrase “Fake News” establishes it as fact in the mind of the consumer, then any reporting negative to the president is deemed to be “fake news” and thereby discredited.
DOUBLE DOWN. A good marketer understands the value of the competition acknowledging what you’re doing. No matter how withering the competitive response, it’s important to stand your ground—and take advantage of the opportunity to use consistency and repetition yet again.
BE UNPREDICTABLE. Kotler calls this the “Mobile Defense”—it’s hard to hit a moving target. However, in the case of the president, he seems to be using this as an offense. It’s hard to marshal a response when the attacks cannot be predicted. Do anything and everything you can to keep your competition off balance and chasing their own tails. Any time and effort spent in regaining balance is time and effort not devoted to defeating you.
USE THE EBBINGHAUS PRINCIPLE. In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus came up with his famous “Forgetting Curve,” which proves what we already know: we forget stuff over time. The president employs this tactic quite frequently: “I’ll have a major announcement in four days”—and the announcement never comes. After four days, most people will have forgotten all about it—and any news media outlet that does not forget has already been branded “Fake News,” so there you go.
Now we turn to a review of Kotler’s attack and defense strategies. How many of them can you see in the president’s behavior?
Kotler’s Attack Strategies
FRONTAL ATTACK. One of the less subtle forms of attack. It involves meeting your competitors head‐on, and generally requires a lot of resources to pull off successfully.
So you will look at where your competitor is currently strong and then pump marketing resources into competing on those strengths. If successful, you can deal a massive blow to the competition and turn their strengths into your own.
There is also an alternative strategy, which Kotler termed a “modified frontal attack.”Here you match your competitor on everything but price, with which you come in lower. By undercutting them, you can convince the market that your offering is of better value, which could sway more customers over to your side.
2. FLANKING ATTACK. Flanking is a little shrewder than a full frontal assault. On a real battlefield, an army will deploy more defensive troops and resource to the areas it expects to be attacked, leaving certain other areas more exposed.
The same is true on the marketing battlefield, as your competitor will be likely to spend more resource defending its key territories. But this gives you the opportunity to identify and geographical areas where they’re weaker, allowing you to focus your efforts on them for some easy wins.
You can even launch a mini frontal attack to encourage the competitor to divert even more resources to their key territories, while you launch your real flanking attack on their exposed areas.
3. ENCIRCLEMENT ATTACK. Encirclement attacks are all about overwhelming your competitor into submission, and like the frontal attack they require a lot of resources.
You need to identify all of your competitor’s positions and products in the market. You then need to launch a well‐orchestrated simultaneous attack on all of them at once, for example by introducing rival products to every one of theirs. You can even give your attack a super‐cool name like “Operation Total Market Takeover.”
This will force them to either spread their resources extremely thin to defend their territories, or get them to sacrifice some so that they can afford to defend others. Either way, you’ll deal a heavy blow.
4. BYPASS ATTACK. Sometimes in the face of a tremendous enemy, the best tactic is to avoid a confrontation altogether. But that doesn’t mean just giving up, instead you keep a careful eye on the enemy so that you can build up your strength in areas they haven’t even considered.
So you might decide that since your competitor dominates the domestic market, that you’ll take your business overseas. Or you might develop types of products and services which your competitor doesn’t even offer, so that you don’t need to worry about them standing in your way.
And then, once you’ve built up your strength in these new areas, you might find that you’re able to spend some of your new resources on launching a successful attack against the original competitor.
5. GUERRILLA WARFARE. Guerrilla warfare is all about winning multiple small victories against a competitor, which cumulatively become a larger victory over time.
You might launch attacks on small territories you know the competitor won’t bother to defend, but over time you could start to build up a substantial market share. Think of it as death by a thousand cuts.
But guerrilla warfare shouldn’t be thought of as a cheap option. If you actually want to ‘beat’ your opponent then it will probably just have to be a preparation for a real frontal, flanking or encirclement attack.
So now you now how to attack, but how do you go about setting up an effective defense? Well, Kotler devised a number of strategies for that as well.
POSITION DEFENSE. This is the marketing equivalent of sitting back into your chair, stroking a white cat, and saying “bring it on.” It’s where you pour all of your resources into building a fortress around your flagship product, with full confidence that it’s strong enough to carry your whole business.
But in practice, no fortress is impenetrable. After all, even the Death Star had an exhaust port‐ shaped chink in its armor. Resting on your laurels like this is generally the least effective strategy, as in the long run you’re likely to end up losing out.
2. MOBILE DEFENSE. As any boxer will tell you, it’s much more difficult to hit a moving target than a stationary one. In marketing this principle is applied by diversifying into new products and segments.
By spreading your efforts out this way, you become a much more difficult target to pin down. They’ll be reluctant to commit to a large‐scale attack on you as it will only affect one part of your business, and may not deal the massive blow they want it to.
3. PRE‐EMPTIVE DEFENSE. Maybe you’ve got a spy in your competitor’s ranks who’s tipped you off, or you’ve heard rumors that they’re working on a product to rival yours. If this is the case then you could be in the position to launch a pre‐emptive defense to shut down your competitor’s attack before it gets a chance to start.
You might rush out a new product which will outshine your competitor’s new one, or you might pump more advertising resources to that sector to drown out any noise your rival wants to make.
4. FLANK POSITION DEFENSE. Getting flanked by an enemy is a constant concern for military commanders, which is why efforts are made to protect yourself from all sides. In marketing, taking a flanking position means that you establish a defensive presence in a weaker segment which you anticipate your competitor will move into.
So you might launch a regional version of your brand or product overseas to counter any expansion your rival might make into that market. The important thing is to dedicate enough resources to secure a decent foothold in each flank, otherwise your enemies will be able to steamroll you out of the competition without much cost or effort to them.
5. COUNTER‐OFFENSIVE DEFENSE. Ever heard of fighting fire with fire? When you’re facing a head‐on assault then chances are that you’ll want to retaliate. Well, Kotler suggests three ways of doing so.
First is a head‐on counter assault of your own, where you lock horns with your enemy and see who’s tougher. The second requires more tact, as you pause for a moment and wait for the attacker to reveal a weakness you can exploit. So you might find that your competitor’s product lacks a key feature, and really play on that in your own attacks. Finally comes a pincer movement, where you might release two counter products at once. One could match the opponent’s and the other could beat it on price, so that they struggle to defend against both.
6. STRATEGIC WITHDRAWAL. This isn’t the same as just giving up; the word “strategic” means that it’s different. It’s always better to live and fight another day than to foolishly fight a losing battle until the inevitable grizzly end.
This strategy is where you withdraw from your more vulnerable areas and redirect your resources to the more defendable ones, which Kotler likens to a hedgehog withdrawing into a spiky ball. So you might sell off some of your smaller operations to focus more efforts on your more profitable ones.
Reprinted with permission from The Small Market Radio Newsletter