Marketing lessons from Sun Tzu

The Art of War” is an ancient Chinese military handbook written during the 5th century BC by Sun Tzu. Probably only few people have read the entire book, but there are plenty of great takeaways in it for business leaders, executives, and strategists.

And though a customer should never be your enemy, and a sales presentation should never be a battle (not even with yourself), Sun Tzu’s enemy may be regarded as a metaphor for a business opportunity to pursue, and the war as the process of conquering your audience’s heart, mind, and wallet.

sun-tzu

Below are a handful of my favorite Art of War quotes (taken from the 1910 English translation by Lionel Giles), and how yours truly interprets and applies them in his daily job as a corporate marketer, business developer, and B2B storyteller.

First, always make sure you know your customers, the environment in which they work or live, and the opportunities and challenges they face prior to addressing them:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.” (from chapter 10: Terrain)

As Sun Tzu clarifies at the beginning of his treatise, “Heaven signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons,” and “Earth comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death.” But also, know your own strengths and weaknesses as they may set limits to what you can tell, do, or commit to.

Based upon this knowledge – of both your audience and yourself –  you can then adapt your sales strategy and customer value proposition properly:

“Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.” (from chapter 6: Weak Points and Strong)

Preparation is key. It’s all about you being ready to face the market and the customers. Build a message house, define your pitch, craft your presentation, and plan your meeting carefully.

“The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.” (from chapter 8: Variation in tactics)

Support your presentation with proper visuals and multimedia testimonials (a.k.a. gongs, drums, banners, and flags)

“On the field of battle, the spoken word does not carry far enough: hence the institution of gongs and drums. Nor can ordinary objects be seen clearly enough: hence the institution of banners and flags.” (from chapter 7: Maneuvering)

But, always remember – as I have emphasized many times before in my blog posts – look and feel matter! Be direct and indirect. Be creative and consistent. Be subtle and clear.

“There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.” (from chapter 5: Energy)

“There are not more than five primary colors (blue, yellow, red, white, and black), yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen.” (from chapter 5: Energy)

“There are not more than five cardinal tastes (sour, acrid, salt, sweet, bitter), yet combinations of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted.” (from chapter 5: Energy)

Finally, always choose your battle and don’t waste your (or your customer’s) time if there’s no real opportunity for growing your market or creating new business.

“The rule is, not to besiege walled cities if it can possibly be avoided. The preparation of mantlets, movable shelters, and various implements of war, will take up three whole months; and the piling up of mounds over against the walls will take three months more.” (from chapter 3: Attack by Stratagem)

“Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted.” (from chapter 6: Weak Points and Strong)

“Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.” (from chapter 7: The Attack by Fire)

I realize that making connections between ancient warfare and today’s business environment is not straightforward. Still I see Sun Tzu’s Art of War as a timeless and priceless masterpiece that may help marketers and sales people to develop successful strategies, make better decisions, run effective campaigns, deliver powerful presentations, and consequently generate more business.

No words needed

Body language can be a powerful communication tool. Sometimes a (mysterious, naïve, smart, candid, …) smile may tell you more than a hundred words.

Only a few days ago I saw this news video on TV. Confronted with US president-elect Donald Trump calling Brexit “a great thing,” and suggesting that more European countries would leave the EU, the European Commission’s chief spokesperson gave this simple statement: “We have read this interview with interest,” and complemented his answer by an (IMHO) priceless, all-saying smile.

Pressed by a journalist if this was all the Commission had to say about the issues Trump had raised, the speaker confirmed his earlier reply by a short and dry “yes.”

I think I clearly understood the message. And probably many Europeans with me…

Wow! here came the iPhone

Today, exactly 10 years ago, Apple introduced the iPhone. During his keynote presentation at Macworld Expo in San Francisco, the late Steve Jobs told the audience that:

Today, we’re introducing three revolutionary products.
The first one is a widescreen iPod with touch controls.
The second is a revolutionary mobile phone.
And the third is a breakthrough Internet communications device.
So, three things: a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, and a breakthrough Internet communications device.
An iPod, a phone, and an Internet communicator.
An iPod, a phone… are you getting it?
These are not three separate devices. This is one device.
And we are calling it iPhone.
Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone.

