Warfare Marketing: lessons from General George S Patton


U S Army photo

General George S Patton is widely considered the best field commander of World War II and was certainly the officer most feared by the Germans. His success was based on rapid offensive action and an understanding of how people react in the field. Patton’s principles of warfare* can be applied to great effect in marketing today.

General George S Patton
Patton knew a lot about marketing – he just called it something else. A marketer operates in a theatre of war (market), has troops to command and motivate (colleagues and staff), and weapons (promotions) to test and deploy in the field. His enemies are his competitors. Every piece of land, every enemy soldier killed or captured increases his dominance and control of the market. His troops are continually reconnoitring (market testing) and immediately they find a soft opening (responsive prospects), he launches a full, audacious attack to maximise the ground (market share) gained.

That’s the theory. Below is how it works in practice.

The effectiveness of ‘rapid, offensive action’
General Patton’s Seventh Army took Sicily in just 38 days in 1943, killing or capturing 113,350 enemy troops. Patton regarded war as a very simple thing, with the determining characteristics being self-confidence, speed and audacity. This applies to marketing: ‘defensive’ (as opposed to ‘offensive’) marketing diverts us from effective action. That is, it produces plenty of noise, uses up staff time and money but doesn’t win ground. In Sicily ..

“..The (enemy) spent tremendous effort in time, labour and money building defensive positions. I am sure that .. the fact that they trusted to defensive positions reduced their power to fight. Had they spent one-third as much effort in fighting as they did in building, we never could have taken the positions.”

Effective subscriptions marketing advice
Apart from learning how to sit and wait, a marketer will gain little practical experience from defensive marketing. Experience is what defines our personal value as a marketer. Experience is, for example, the most important thing we are asked about in a job interview.

We can separate ‘defensive’ from ‘offensive’ marketing by examining the tactical methods we use to win readers:

Offensive marketing
• Direct mail
• Advertisements
• Email promotions
• Google Adwords
• Leaflets
• Internet banner ads on other websites
• Upgrade and extension offers

Defensive marketing
• Your website
• In-magazine promotions: inserts, ads etc
• Partner subscription websites such as www.magazine-group.co.uk and www.letssubscribe.com
• Events
• Social network sites such as myspace and facebook

A website, for example, takes months, years to develop. Then it sits, waiting for someone to find it and be captured.

Unfortunately, your website is unlikely to gain your title much market share unless you are aggressively capturing significant quantities of email addresses, despatching regular email promotions and using Adwords to bring in new prospects. Most publishers’ websites don’t do these things so to avoid wasting resources a website should be delegated to technical staff to handle as it isn’t a front-line operation. This applies to all activities in the ‘Defensive Marketing’ category.

Capturing and protecting market share
The ‘offensive’ items on the list are where creative, effective marketing takes place: prospects are uncovered and significant new business is built. In marketing, our questions are the same as in warfare:

• How much of the market (ground) will our methods capture?
• What’s the Return On Investment (losses vs gains)?

As in war, it’s vital for a publisher to be ready to attack, otherwise you wake up as Cosmopolitan did to find its new rival Glamour at number one in the field with a circulation of 550,066 against Cosmo’s 460,276 – a figure that hasn’t gone up in ten years.

Or, if you are running Virgin TV, you find BskyB has stolen 40,000 of your hard-won satellite TV subscribers through a brilliant flanking manoeuvre, taking back the channels it was renting to Virgin TV and the subscribers with them. In just one quarter, BskyB increased its market share from 8.2m to 8.6m while Virgin stayed below 4m. Defence can be an expensive option.

“Battles are won by fire and movement. The purpose of movement is to get the fire in a more advantageous place to play on the enemy. This is from the rear or the flank.”

Cheap and weak – partner websites, in-magazine ads and inserts
Unfortunately, many consumer publishers leave the bulk of their marketing to online magazine subscription agents – a cheap and weak compromise.

Agents won’t win market share. Why? Because your competitors use them too. The aim is to hunt down prospects and to abdicate that responsibility to others endangers your position.

Online agents are simply alternative delivery channels. As with news trade distribution, costs should not come out of a promotion and marketing budget. Neither are in-magazine page advertisements and loose inserts ‘marketing’. All are merely a way of changing the mode of delivery, from news trade to mail.

Attacking costs money, but in the end it’s far cheaper than defence. You only get what you pay for. Expending your budget and creative energy in a proactive way is the only way to bring in profit and volume.

