"History teaches that the only thing that works in marketing is the single, bold stroke. Furthermore, in any given situation there is only one move that will produce substantial results." So wrote Al Ries and Jack Trout in their classic book, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing. It's an intriguing argument, and it fits with my experience in making money.
They argue that many executives see success flowing from beautifully executing a panoply of small moves. The problem, though they do not put it quite this way, is that tactics overwhelm strategy.
They quote Liddell Hart, the military strategist, who argued for the power of a single bold stroke, especially if it was "the line of least expectation". Thus the US-UK allies towards the end of the Second World War decided to invade in one wave at Normandy, a rocky and tide-ridden shore, where the Germans expected invasion least.
"So it is in marketing," Ries and Trout argue. "Most often there is only one place where a competitor is vulnerable. And that one place should be the focus of the entire invading force."
They were writing in the 1990s, when Coca-Cola had introduced New Coke, precipitating a loss of market share to Pepsi. Classic Coke - the old formula - lost a lot of market share, but was regaining it. New Coke was performing poorly. Pepsi's market share was up, boosted by the confusion within Coca-Cola, and by the enduring success of the "Pepsi generation" advertising campaign.
There were a million suggestions as to how New Coke could be made a success. But Ries and Trout were having none of it. There was only one strategy, they said, that would work.
Coke had to bite the bullet and kill New Coke. And then go back to the only weapon Coke had - to bring back the concept that Coke was the "Real Thing" and use it against Pepsi.
All this advice was from the outside. Ries and Trout had no inside information about Coke. But what they said was true. And what they said was what the Coke hierarchy in Atlanta reluctantly did.
One strategy for salvation. Inglorious. Uncreative. Reactive. Reactionary. Not back to the future, but back to the past.
And, of course, it worked.
My experience with Filofax
When my partners and I took over Filofax, the company was barely alive - otherwise we would not have been able to buy a controlling stake in it for a song. It had lost enormous market share in its key market, the UK, to Microfile, a lower cost competitor. Microfile priced its personal organizers at well under half the price of a Filofax. For sure, it was not so nice a product - the leather was not British, the paper was Scandinavian, there wasn't the brand cachet of Filofax. But hell, it did the same thing, it looked almost the same, and it was much better value for money.
The marketing people at Filofax, and their expensive marketing agency, came up with a dozen small things we could do in response. We could have a television advertising blitz to stress that Filofax, too, was the real thing. We could introduce even smarter, more contemporary new organizers. We could go digital - though at the time, the start of the 1990s, nobody knew quite how. We could introduce a hot new line of Filofax leather brief cases. And many other suggestions, which were so brilliant that I can't remember a single one of them.
But there was only one thing to which Microfile, our rival, was vulnerable. That was cost reduction by Filofax. If we could get our costs down to our competitor's level, we could price just above them, and everyone would prefer a Filofax if the difference in price was marginal and not double. Then we could regain market share, and Microfile would lose shelf space and credibility.
It wasn't easy to cut our costs in half. We had to change our suppliers. We had to axe most of our product line and concentrate on our three or four most popular organizers. We had to stop doing our own production and warehousing and outsource it all. And, most heinous of all, we had to stop buying British leather and buy it at half price from foreigners. It nearly killed some of our senior managers.
But we could do it. We did do it. And within three years our sales had quadrupled and it was not Filofax, but Microfile, that was on the floor.
There was only one route to salvation.
Plymouth Gin - one route to super-premium status
Another of my early ventures was Plymouth Gin. A nice little distillery in the West Country of England. A brand with enormous heritage - it had been the leading brand of gin in the world in, ahem, the 1920s. The Pilgrim Fathers had stayed in the building that became the distillery the night before they sailed in the Mayflower to America. (I never quite understood how that could be a great story, but our marketing folks were terribly keen on it.)
Only one problem.
When we bought it, Plymouth Gin had almost no sales. Not quite zero. But so close that only a mathematician could tell the difference.
Of course it made a loss, which was why we were able to buy it for very little.
So, a few chief executives, and a dozen small but quite expensive marketing initiatives later, we were scratching our heads. Should we give up, call in the receivers, or have one last throw of the dice?
Happily, our final chief executive, Charles Rolls, had a penchant for wandering around in the attic of the works in Plymouth. In it, he found that in its glory days, Plymouth Gin had been far stronger than its rivals.
And that was significant. Because high alcoholic content, apart from shortening your lifespan, makes a real difference to the taste. Flavor is contained in the alcohol. More percentage proof, more flavor. A hugely better taste.
Now, high alcoholic content is expensive. The modern Puritans, without ever spending a night in our building, priced duty - by far the dominant part of the cost of any drink - according to strength. So taste came very expensive.
But hey, if you want to launch a super-premium gin, it has to cost something.
And so we increased the strength of our gin. And before long, this gin that nobody knew about, and no supermarkets stocked, won the number one prize on the BBC's Food and Wine program. And then all the chains wanted to stock it, and lots of people wanted to buy it.
And so we made a nice little fortune from our derelict gin brand. By finding the one route to salvation.
Hard to find.
Expensive to do.
Marketing is not actually what it is all about.
It is all about business strategy.
Doing something that rivals can't do, or doing it hugely better, or doing it hugely cheaper.
But Ries and Trout were right.
Something rivals can't do. Where they are vulnerable. Where they don't expect an attack.
Not a million smart little things brilliantly executed by brilliant smart young things.
Find your competitive advantage, and use the few strategy concepts that work, to do so.