For the thousands of people in the auditorium, as well as for the crowd of technology enthusiasts like me that followed the event via a live blog, this was certainly a wow! moment.

iphone_jobs

This was one of these points in time when you recognize that a product or service is a must have that might change your life. Something powerful enough to make one say: “Wow! I’ve never seen (or heard) something like this in my whole life.” Or, like Jobs had perfectly described this moment a few seconds earlier in his speech:

Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything. And Apple has been – well, first of all, one’s very fortunate if you get to work on just one of these in your career.
Apple’s been very fortunate. It’s been able to introduce a few of these into the world.
In 1984, we introduced the Macintosh. It didn’t just change Apple, it changed the whole computer industry.
In 2001, we introduced the first iPod, and… it didn’t just – it didn’t just change the way we all listen to music, it changed the entire music industry.

So, as a product marketer and a public speaker, what can you learn from the January 9th, 2007 iPhone announcement? besides that the iPhone was – and still is – a great disruptive product. Here are a few tips on how to turn a new product introduction into a memorable wow! moment:

Sometimes a wow! moment just comes spontaneously (or even unexpectedly.) But if you want to make sure you don’t miss the opportunity to wow! your audience, then you’d better plan, script and rehearse your presentation well in advance.

Bambi does the toothbrush test

Did you ever hear about the toothbrush test? The term is attributed to Alphabet’s CEO, Larry Page. And, as you may guess, it has nothing to do at all with a shiny white smile. The Google co-founder uses the test for determining whether a company is worth buying – which is always a complex and risky assessment to make.

As an alternative to diving into the nitty-gritty of revenue projections, cash flow forecasts, and profitability analyses, the test consists of this simple question:

“Is the company’s product or service something people will use once or twice a day, and does it solve a problem or make their life better?”

If I was asked for an opinion about my own toothbrush, the outcome would definitely be “yes.”

In this case, the toothbrush is used as a metaphor for usefulness and long-term value, in contrast to short-term RoI. Of course, one must be a business genius to make such an important decision based upon such a simple question. Please, note that I’m not naïve; you don’t have to convince me that Google’s people carry out a lot of due diligence beyond the toothbrush inquiry.

In an older post I wrote that simplicity always works. Life (and business) can be made so much easier than it is today, if you enable decision-making by asking simple questions, and effective communications by telling compelling stories.

Similar to Larry Page’s toothbrush test, I started using something I call the Bambi test. When preparing a public presentation, I ask myself the question below:

“Will people remember my words (or my visuals) two days from now, and did they get emotionally involved?”

I got inspired to use the Bambi metaphor after observing my kids watching Disney’s famous movie scene with Bambi and Thumper sliding on the icy pond. And like for the toothbrush one, the answer to the question would certainly be a “yes!” (Note to my sons Yannick and Robin: if you read this text, which you probably won’t, this was of course loooooong time ago…)

bambi

(image from Bambi by Walt Disney Studios)

Background reading:

Right pitch, wrong shirt

Know your audience before you start talking… This is not only the title of one of my earlier posts on this blog, but even more a piece of good advice for anyone who’s speaking in public. A group of people that also includes a growing army of young entrepreneurs, pitching in front of venture capitalists and potential investors to obtain the so desired initial funding to realize their dreams.

Not so long ago, I had the honor to be part of the jury for a (try-out) pitching session organized by a local business incubator. Among the 6 jury members were representatives of a regional business angel network, a few technology professionals (like me), and an investment expert from a major bank.

During the event, one of the startups was pitching a social app they developed for sports clubs. In an effort to accentuate his message visually, and probably to charm the audience and the jury too, the presenter-on-duty entered the stage dressed up in a colorful soccer shirt.

rsca_shirt

A great idea. Theoretically. The young guy made one wrong choice: the club shirt he was proudly wearing displayed in large letters the name and the logo of… a large bank. Unfortunately, not the one of the sixth jury member’s employer. But rather the one of its fiercest competitor in the market place.

