Principles of Flanking Warfare

Jun 13th, 2003 by Tony in Marketing Warfare

For most managers, flanking warfare might seem like a military concept with no marketing applications. Not so. Flanking is the most innovative way to fight a marketing war.

Most military commanders devote much of their planning time searching for ways to launch flanking attacks. In both a marketing and a military sense, a flanking operation is a bold move. A big gamble with big stakes. One that requires detailed planning on an hour-by-hour, day-to-day basis.

More than any other form of warfare, flanking requires a knowledge of the principles involved and an ability to visualise how the battle will unfold after the attack is launched:

1: A good flanking move must be made into an uncontested area

A flanking move does not necessarily require a new product unlike anything now on the market. But there must be some element of newness or exclusivity. It may not be obvious, but the success of a flanking attack often hinges on your ability to create and maintain a separate category. Traditional marketing theory might call this approach segmentation. To launch a true flanking attack you must be the first to occupy a segment. Otherwise, it’s just an offensive attack against a defended position.

2: Tactical surprise ought to be an important element of the plan

By its nature, a flanking attack is a surprise attack. The most successful flanking moves are the ones that are totally unexpected. The greater the surprise, the longer it will take the leader to react and try to cover. Unfortunately, great flanking moves are often undermined by test-marketing or too much research, which exposes the strategy to the competition.

3: The pursuit is just as critical as the attack itself.

Too many companies quit after they’re ahead. They achieve their initial marketing targets and then they move resources on to other endeavours. That’s a mistake, especially in a flanking move. Ancient military maxim: Reinforce success, abandon failure. Let’s say a company has five products: three winners and two losers. Who do you think gets the time and attention of top management? That’s right, the losers. It should be just the opposite. Yet for reasons that are more emotional than economic, many companies can’t deal with success. When you have a flanking product that starts to become successful, you ought to really pour it on. Your objective ought to be to win, and win big.

— Al Ries and Jack Trout, Marketing Warfare, Chapter 9

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