“Pacifists would do well to study the Seigfried and Maginot Lines, remembering that these defences were forced; that Troy fell; that the walls of Hadrian succumbed; that the Great Wall of China was futile; and that, by the same token, the mighty seas which are alleged to defend us can also be circumvented by a resolute and ingenious opponent. In war, the only sure defence is offence, and the efficiency of offence depends on the warlike souls of those conducting it.”

Who should lead your marketing?
The people creating and monitoring your direct mail and email promotions are your front-line troops. They know what works and what’s needed. They will create the circumstances and future plans for success.

“Plans must be simple and flexible. They should be made by the people who are going to execute them. Orders should not exceed a page and a half of typewritten text and it was my practice not to issue orders longer than this. Usually they can be done on one page.”

A Publisher or MD should not get involved with promotions or when or where they are used. The marketer makes the plan. If the marketers decide it is worthwhile to capture new ground with a direct mail pack, or Google Adwords with follow-up emails, then that should be their decision.

A plan should be stated on one page maximum. The most effective plan I have worked to has been a single sentence stating the Return On Investment target. A long and involved plan indicates either poor strategic thinking or a lack of confidence in your ability.

All a publisher needs to monitor progress is a single report containing monthly ROI figures, the volume of new business achieved, with current renewal rates.

Speedy test marketing follow-up
A publication should be promoted with daring and speed – as soon as your test marketing hits target.

“Don’t delay. The best is the enemy of the good. By this I mean that a good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week…Some officers require urging, others require suggestions, very few have to be restrained.”

Prospects are lost if you wait for the perfect piece of creative work, for the perfect list of names, the perfect time. When a test hits target there is no sense in waiting for a spring or autumn campaign.

Many things can hold a marketer back. A lack of budget should not be one of them: cash flow should be positive because subscribers pay for their product in advance. Restraint signals a lack of confidence in marketing ability because if there are prospects ready to be captured, you should be capturing them.

If, however, you lack experience then caution on the part of management is understandable. But then there is something wrong with management, isn’t there? Expertise is vital.

If you are not directing offensive activity perhaps no-one is qualified to act as a true marketer. Perhaps there is no real marketing taking place?

In marketing as in warfare you need to maintain a theatre of action to train personnel and keep up-to-date with what works and what does not.

The enormous value of a bloody nose
Theory has no use until it is practised. An MD cannot direct action from afar: he needs to be with his troops. His front-line are the advertisement sales and marketing/circulation teams and those editorial staff who are actually in daily contact with their readers.

“All officers must be vitally interested in everything that interests the soldier. Usually you will gain a great deal of knowledge by being interested, but, even if you do not, the fact that you appear interested has a very high morale influence on the soldier”

The marketing manager should be in the mailroom sifting through and analysing response. Theory is important, but there is no value in attending a seminar or training session if you don’t test and use those techniques in the field.

Like General Patton you need to be in the thick of it. His Third Army learned how to out-blitzkrieg the enemy, attacking with speed and surprise to prevent them from implementing a coherent defence. Patton swept from West Brittany, through France into Germany, capturing more land, enemy troops and ordinance with far fewer men than other allied Generals who ‘regrouped’, waiting months for the ‘right conditions’.

A bloody nose educates and informs with invaluable experience. Read this recent email from a marketing manager who uses our Subscriptions Strategy website. She was not happy:

“Print advertising does not work!!! I wished I’d discovered your website before I paid out £10,000 in advertising our books in other publications…hardly any response. I paid £4,000 pounds for a half page spread. Your website said that print advertising does not work for people who only have small budgets – I agree. Anyway, that’s a bit of feedback from someone who walked into a job as Marketing Manager and knew very little about marketing, but learning all the time and getting better (I hope!).”

Losing £10,000 sounds a tough lesson, but is part of a necessary educational process. Until a marketer is bloodied in battle, he or she cannot function at optimum efficiency, either strategically or tactically. Good marketers capture tough targets and are people your competitors won’t want to come up against.

With superior experience in the field a team will build a far greater number of loyal customers and revenue because she or he plans well, wastes less time and suffers fewer losses. An experienced marketing ‘General’ can capture a whole market in short order.

If a team is not fighting, it can’t move ahead. If you are not moving ahead – that is, growing volume or revenue year on year – then you can’t capture or protect your market share. You are a sitting duck waiting to be overrun – or already dead in the field. You should move on to a new theatre of operations.

*All quotes except the last are from War As I Knew It, by General George S Patton Jr.

© Peter Hobday 2011

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