Shit happens. The presenter delivered a great pitch for a nice product. But he won neither the hearts nor the (virtual) money of all jury members (guess which one wasn’t convinced?) A mistake that could have easily been avoided by conducting some quick, upfront research on who would be in the audience and in the jury (actually, the speaker should have known; the event was held at the bank’s HQ premises.)

Penne all’amatriciana

Last week we returned from a vacation in Italy. During our stay we were confronted with the breaking news about the devastating 6.2-magnitude earthquake that rocked the center of the country. One of the hardest-hit towns was the beautiful comune of  Amatrice, with 80% of the historic center destroyed and nearly 200 deadly casualties.

As we were safe and sound, visiting a region of the country hundreds of kilometers away from the quake’s epicenter, we heard the dramatic testimonials of disaster-stricken residents and saw the images of rescue teams digging through the rubble delivered via the local media.

In addition to all the dramatic facts and figures, we also learned that Amatrice is the birthplace of the bacon-and-tomato flavored all’amatriciana pasta sauce that was accordingly named after the severely hit mountain town. This factoid turned out to be an ideal context for Italian food blogger, Paolo Campana, to launch an appeal on Facebook in which he asked restaurants to put pasta all’amatriciana on their menus and donate 2 euros per dish sold to the Italian Red Cross.

Amatriciana

When we went for dinner on the last night of our Italian holiday, we found out that the restaurant had also appended a solidarity penne all’amatriciana item to their menu. So, guess what we chose as the primo piatto of our meal? And, actually, the food was  delicious, but the knowledge that we were supporting the earthquake victims with a symbolic donation made it taste even better…

My apologies for using some inappropriate terminology in this dramatic context for my conclusion, but the above anecdote is proving once again that combination of an emotion-touching story (the sauce that originated in the earthquake-hit town,) combined with an excellent product (a perfectly flavored pasta dish,) and an engaging cause (supporting the earthquake victims) is a powerful marketing and communication tool.

You may also have a look at these other posts about the value of brand storytelling:

Beauty and the beast

This week I read two articles about robots. One was about Jia Jia, a hyper-realistic young female-looking android, dressed in traditional Chinese style, which is capable of having a conversation with humans. She (or, should I rather say “it”?) can understand what people say, though she mostly just reacts to compliments on her appearance, like “You are beautiful” and “You look like an 18-year-old…”

The other piece covered a more functional species, named SpotMini. Boston Dynamics’ latest creation could be characterized as a ‘helpful giraffe-dog’.  It can grab all sorts of things, including fragile objects such as wine glasses or dirty dishes. Although less a pleasure for the human eye than robot goddess Jia-Jia, robodog SpotMini is probably more what the average person would expect a robot to be and to look like.

robots

Watching the pictures of both cyborg creatures made me think about the trade-offs between beauty and functionality. Even in this era of gender equality, most people don’t associate a sturdy machine with the looks a beautiful young woman, or vice versa.

Unfortunately, similar prejudices also often apply to the (PowerPoint) presentations we create. Working in a high-tech environment, in the heart of a community of engineers, I experience on a daily basis that most of my colleagues prefer creating long and (often) ugly slide decks with lots of complicated diagrams, detailed tables, and technical jargon. They seem to consider any visually appealing presentation a marketing gimmick — a kind of Jia-Jia, who’s only good for accepting “you are beautiful” compliments — that is not to be used for explaining complex ideas, designs, and creations. They put functionality before simplicity and aesthetics.

And still Beauty and the Beast can live together in perfect harmony. The Apple II personal computer was launched in 1977 with the slogan “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” and although Steven Jobs is sometimes quoted for saying that “design is how it works, not how it looks,” many people still buy an iPhone because of its premium look and feel. A thing of beauty is a joy forever. And so should be your business presentations!

You can watch some videos of the robot creations I mentioned above:

And, by the way, beautiful robots can be smart, ambitious, and wicked too. Have a look at another humanlike robot, Sophia, who “in the future, hopes to do things such as go to school, study, make art, start a business, even have her own home and family…”, and — oh my — “destroy humans” too.

