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How to Lead a Revolution

“You say you want a revolution?”     – John Lennon

The revolutions unfolding in the Middle East may seem spontaneous, chaotic and ragtag. But we’ve found that certain principles apply to any revolution that sustains and succeeds; whether it’s in Syria or the United States; whether it’s in politics or business.

In fact, we’ve been lucky enough to take part in and learn from some of the most impactful political and business revolutions in the past 40 years. Our book, The Underdog Advantage, defines the common principles of successful insurgent campaigns.

Revolutions have rules for success – in warfare and politics. And we are seeing these same revolutionary forces in most business markets today. In almost every area of the world and every marketplace, traditional market leaders seem to stand there flat-footed and dazed as float-like-a-butterfly-sting-like-a-bee insurgents swarm around them.

Of course, we all want to lead a revolution. Deep down, we all do want to change the world (or our world).   We’d love to run or be a part of a really cool, edgy, innovative company that’s tearing up the marketplace.   And we all know that ordinary just doesn’t cut it anymore.  Business-as-usual won’t make it in this turbulent, hyper-competitive environment.   It takes a revolutionary spirit to compete and win today.

  • But how do you become a revolutionary leader?  Is it nature or nurture?
  • How do you and your organization stop acting like a slow, bureaucratic incumbent (whether you’re a market leader or follower) and start acting like a mobile, agile and aggressive insurgent?

Do you want to be more like Steven Jobs and have a company that’s more like Apple, or Zappos or Under Armour or Red Bull or Facebook? We’ve been able to work with many of the great bomb-throwers of the past forty years in global business; Steven Jobs, Mike Roberts, Joanna Jacobson, Bill Gates, Don Keough, Mickey Drexler, Rupert Murdoch, Mary Wells, Michael King, Michael Milken, Bob Iger, Dan Weiden and many others.  In fact, we’ve built our insurgent strategic discipline at Core Strategy Group around the lessons learned from these change leaders.

This article consolidates a lot of what we’ve learned into a users’ manual for leaders of revolutionary organizations.

1) What’s the Revolution?

If you really want to lead a revolutionary organization, there’s one cold hard fact you must begin with – you can only be a revolutionary if you’re part of a true revolution. Wearing blue jeans in an investment bank doesn’t make you a revolutionary.  This isn’t about fashion or cutting-edge affectation – it’s about changing the world in which you work and live. Mike Milken wore a traditional (and very inexpensive) business suit – and led a revolution that democratized capital in the U.S.  It’s about bet-your-career boldness in order to wage and win that revolution.  The young people in Tahrir Square have put a lot more than their careers on the line to create a revolution of opportunity in Egypt.

  • Revolution isn’t just about beating the competition or being the badass of your industry.  It’s about changing the world in which you work and live. It’s not about harassing the people who work for you with drill sergeant orders.  Sam Walton caused a lot of trouble … but he did it on the way to a revolution that changed the way Americans buy things and, to a great extent, the way we live.  The wreckage he left behind was a mom ‘n’ pop business model that didn’t really work for its customers or communities.
  • A revolution isn’t just gaining market share or raising shareholder value. Coke versus Pepsi doesn’t make a revolution. Coke and Pepsi versus tap water sixty years ago, was, indeed, a revolution.  That changed human behavior and created an enormous ecosystem around the manufacture, marketing, distribution and accompaniments of these soft drinks.  Enron created skyrocketing shareholder value … in fact they watched the skyrocket much more closely than they watched their original business concept, which cratered not far off the launch pad.
  • Revolution means changing the order of things in your marketplace, in your world … and changing them for the better. Amazon did this.  So did e-Bay.  Same for Gilt Group.  Same for Southwest Airlines (as did Peoples’ Express before them).
2) Join the Big Parade.

This revolution of yours will most often be a part of a much bigger revolution of broader technological, economic and social change; your own revolution will be one of many streams running into that raging torrent. You’ve got to identify, understand and join that bigger revolution.

  • As much as Apple, Microsoft or Facebook have changed the way we live and work – they are all a part of an information revolution that is exponentially bigger than all three; a revolution that has changed every aspect of our lives and the lives of all people on earth.
  • Whole Foods Markets are part of a dietary and wellness revolution that is way bigger than the changes they’ve made to retail food sales.  Natural and fresh and even local are more widely relevant than organic.
  • Green is a political movement – green companies are only molecules of that movement; dependent on the success of the overall movement for their own support and sustenance.

