Friday Five: Counterinsurgent marketing

counterinIt’s pretty common for marketers to toss around military terms when describing what we do.

I’m not sure why; maybe we think it makes us sound more important or influential. When we equate ourselves to armies, maybe we see ourselves as more powerful.

Anyway, for decades (if not centuries), the marketing business has borrowed heavily from military jargon. Like the military, we have “campaigns” and “targets.” We use “collateral,” too, and we have been known to wage an advertising “blitz” or two. More recently, we’ve been adapting guerrilla warfare tactics to wage “guerrilla marketing,” a term coined by Jay Conrad Levinson.

But only recently have I heard about the concept of counterinsurgent marketing. It should come as no surprise marketing has come to this point, given our infatuation with military buzzwords. “Counterinsurgency” really came into fashion in the post-9/11 world as a method for the military to deal with terrorist groups.

As our military has learned from recent adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, war is no longer a contest between nation-states. More frequently, war pits military might against small groups unaffiliated with any government. Insurgents may be small bands of individuals empowered by technology and a common cause to wreak havoc on larger, less agile organizations.

Conventional warfare is out. Insurgency and counterinsurgency are all the rage these days.

Likewise, for brands, the enemy is not the big competitor. No longer is it Coke vs. Pepsi. Or I should say, no longer is it only Coke vs. Pepsi. Today, brands must guard themselves from attacks by small bands of insurgents. These may be activists, smaller niche brands (craft beers chipping away at the big beer companies, for example), bloggers, WikiLeaks and its growing number of clones (including UniLeaks for higher education) — even, occasionally, friendly fire from employees or fans who may inadvertently subvert a brand’s reputation by their antics. (Remember the Domino’s Pizza employees video from a couple of years ago?)

In his new book Brand Resilience: Managing Risk and Recovery in a High-Speed World (which I’m now reading), Jonathan R. Copulsky of Deloitte Consulting LLP talks about the need for brands to adopt counterinsurgent marketing strategies. Drawing on the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which today’s soldiers use for counterinsurgency efforts abroad, Copulsky finds parallels for marketing and, on pages 38 and 39 of Brand Resilience, offers “five big takeaways for brand stewards” from the military manual. Here is my paraphrased list of Copulsky’s takeaways, with a bit of my own commentary thrown in.

1. Learn to play defense. The insurgents strike first — and often out of nowhere. Counterinsurgents have to figure out how to respond in an appropriate way. Case in point: the Gap logo fiasco of last year is a prime example of how insurgents — in this case, fans of the Gap, graphic designers, marketers and other critics of the logo redesign — used technology (Twitter and Facebook) to attack a brand and put the Gap on the defensive. The Gap learned the hard way that a “brand insurgency” can play havoc with a even the strongest brands.

2. Reconsider conventional responses. When brands come under attack, Copulsky writes, brand stewards’ “natural tendencies to respond in a conventional manner … may be misguided.” The false assumption armies often make — “that armies trained to win large conventional wars are automatically prepared to win small, unconventional ones” — is one brand managers may also make. But massive firepower and overwhelming ad blitzes may be counterproductive for COIN (counterinsurgency) operations.

3. Learn quickly and adapt. The Counterinsurgency Field Manual “identifies ‘Learn and Adapt’ as a modern COIN imperative for U.S. forces,” and Copulsky suggests the same for brands.

4. Conventional victory doesn’t always mean lasting victory. “Killing the insurgents” doesn’t guarantee a true win. As The Counterinsurgency Field Manual suggests, “Lasting victory [for military operations] comes from a vibrant economy, political participation, and restored hope.” Moreover, the troops on the ground are empowered to exercise judgment. Likewise, in a modern brand, the chief marketing officer and brand managers may set direction, but other staff members deliver the brand experience to customers.

5. Change happens. The old saying in the military is that armies prepare for the next war by training for the last one. But what worked then may not work now. Copulsky writes, “If a tactic works this week, it might not work next week; if it works in this market, it might not work in the next.”

Reading this section of Copulsky’s book has helped me to think about the counterinsurgency approaches needed for marketing and brand stewardship in higher education. After all, our organizations, like many nation-states, are not very nimble. We are bound by hierarchy and arcane governance and reporting structures that can slow us down when our brands are under threat of attack. I think I need to read that field manual. How about you?

P.S. – I plan to give Brand Resilience a full review sometime soon.

Photo: Marines speak to Afghans about their needs, from the U.S. Marine Corps’ Flickr page.

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

2 thoughts on “Friday Five: Counterinsurgent marketing”

  1. Travis – Great point about game theory. I see a lot of similarities – as it’s all about strategy, right? Thanks for your comment.

    P.S. – I agree that the term is probably too connected with warfare to catch on as a marketing buzzword. But it is an interesting concept.

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