“The revolutionary war is a war of the masses”
Mao Tse-Dong
“A journey of a thousand li begins with a single power point presentation”

Dear CMO:

Warfare is an overused business cliché. We run campaigns, launch flanker brands, have our ‘war room’ in the back where it smells like Lysol, and every once in a while, our CEO stands in front of us and ‘rallies the troops.’ Just like Henry V did at Agincourt. Your results may vary.

Personally, I understand the warfare analogy. I hate my competition to extreme lengths and don’t understand when my peers don’t. Ray “If Your Competitor Is Drowning, Put a Hose In His Mouth” Kroc and I would have had a lot to talk about. He knew a thing or two about ‘total war’ as it applied to the business life.

A conventional warfare metaphor would suggest, then, that if the purpose of war is to defeat the enemy’s army in the field, a company’s ultimate mission relative to competition is to put competition out of business. This is the typical von Clausewitz maneuver warfare explanation. Makes sense to me.

Small is the New Black

This brings us to unconventional warfare. The goal now is to strike at the enemy’s will to fight. Look to present day Iraq to illustrate. Iraqis want safety, security and the pursuit of happiness. Al Qaeda wants the removal of all foreign influence in the Middle East and a new world order with them, presumably, at the big table. The average American wants to finish the kitchen remodel and return the video. You can see how this is getting played out.

The Gang of Pundits has jumped on the “war of the flea” bandwagon, too. Seth Godin and Bo Burlingame both have new books on the subject. There is a new love affair with small. Unfortunately, there isn’t much out there to teach us exactly how big can defeat small in a repeatable way; small has amassed an exceptional track record. I’m very curious to see the long term effects of Israel waging their web 2.0 war of mindshare not with tanks but with YouTube, streaming video of Hezbollah firing rockets from residential buildings and then manfully running away. The first use of the “outbound call center pre-emptive strike” — calling into residential areas and telling them to leave prior to initiating military activity — is a pretty bright move, assuming they don’t try to upsell them on anything while they have them on the phone. “We will be flattening your neighborhood between 10:00AM and 4:00PM today. Please make every effort NOT to be home during this time frame. If you’d like to hear about our special offers to south Lebanon customers allowing you to combine your home and cellular phone bills with a new low rate on DSL all on one convenient bill, please press five now…” Is this the newest way to wage the war of ideas? Stay tuned.

In unconventional war, direct confrontation with ‘big’ doesn’t happen on a timetable decided by fiscal quarters (or even VC’s!), but by a maturity of conditions. This is textbook Mao.

How would Mao run my maketing department?

The Chairman had some very clear ideas about what constituted a guerilla war, tightly captured in a short volume that belongs on your shelf, entitled, “On Guerilla Warfare.” This book was used to great effect in Professor Ian MacMillan’s excellent course on Entrepreneurial Management at Wharton some years back.

The central ideas of having defensible ground where one can withdraw, winning the hearts and minds of the people, and the fluidity of movement are all clear and have been paraphrased exhaustively in business books for years. This is the light lifting of “business as guerilla warfare”.
Having an unassailable base of operations – defensible ground – means retreating to the country, the mountains, the urban jungle, or the call center market so you can fight another day if things don’t go as planned.

Winning the hearts and minds of the people is what separates revolutionaries from terrorists and, frankly, is what marketers are paid to do. “An army that is cherished and respected by the people, and vice versa, is a nearly invincible force,” the Chairman correctly says.

The maneuver game plan of the Maoist revolutionary has been laid out as follows:

When the enemy advances, we withdraw
When the enemy rests, we harass
When the enemy tires, we attack
When the enemy withdraws, we pursue

This makes lots of sense for market disrupters, niche players and blue ocean strategies. If you haven’t gathered the hearts and minds of your market and secured your defensible ground, you’re the economic lunch meat of the industry’s big dogs. In technology companies, however, the ability to just move faster than larger companies is an advantage not to be taken lightly. Big companies move slowly. They have bureaucratic machinery, political baggage, processes, formats, and other slow moving apparatuses that make them vulnerable to decisive speed players.

The real nugget of wisdom in Mao’s philosophy, though, is that a real “people’s war” is first and foremost a political struggle. It is a war of ideas.

Mao lays out his theory of guerilla war as a three phased attack. The first and most important is political indoctrination. The only military action is small scale, highly visible, and symbolic. This is the moral equivalent of public relations, DEMO, the TED conference, D4, and other stops on the tour de hyperbole. Steeping the team and the population in the right thinking always comes first and is constantly reinforced throughout the three phases. And if the situation changes, the revolution must and does shift back into the first phase again.

Only in phase two does the revolution begin to speak for the people. Now is when you turn contested markets into defensible ground. After the progress made in phase one, you have won hearts and minds, created sustainable and real differentiation, have extremely high satisfaction in your channels and your customer bases, and continue your mindshare evangelism on a broader front. And always the political agenda is reinforced. Only in the third phase does the revolution start in earnest, commiting conventional forces (meaning real ad budgets) and letting slip the dogs of product launch. Throughout all of this, action is decentralized and doctrine is rigidly controlled at the center; you let smart people make good decisions, but never cede control of the message to anyone.

So, comrade, this means “guerilla marketing” isn’t just about attacking the big and slow with the small and nimble. It’s about getting your story straight – consistent messaging, a compelling message, a real selling proposition – and then drilling this into your people and your market relentlessly. It’s about moving at a speed dictated by the germination of your message, which is often in direct correllation with the quality of your message. And it’s about striking when all these pieces are aligned. And if things change, you have to move your timetable out and recalibrate the revolution.

So melt away like g
hosts, back through the endless warrens of cubicles, back to the unused conference rooms where only facilities people dare to tread. Don’t bemoan your lack of budget. Ideas are more important than budgets. War is a political struggle. Get your story straight. “A journey of a thousand li begins with a single power point presentation.” Win hearts and minds in your market, your company and your team.

Terrorists usually get fired, but every company needs a revolutionary.

As Always, Your Brother in Arms.

Copyright © 2006 Stephen Denny