Sun Tzu’s The Art of War was written in the second century BC. He was a high-ranking general in the Chinese military and wrote one of the most influential strategic and tactical military books in history. The book’s influence can be felt in both the East and the West today – not just in the military sciences, but in law, government and business. Like many professionals before me, I’ve found Sun Tzu’s writing to be prudent and impactful for today’s business environment. The number of takeaways is almost incalculable. However, below are a few of the most important executive marketing lessons a professional can take away from The Art of War today.

Lesson 1

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Translation – The most effective marketing doesn’t even feel like marketing to the consumer.

Lesson 2

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”

Translation – Consumers are being inundated with a record number of marketing messages today. To capture and keep consumer attention, be different and be helpful.

Lesson 3

“Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance.”

Translation – Ignore peer pressure when competition markets with a bullhorn – market with a magnet instead. Use content and your online community to generate discussion and dialogue.

Lesson 4

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go

to war first and then seek to win.”

Translation – Backwards plan your marketing – define what success looks like and how you’re going to get there, up front.

Lesson 5

“Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

Translation – The most effective marketing gets consumers to buy without selling to them.

10 Executive Marketing Lessons from Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ from Chad Pollitt

Lesson 6

“Opportunities multiply as they are seized”

Translation – Technology and consumer behavior are ever-evolving and represent multiple marketing opportunities.

Lesson 7

“Earth gives birth to length. Length gives birth to volume. Volume gives birth to counting. Counting gives birth to weighing. Weighing gives birth to victory.”

Translation – The most effective marketing measures and tracks tactics, strategies, goals and ROI. Measure your progress every step of the way.

Lesson 8

“If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain to be in peril.”

Translation – Marketers who ignore the changing media landscape and consumers’ ability to avoid advertising altogether are at risk of brand-obsolescence.

Lesson 9

“Put them in a spot where they have no place to go, and they will die before fleeing.”

Translation – Sell something to a consumer and gain a customer today. Be truly useful or remarkable when marketing to a consumer and gain a customer for life.

Lesson 10

“The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.”

Translation – Don’t be afraid to fail and don’t chase influence. Marketing that is truly helpful to consumers is appreciated by them and positively impacts a brand’s bottom line in perpetuity.

The above 10 lessons from The Art of War are meant to reflect today’s marketing reality. Inbound marketing as a strategy is beginning to filter into the boardrooms and both earned and owned media have started to demand more attention from traditional paid budgets.

Laggards and late majority adopters will soon feel the impact as millennials begin to take prominent leadership roles and their incomes rise. Marketing to Baby Boomers doesn’t attract Generation Y. Sun Tzu said, “Thus those skilled in war subdue the enemy’s army without battle …. They conquer by strategy.” Marketing has evolved, the battlefield has changed and so have the stakeholders. Will you conquer or capitulate?

Image credit: Emerging Birder


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Chad Pollitt Partner, VP of Audience Native Advertising Institute
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