Thought leader or entertainer?

“You know that I’m a thought leader, because I’m wearing a blazer, I have glasses, and I’ve just done this with my hands…”

Maybe you’ve already seen the recording of a This is That TED-like talk by self-proclaimed thought leader Pat Kelly. And if you haven’t, take a look at the video below.

Unless you’re an alien without any sense of humor, you must have realized that this is not a real keynote. And observed that Kelly’s character is an empty shell with nothing to say, though with an impressive ability to deliver his message (and entertain his audience.)

Then, you also know that it takes more to being a thought leader than wearing the right clothes, putting on a pair of smart looking glasses, and making some gorgeous gestures with your hands. But, if you still believe you are one – or have an unstoppable ambition to become one – here are a few tips…

  • Stay ahead of the curve. Keeping Malcolm Forbes’ wisdom that “the best vision is insight” in mind, always base your opinion – and accompanying narrative – on trustable and traceable facts and figures.
  • When acting as a thought leader, NEVER deliver a sales pitch. Take the stance of a neutral observer,  and a dependable domain expert. Of course, when you’re explicitly speaking on behalf of your (or another) company there’s no problem to recommend or acknowledge the ‘sponsor.’
  • Never stop earning your audience’s respect. Show them that you are an authority on the topic, and prove them that you have the right to speak. But even when world considers you a champion, always stay your humble self!
  • Talk as often as you can with customers, end-users, and opinion makers. Listen to them and benefit from their insights and experience to further develop your expertise and evolve your narrative. Be careful with dropping names or citing facts or figures on behalf of any 3rdparty to make yourself look more important.
  • Create an elevator pitch, define your mantra and don’t be shy of repeating yourself – repetition is one of the tools to make your message stick. In the mean time, keep evolving your story and updating your content as technology and markets evolve.
  • Craft and deliver compelling content for a broad audience. Keep it simple and sweet, but don’t be fluffy. Be aware of audiences’ needs and expectations and remember, people are always looking for the WIIFM.
  • Build a personal brand, establish your social media presence (also as a follower!) and develop a multi channel content strategy. Try to create and share quotable quotes, tweetable data points, and impactful visuals.
  • And finally, invest in developing your storytelling and public speaking skills. Being able to create and deliver a compelling presentation is certainly one of the basic competences an opinion maker (or any business leader) needs.

Unfortunately, there is no college class or MOOC that will teach you how to become a respected thought leader. It takes a lot of insight, expertise, and communication skills. And, even if you (think) you have all of these, the next time you’re on stage and walk over to your laptop, your audience may still look at you as an entertainer…

thought-leader

As a final note, by writing this blog post and giving you the above tips, I am not pretending to be a thought leader at anything at all. Think of me as a singer-songwriter, who’s passion is to perform a good song, while trying to entertain his audience.

More reading:

B.Y.O.C.

In an earlier entry on this blog, I listed the character as one of the 5 key elements upon which novelists, movie directors, as well as professional presenters rely to let their audience emotionally engage.

The character is the individual (or several of them) that the story is about. The answer to the “who?” question. Many narratives introduce protagonists and antagonists – respectively the main characters of the story and their opponents.

Introducing one or more characters is often a great way to personalize your message and add “what’s at stake?” tension to your story. Depending on the topic of your presentation, the protagonist may be you, your company or even your product, while the antagonist could be a competitor, a demanding customer or even an unfavorable market condition.

As such, I have enriched many of my business talks and blog posts by telling about what happened to “a friend”, “a colleague”, or “a customer of mine”. Characters may be fictive, but you’ll feel more confident and earn more credibility when talking about real persons. Of course, you don’t have to mention their names – particularly when the protagonist or the antagonist appears in a not-very-flattering situation or gets involved in an embarrassing incident.

