A few marketing lessons from Gettysburg

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Today's corporate CEO is like a four-star general. He or she sets the company's overall strategy, then relies on a trusted "field-grade officer" to make things happen on the marketing front line. Typically, this battlefield commander is the chief marketing officer. Among CMO challenges are expanding the territory (new markets), recruiting allies (new customers) and fending off battle-hardened enemies (the usual competitors). The CMO is expected to make fast, smart decisions under fire. And if it's not the right decision, a savvy commander must be ready to turn on a dime. Unfortunately, these skills aren't taught in business school.

There are, however, some cogent lessons available from 142 years ago.

The first three days of July 1863 were a bloody turning point in the Civil War. After a string of victories, Gen. Robert E. Lee (read: CEO) had marched north to flush out the Union's Army of the Potomac. As the Confederates approached the small, rural town of Gettysburg, Pa., they were blinded by faulty intelligence-and expected only a handful of local militia. In fact, almost 90,000 Union troops were marching toward them, just a few miles away. During the next three days, battlefield commanders (the CMOs) on both sides invented brilliant tactics and committed outright blunders. The result was a defeat for the Confederates-and staggering losses for both the North and South. In 72 hours, more than 52,000 men were killed, wounded or reported missing.

Recently, I joined a two-day "staff ride" at the U.S. Army War College near Gettysburg. For the first day of this strategic-leadership seminar we hiked to battle sites and viewed hidden terrain features that battlefield commanders had to consider. We stood on ridges that had to be defended at all cost. We fast-walked the terrible mile of open field where "Pickett's Charge" took place and the rebels attacked with more than 10,000 men and lost over 6,000 in 30 minutes. The second day, we thrashed out strategy and tactics of the battle in a War College classroom. We learned how the personalities of commanders affected leadership and changed outcomes.

The Army's approach to teaching strategy and leadership provides compelling insights for both the battlefield and the marketplace. For example, during 1995, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch sent a group of senior executives to the Army War College for a strategy-brainstorming seminar. In his bestseller, "Jack. Straight from the Gut," Welch gives full credit to a War College colonel for inspiring a "mind-set change" in the GE team. Welch writes that this was "the ultimate mind-expanding exercise as well as a market-expanding breakthrough." As the GE executives discovered, the Army's insights can offer important marketplace lessons. Here are three of them:


General Lee counted on Jeb Stuart, a flashy young cavalry general (read: senior VP-research) to ride behind enemy lines and send back frequent reports describing enemy positions and troop movements. But just weeks earlier, Stuart had been surprised and whipped by Union cavalry at Brandy Station, Va.-and for this, he was savaged in the Southern press. A vain man, Stuart was determined to regain his reputation by scoring a daring victory, rather than carrying out the mundane task of gathering intelligence. So, he went "glory hunting," seeking enemy engagements, and depriving the Confederate Army of a reliable eyewitness.

Today, the War College teaches the use of real-time observers, both human and electronic, to report what's actually happening on the battlefield. Professors emphasize Napoleon's words: "A general must see things as they are-not as he wishes them to be."

Lesson for CMOs: What's going on with your battlefield? And who are the real-time observers in your marketing organization?

A Place Called VUCA

The War College uses the acronym VUCA to describe battlefields from Gettysburg to Iraq. It stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. CMOs must make decisions and issue orders in their own VUCA environments. The well-prepared CMO assumes things will get screwed up-maybe a little, maybe a lot. Never rely on a single plan, keep other hip-pocket plans in reserve. (War College graduate Gen. George S. Patton Jr. always prepared alternate plans, in case his first thrust failed.)

When you think about brand planning, think VUCA.

The After-Action Review

At Gettysburg, following each day's attacks and retreats, Union battlefield commanders met with their staffs to hold an after-action review. An AAR-in 1863 and today-focuses on what happened, why it happened, how to improve weaknesses and how to revise the plan. As Gettysburg raged on, the Union officers met nightly to adjust the next day's plan. However, General Lee-in what could have been a tactical error-did not hold AARs.

Lesson for CMOs: Don't wait for a monthly or quarterly meeting to hold your AAR. Your competitors may be reviewing their situations weekly-or even daily.

A final caveat: the Army War College cautions that predicting an outcome is slippery business-no matter how much intelligence you have, how well you've planned for contingencies, and how often you review. Their advice is just five potent words:

"The enemy gets a vote."

John Emmerling ... is the CEO of Emmerling Communications in New York, is an innovation consultant to major marketers and the author of "It Only Takes One: How to Create the Right Idea--and Then Make It Happen" (Simon & Schuster, 1991).

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