The expression “level playing field” implies a fair contest. In battle, as in marketing, a level field is the last thing we want. Military strategists from Genghis Kahn to Douglas MacArthur have all understood the advantages of taking the high ground. We’re not referring to any moral superiority, but rather to the literal highest point in the physical terrain of the battlefield.
The first army on the field claims the high ground. And field position makes up the bulk of military strategy.
Look at the high ground advantage geometrically. There is only a narrow angle at which shots fired uphill can hit their intended target. But shooting downhill opens the enemy to exposure from three or four times as big an area. The easier target will suffer greater casualties.
In the 80s marketers studied the writings of Carl von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu and tried to apply battlefield strategies to marketing “warfare.” The parallels work on a superficial level, and the illustrations can make key marketing concepts come to life.
I offer one such illustration.
Imagine two military sections (small squads of 12 soldiers), each under the command of a sergeant. One firmly entrenched at the top of the hill. The other trying to take that hill.
They each take aim and fire. The attacking section, shooting through the narrow aperture provided by the terrain, hit about 20 percent of the targets they shoot at. The defenders, without such limitation, manage to hit 60 percent of the time.
After the first volley, seven of the twelve attackers are shot (60 percent of twelve bullets), leaving five standing. Only four of the defenders were wounded (20 percent of twelve, rounded), leaving eight.
The second volley takes out three more attackers, leaving only two standing. One additional defender is wounded, leaving seven.
The third volley wipes out the attackers with no additional injury to the defenders.
It works this way nearly every time.
Like the military parallel, marketing field position is largely determined by the first army in the field.
Uh, lemme rephrase that.
Marketing position is created by the first product in the consumer’s mind. This is why it’s critical that your company be first in the minds of your prospective customers. Its the reason the incumbent nearly always gets re-elected. Its the reason Coke still outsells Pepsi. Its the reason nobody sells more prepared chicken than the Colonel.
How is marketing dominance achieved?
The easiest way is to actually be first.
That’s a rough requirement when your company is second, or third, or even farther down the list of competitors. Someone else already owns the high ground.
The second way to claim a winning position is to create a whole new mental battlefield and be first to occupy it.