If you’re a frequent visitor of this site, you may remember the posts below, in which I used the exploits of my colleagues for introducing notorious do’s and don’ts of giving a business presentation. Though names and characters have been anonymized, all these stories report on real-life events that I witnessed personally:

This weekend I walked into a French LEGO store. For more than 80 years, LEGO toys have engaged kids in creative play, encouraging them to imagine, invent and explore (see for example the 1970’s letter from Lego to parents below.) That’s why their flagship store always is a good place to breathe the air of creativity – and in this case, get inspiration for a new blog post.

lego_letter

(click to enlarge)

Incidentally, I stumbled upon the Build-A-Minifigure bar. By combining a broad variety of heads, torsos, legs, hair, hats and accessories, everyone can design and purchase his/her own LEGO character(s).

Lego_store_BAM

It made me think about another article I wrote about “creating personas for audience-centric story design,” in which I explained how defining personas may help you to tell a better story. Putting yourself into the shoes of (some in) your audience will help you better understand what they think, believe, do, feel and need.

Suddenly, while having an Aha! moment at the Minifigure bar of the LEGO store, I figured out why I had intuitively borrowed a LEGO image to illustrate this old blog post.

And, then I realized that I might have run into the perfect tool for fleshing-out personas of my audience, and for synthesizing the protagonists and antagonists of my story.

B.Y.O.C. = Bring (or Build, or Buy) Your Own Character…

Lego_store_minis

Start with a book

When delivering a talk, it’s utterly important to grab your audience’s attention from the first moment on. In an earlier post on this blog, “Begin the beginning,” I gave a few examples on how you may surprise, intrigue or provoke them with an opening statement or poll. And in another article, “Titles, ” I elaborated on using original presentation titles.

Here’s yet another great jump-start for the beginning of your speech: tell the people in the room about a book you read that’s relevant to the subject of your presentation. You may even consider bringing a hard copy with you: a tangible artifact that your audience can see, touch and browse through.

In my day job as a high-tech marketer and communicator, I’m involved in conversations with customers and opinion makers about how broadband internet, connected devices, and Internet of Things (IoT) applications are changing the way we live, work, and do business. So, after reading the summaries below, it should be no surprise that I picked these three  – fiction, non-fiction, and science fiction – books for introducing some of my speaking topics.

Blackout – tomorrow will be too late” by Austrian author Marc Elsberg, is a techno-thriller about a large-scale power outage in Europe, caused by a cyber attack. While the digitization of the energy sector, and the move towards distributed power generation, smart meters, and internet-connected appliances are creating a number of opportunities, new technologies can also open the door to cyber threats.

Elsberg-cover

As no-one wants to experience the scenario that’s described in this book, I mentioned it at the start a lecture about smart energy grids and cyber security. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of an English translation of the book.

In “The Zero Marginal Cost Society,” American social-economic theorist and activist Jeremy Rifkin describes how new technologies, such as 3D printing, green energy, and the Internet of Things, are speeding us to an era of nearly free goods and services (and, according to the author, the eclipse of capitalism.)

Rifkin-cover

Billions of sensors are being attached to natural resources, production lines, energy grids, logistics networks, recycling flows, and implanted in homes, offices, stores, vehicles, and even human beings, feeding Big Data into an IoT global neural network. Prosumers will be able connect to the network and use Big Data to accelerate efficiency, increase productivity, and lower the marginal cost of producing and sharing a wide range of products and services to near zero…

In another post on this blog, “Back to the future,” I wrote about why it may be a good thing for a sales or marketing person to make speculations about the long-term future. Some of the best forward-looking statements –of which a number really materialized– about technology and the evolution of society were written many years ago. Take for example George Orwell’s “1984,” or Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot.”

The book I sometimes refer to when touching the topic of smart cities and a technology-powered society, however, is a less known work by French science-fiction author Jules Verne. Marketed on the cover as the lost novel, “Paris in the Twentieth Century” was originally written in 1863, but it took more than one hundred years before his great-grandson discover the handwritten manuscript.

Verne-cover

The work gives a staggering prediction of Paris of the nineteen-sixties. The author depicts a city in which industry and commerce have triumphed, and creativity and art have become obsolete. Just like Villemard did in his 1910 postcards, Verne predicts automobiles, the subway, fax machines, and more things to come.

For those interested in new technology and its impact on our (future) society, here are a few links to presentations I have given over the past years about the subjects mentioned above: