Scan down the index of almost any book on military strategy and the
index of almost any book on marketing and the overlap in vocabulary is
remarkable. Strategy itself, tactics, targeting, weapons, armoury,
campaign, aggressiveness, operation, concentration of forces: you’ll
find them all in both. Sir Basil H. Liddell Hart could as well be a
visiting professor of marketing.
It’s not, of course, surprising. Marketing is a fiercely competitive
business; there’s nothing more competitive than war; and wars have been
at it a lot longer. But wars are never confused about the identity of
their enemies; and marketing, it seems, sometimes is.
I’m not quite sure when I first heard the phrase about ’getting in under
the radar’, but it’s round quite a lot at the moment.
If this metaphor means anything, it must mean that marketing
professionals see their job a bit like this. There are regiments of
people out there with just one thing in common: they are not buying the
product and are therefore the enemy. They are being bombarded (note
’bombarded’) by tens of thousands of commercial messages every day
before breakfast and have learned how to dodge them. They have become
increasingly media-savvy and icon-literate and can therefore spot our
post-modern ironies at a hundred paces and will dismiss our new
compassionate positioning with a toss of the ponytail. So the only way
to win, the argument goes, is to devise new and devilishly cunning
weaponry that will outwit the target group’s defensive mechanism by
coming in under the radar. (It’s not entirely clear what this means -
but it sounds immensely skilful.)
If all this were true, we’d have to leave the business; but luckily, of
course, it isn’t. Because what this imagery does is to confuse the cause
with the enemy.
Wars are fought against enemies for causes. In the same way, marketing
wars are fought against competitive companies for consumer approval.
But much macho marketing sees not the competition but the consumer as
the enemy. The cause becomes the object of attack, in the way that
Vietnamese villages had first to be destroyed before they could be
I don’t know whether marketing companies and their agencies in truth see
their potential users in this way or if they just talk like this to make
themselves feel manly. Identify your target; invest in an arsenal;
concentrate your fire-power, and nuke them into submission.
’All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must
seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are
near, we must make the enemy believe that we are far away; when far
away, we must make him believe we are near. Feign disorder, and crush
First articulated by Sun Tzu 2500 years ago, this remains pretty good
advice for Avis vs Hertz, Sainsbury’s vs Tesco, Reebok vs Nike.
But it’s a rotten way to schmooze a punter.
Jeremy Bullmore is a non-executive director of the Guardian Media Group
and WPP Group.