February 21, 2019
By John Yoon
In western business, Sun Tzu is a military strategist often quoted but little read. Nevertheless, he wrote something that’s particularly relevant to marketers. It’s about awareness; awareness of yourself and your opponent.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Basically, his idea is that if you do not know yourself, you will always be at risk. If you know yourself but not your opponent, you will lose as often as you win. The outcomes are unpredictable. Only the leader who has self-awareness and knowledge of her opponents can enter into contests and win consistently.
How does the writing of a 5th-century Chinese philosopher relate to marketing? It’s closer than it appears. It’s all about positioning. Remember the argument from marketing mavens Al Reis and Jack Trout.
“Positioning is what you do to the mind of the prospect. That is, you position the product in the mind of the prospect.”
– Al Reis and Jack Trout, Positioning, The Battle for Your Mind
But to position yourself in the mind of the prospect, you need awareness: of self, of competitors, and of customers. Awareness drives to positioning which in turn informs messaging and marketing. While it’s not the adversarial construct Sun Tzu used, knowledge of self and the competitors and customers is necessary to ensure success.
Of course, organizations do get lucky and can win without this sort of framework but over time, the results will regress to a disappointing mean. The opposite is also true. A well-positioned, deeply aware organization can still fall victim to the typical “childhood illnesses” that kill young companies: poor execution, inadequate funding, immature systems, a miscalculation in the market or competitive reaction, and the list goes on.
Even though self-awareness seems like it would be the easiest because it is to close at hand, it often turns out to be the most difficult to assess. It requires a clear-eyed reflection of where the company is and where it wants to be. Because it’s so close, people often underestimate the effort it takes to get a true picture. This is an article focused on the first aspect; how to know yourself.
We often hear entrepreneurs entering the growth stage talking about their companies in terms of “what they want to be when they grow up”. I think this is a mistake. The time to begin to think about positioning is at the very beginning, not at some distant point in the future. This way, everything the company does then is directed to that objective. The worst outcome of a journey with no destination is that you arrive. Therefore, it’s best to take control of your fate than to wander rudderless.
To do this, the first step is to be self-aware. This can be made explicit by a coherent mission statement which we discuss in depth in a different article. For now, think about when people ask you why you started or joined this venture. What do you say? That’s what you want the company to be. That’s how you want to be positioned in the market.
Next, take a step back and think about how people see you. Is this how you want them to see you? Your market, your customers, your competitors, your team and your investors will all have a perspective that differs from each other but it’s up to you to shape that narrative. How you are seen will be different for different constituencies, but it is essential that they reflect different aspects of the same overall identity – your identity.
Even if you don’t take an active role in positioning yourself, you will be positioned by your market, your competitors, and your customers. Unless of course, no one knows about you at all – and that is a different, soon-to-be-fatal problem. What you cannot do is leave these constituencies to fill in the blanks themselves.
Customers will not do it. Competitors will do it in a way that disadvantages you. The market will not do it fast enough for you. Even your employees will be pressed to provide their own stories. Some will be what you want, others less so but without a core story, you’re passing up a prime opportunity. Losing control of this narrative is the first marketing cardinal sin start-ups commit. The best way to avoid this pitfall is to spend the time and effort to become self-aware. This is not some sort of new-age advice. How can you tell me about yourself if you’re not clear on who you are?
There are literally thousands of books and articles written about messaging and positioning. They all converge on a simple process that can be summarized in a simple but often difficult exercise.
Fill in the blanks in one of these sentences:
- We are the ____ for _____.
- We do _____ so that ____ can _____.
- We are changing ____ by building _____ in order to _____.
There are many variations of this sort of marketing Mad-Lib but the key points are the same. Tell your listener what you do, how you’re different and who you serve. You get the idea. It’s hard work and will require a lot of time in conference rooms. It may feel like a waste of time. It may feel like a statement of the obvious. I will say though in 30 years of experience, it is not a waste and it is far less obvious than people think.
Make the time. Have the discussions. Get passionate (about the discussion). Disagree without being disagreeable. Step away from it and let the ideas percolate. Re-engage. Hire an outsider to help you if you’re stuck. Read some books. As I said, there are literally thousands of them. Eventually, you’ll come up with an answer. Is it the right one?
Here is a test for doneness. There are two absolute “must haves” before you declare this project complete.
- Unique: if I can swap out the name of the incumbent process or your top competitor and the sentence is still true, throw it out and try again.
- Relevant: if there is no benefit (something ending in “er”: faster, cheaper, better, easier, etc.) and there are no people who will benefit, throw it out and try again.
This is not an easy exercise, as those of you who have done it will attest. It requires a great deal of energy to distill the essence of your venture. There’s a lot of fire and steam but the end product will form the basis of your self-awareness and provide the core for your messaging, your elevator pitch and your marketing strategy. Do not shy away from this exercise as being too obvious or too hard or too irrelevant. Increase your chances of success by cultivating deep self-awareness. This will serve as the foundation for everything else you build.
Do it now, even if you have not shipped first product, or you are not profitable, and especially before you’re in the middle of raising capital. Do it and once you and your team are happy with it, communicate it inside and use it as the foundation for positioning to the outside. It is at the heart of this final quote from Sun Tzu.
“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War
John Yoon leads the marketing practice at Mercato Partners
You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org