Product Marketing & the Art of War

I’ve been thinking about narrative marketing as it relates to product marketing recently – specifically, the subtle distinction between saying your product is amazing, and saying it’s the best.  And because I am who I am, I’ve been thinking about product marketing in regards to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

First, on the Art of War. We all know that you are fighting a battle when it comes to the marketing of your brand. Of course you have the battle itself – where you are being attacked by competitors trying to take ground from you by either a) marketing the strengths of their products as a way of dominating you; or b) marketing the weakness of your products as a means of eroding your support. But then you have to fight a war on another front – and that’s with the critics and reviewers whose job it is to narrate the ‘battle’ between your product and your opponents’ product. All of which comes around to the objective of the battle – the war if you will – which is to win customers.

Which is all great and esoteric – but what does it have to do with saying your product is amazing? Well, in a crowded marketplace, defining the marketing narrative by which your product category is judged can be really helpful in winning the war. Why? Because, in the words of Sun Tzu, this would be choosing the field of battle. How? Because you are choosing the features where you stand the best chance of winning – essentially saying to your competitors, you want to fight us, fight us here. So, by unabashedly raving about your product’s best features and value propositions, you are doing your part to create a home field to fight on. The modern master of this approach was, of course, the late Steve Jobs who understood that asserting his passion for the products Apple created forced critics and reviewers to have to judge his products against his standard.

But this is really different from saying that your product is the best and this is why.  You can’t say yours is the best because that is not something you get to decide. Look, you’re the creator of your product so you’re inherently biased – you’d better think your product is the best. Bringing it back to our Art of War discussion, that would be like facing your opponent on the field of battle, declaring, “I win” and going home to the victory celebration. It may feel good, but the thing is - you don’t get to declare yourself the winner – the customer does. And this is why saying yours is the best is so risky - because what happens if/when your product isn’t the best? See, part of  winning the war is owning the narrative about whose winning the war. Sure, you’re going to lose some battles here and there. But what matters is that your customers continue to believe that you’re telling them the truth about your product. But you tell them it's the best – and it isn’t? Well, now the narrative is that you’re lying to them. And if they start to believe that you’re lying… well, then you may as well pack up and head home because you can keep fighting but the war is already over.