Literal lessons from the trenches

I have a fascination with military history, especially battles. My library includes Sun Tzu (three different editions- my favorite is the James Clavell version), the three volume set of von Clauswitz’s On War, biographies of Alexander the Great, the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon, Patton’s War As I Knew It,  Eisenhower’s War in Europe, Marketing Warfare (Trout and Ries), and more. You get the picture.

Recently I’ve been reading Cornell history Professor Barry Strauss, who writes well and extensively on ancient warfare, especially Greek and Roman. Imagine my surprise when I open an email from MarketingProfs and find “Disruptive Marketing Lessons from the Trojan Horse” by Professor Strauss.

So I ask myself, “Mark, what have you seen in GovCon over the years that reflects good military thinking?” Here are a few scenarios that came to mind.

The Importance of Beachheads

Micron PC (MPC) in the mid-1990s produced some great computers, but they were competing against some much bigger companies such as Dell and Gateway. All three offered built-to-spec mail/phone order computers. The CEO of Micron at that time was a former Dell executive and he wanted blood, but under the guidance of the late, great Harry B. Heisler a plan was developed and deployed to go after market share in the four agencies where MPC had a strong beachhead, not to attack larger, much better financed companies across the board. Advising Harry was fun; flying to Boise from Baltimore less so, unless I was flying out with Tony Colangelo.

The result of developing the beachheads produced very significant growth in each agency, more than doubling sales in each agency over the next two years. Use your resources where you have that beachhead, and sell where you are known.

Exploiting a Known Weakness in Your Opponent

CDW launched the “G” division in the early 2000s. In 2004 I was given a tour of the new warehouse in Chicago as part of my introduction to my new client. The warehouse was a true “just in time” delivery powerhouse, as they could get things out the door that day if the order was in by 2 p.m. My tour guide was the president of CDWG, Jim Shanks. During the tour we were discussing how to differentiate CDWG from GTSI and at the end of the tour I had the answer. At that time GTSI had been the dominant VAR for over twenty years.

“How long do you think GTSI takes to ship products?” I asked Jim. He did not know, but I did: Often as long as three weeks.

The first differentiator was “Order by 2:00PM and get it the next day.” Finding and exploiting the weakness propelled CDWG past GTSI in a few short years.

Guerrilla Warfare

About the same time CDWG was going after GTSI, Juniper Networks deployed a guerrilla marketing campaign against Cisco. While it had several elements, the most prominent was Farside-esque cartoons in Federal Computer Week.  The cartoons took maybe one-eighth of a page and were much less expensive that the two-page ads Cisco was buying. However, the cartoons were what people started looking for in each issue, with every cartoon offering a humorous barb. My personal favorite was a cat using a Cisco router as a litter box.

I did not advise Juniper so I don’t know the results, but I do know that there was a TON of buzz around this campaign.

Successful guerrilla warfare involves using unconventional tactics effectively, tactics your opponent does not expect and for which they are not prepared.

For marketing tactics to be successful you need to know the goal. I knew the goals of MPC and CDWG and they were successful beyond the original intent. While I loved the Juniper campaign, I don’t know how successful it was.

Regardless of whether your problem is a limited budget, and well-financed much bigger opponent, or simply an entrenched enemy, there are usually ways to erode their market share and possibly displace them altogether.

History books have valuable marketing lessons.

About the Author

Mark Amtower advises government contractors on all facets of business-to-government (B2G) marketing and leveraging LinkedIn. Find Mark on LinkedIn at

Reader Comments

Tue, Sep 20, 2016 Amtower

I do not mean to imply that CDWGs use of that message was the only thing that caused a surge in their growth, but it did kick start the program in a big way. Their customer service was always great, as was the Federal marketing under Ann-Marie Clark and Lisa DeLuca.

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