Successful Brands and the Art of War
Sun Tzu contends that we cannot learn too much about how to compete.
Second only to the quality of your people; a strong brand is the single most important ingredient to a successful business. Brands are of such importance today that no leader in any company can afford not to have an understanding and an appreciation of the complex set of factors that are required to support and build a brand with its target market. The agenda for the building of a strong brand has to be set and supported from the most senior officer in your company.
Without a strong brand you basically do not have a business reaching its best potential. Such is the critical nature of brands and brand management. Successful brands and effective brand management is at the very core of the war for consumer attention, spend and loyalty.
Therefore, if you or your company think that brand management and brand building is something that happens from nine to five every weekday and never on a weekend then, you probably have lost the war already.
When thinking about brands and their importance in today’s business environment, I am often times drawn to the teachings of the late great Chinese war general – Sun Tzu.
Sun Tzu lived in Northeastern China more than 2 500 years ago. He was considered an expert in military strategy due to his many victories on the battlefield. Ever since his death, scholars of history and war have reviewed his writings and teachings in an attempt to discover how he ever managed to be so successful.
In fact about 100 years after his death the great Chinese warlord Cao Cao carefully annotated a text on military strategy that was a compilation of Sun Tzu’s teachings. Cao Cao’s overwhelming success in battle using Sun Tzu’s methods (he eventually united the whole of China) subsequently created great interest in the material.
Fundamentally, Sun Tzu believed that success in war depended on good leadership. He noted too that other factors i.e. information, preparation, organisation, communication, motivation and execution were also important, but their effectiveness depended still on the quality of the leadership provided.
Whilst the list of the 10 key principles that were extracted from Sun Tzu’s teachings are by no means the whole story of war nor do they work in isolation, I find it uncanny as how so many of these can be related so strongly to business in general and brand management in particular. I will cover only a selection of these key principles below. I believe that these provide a useful approach to building strong brands.
Learn to fight.
Sun Tzu contends that we cannot learn too much about how to compete. At the same time he advises against fighting for fighting’s sake. Competition should occur only when we have something important to gain or when we are in danger.
This principle is more about the discipline of competition than anything else.
In my experience I have always been intrigued, amazed and at times downright shocked to see and learn how easily many an organisation, led by ill-informed leaders and less-than-competent brand managers, loses focus of the big picture and the central brand agenda. I have seen big and almost monopoly brands lose the opportunity to grow through consolidation, and instead pursue short-term strategies by reallocating resources to ward off a very small and insignificant threat.
I think that sometimes among the really big brand players there is a lack of understanding of the fact that in more cases than not, new entrants to the market tend to have a positive effect on the growth of the market as a whole.
I am not in any way advocating a sit-and-wait approach from the big brand organisation whenever there is a new entrant in the market, however a lot of the evidence I have seen seems to indicate that the majority of responses from the big brands to date have been less than measured and in most instances have actually achieved absolutely nothing beyond a waste of resources. In fact in most of the cases I am aware of, the responses have tended to ratify the smaller new entrants to the market into really good market spaces.
Show the way.
According to Sun Tzu, leadership alone defines success. In his view good leadership is borne of a combination of self-discipline, purpose, accomplishments, responsibility, knowledge and laddership.
I think that the characteristics of leadership can be summed up in a word “Focus”. And within that you will need to include awareness of the environment around you e.g. people development, category growth etc. This is the look into the future. A leader, whilst making sure that today happens, must also take a view on tomorrow in a way that tomorrow is even better than today.
This applies to brand leaders and their brands globally. There is actually no point whatsoever in being a leader of a shrinking category, for example. And it is therefore no big surprise that there is such a strong link between leading brands and brands that innovate. The two are inseparable for good leadership and solid future growth.
Brands and brand leaders must invest in innovation, both in process and product. Too many category leaders in this country are just happy coasting along. By the way whatever happened to Lion Lager?
Innovation is the one weapon that makes you invincible. The power of innovation makes victory certain.
Do it right.
My turn on this principle is “Do it and do it right”. All competitive advantage is based on effective execution. Planning is important, but actions are the source of success. Without effective action, planning is a sterile exercise.
Most of the senior brand managers I interface with internationally highlight ‘flawless implementation’ as operationally the most important part of the brand building process. They argue that there are more people who can talk broad brand strategies than those who can implement and execute projects and programmes effectively.
The execution of programmes is definitely where the tyres hit the road. I am inspired by the fact that some of the really big brand organisations – including some in South Africa – are showing some innovation by building an implementation team into their brand management structures. This team is made up of well-trained project managers whose job is to implement brand programmes to full effect.
Just so that you can visualise this, think about the number of projects and programmes that when completed look and feel very different to the concepts upon which they were approved.
Not enough brand-marketing people are known for flawless implementation.
Know the facts.
To achieve success, you must manage information. Information is the lifeblood of business. The best information comes from first hand experience.
I think that in many companies, brand research is seen as very unnecessary; management teams – including the CEO – are content to rely a body of unproven assumptions, unwarranted speculation, and generally accepted opinions that is present in any group of people. And great danger lies in not challenging this “folk wisdom”.
I am forever amused whenever I listen to the type of conversation that takes place at least once in marketing and business meetings around South Africa. This conversation effectively consists of marketing people who make assumptions and postulations about the target market.
For example, many of these meetings get round to talking about the “Black Market”. And many of these meetings are made up of middle class black people who are supposed to represent aggregated opinions of the “homogenous” black market. And on the other hand, some white people who couldn’t care less about the future potential of their business that they will contribute consumer trivia gleaned from observations of the “help” they have at their homes.
I think we must agree here and now; no one black person represents the market views of the rest of the black population. And no your domestic does not either. Your wife too does not.
Brands must spend time or money; or preferably both to try and adequately understand the market spaces within which their brands are featured.
I know of blue chip businesses and brands in this country who cannot even get agreement or clarity regards the size of the market they operate in and what the key drivers for brand choice in their market are. And unfortunately therefore, brand management in these organisations continues to be a hit-and-miss type of affair.
The interface and relationship that is created between a brand and its target market and consumer is possibly the single most important factor for success in business today. And I believe that regardless of the size of the brand or business an awareness and capability regarding principles outlined above is a great weapon to have going into this war.
Ogilvy & Mather RS-TM