It’s not bad to be a part of a bigger revolution – that can help educate the public, create a much wider support base and provide suppliers and partners who share your interests and values.

What is your revolution? How are you changing the way things are done in your industry?  How are you joining with others to change the world?

3)  First, Win the Internal Revolution.

Once you’ve defined the overall revolution you want to create or join … chances are you will have to create an internal revolution within your organization before you’ll get the opportunity to create or join a true revolution outside it. Indeed, that fight might be your toughest fight.

  • When Steven Jobs moved the Mac division out of Apple and into a Cupertino strip mall, most business and management experts felt he was simply disrupting the successful Apple business model and culture; he was treated like a petulant, immature kid.  But revolution within the self-satisfied Apple Computer of the time was necessary in order to join in the bigger information revolution that was changing business computing forever (and changing everything else in the world along with it).  Nevertheless, leading that revolution eventually cost Steven his job and control of Apple.
  • Jobs knew that the “PC Revolution” (as it was then called), as a part of the even bigger “Information Revolution,” would change the world.  Bill Gates knew that, too.  So did Mitch Kapor and Jim Manzi of Lotus.  Same for Gordon Eubanks of Symantec and John Lasseter of Pixar.  No matter the bitter rivalry between Apple, Microsoft and the other super-aggressive, revenge-of-the-nerds insurgents in software and hardware development in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s – they shared the same overall goals and very often joined forces in the cause of change.  At the time, Microsoft’s corporate mission was simply stated: “A computer on every desk, in every home.”  It didn’t matter that Microsoft didn’t make computers – all boats would rise with the tide of that revolution (and, okay, Windows made Microsoft a super tanker, even then).

All of these leaders evangelized the ways in which personal computers would improve our lives – they were right. The “PC Revolution” was meant to change the way people work and live.  It certainly did.  Just think of the role of Facebook, Google and Twitter in the current political revolutions.

Mostly, the “PC Revolutionaries” fought against the very idea of business-as-usual; the hidebound resistance to change of the biggest organizations. It was insurgents against incumbents – or, as Pat Caddell and I wrote in “The Dolphin Versus the Shark” model for Steven Jobs: “It’s change-leaders versus bigness-leaders.”

  • Bigness-Leaders, the market leading incumbents (and those who try to imitate their “leadership” behavior), are driven by the heritage of success and a sense of manifest destiny.  So they chart the future course through the rear view mirror.  Naturally, they hate change.  They despise disruption and deviation from the norms they established.
  • Change-Leaders, the market insurgents, are future-driven; always looking out the front windshield and on to the horizon.  They are informal and irreverent as an organization.  And they love change – because change means opportunity.

Revolution is a heady thing.  It unites your company and all its stakeholders in a common cause.  It pumps adrenaline through your system and stands up the hair on the back of your necks.  It gets you up before dawn and gets you to bed only when another battle has been won.  Revolution creates enormous opportunity – it’s your best shot at ending up in the history books. We highly recommend it.

As for getting into the history books, or even Wikipedia, remember what Abraham Lincoln told his cabinet members during America’s Civil War: “We will be remembered in spite of ourselves.  No personal significance or insignificance will spare one or another of us.  The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down … in honor or dishonor … to the latest generation.”

The revolutionary will be remembered … “in honor or dishonor;” those are the winner-take-all odds you face.  Follow these rules of revolutionaries … this is what’s been working for insurgents and underdogs for several thousand years.

4)  Define Success.

Now that you’ve clearly defined the revolution you want to lead and the revolution you want to join – and now that you’ve won the internal revolution to allow insurgent thinking in your organization – you must clearly understand what it will bean to win that revolution.  You must granularly define success.

  • In our company we’ve often called this “destination planning.”  That’s a pretty accurate description of the process.  You revolution is a journey – and you have to understand and be able to communicate that destination to all the constituents of your cause and all those you want to attract.  Define some of the metrics of success for your organization.  Define how people will feel, think and behave differently as a result of this revolution.  The common goal of all insurgent campaigns is change – what’s the order of things that you’re going to change?
5)  Define the Enemy?

A vividly defined enemy focuses and energizes your revolution … personifies the Dark Forces that must be overcome.  There’s no problem with that if your enemy is Hosni Mubarak or Muamar Gadaffi.  For Steven Jobs’ Mac division, it was IBM and the whole idea of “man serving machine,” the basis of autocracy.  At the time that personified the Soviet Union. Clearly depict your enemy – the enemy of this revolution and the obstacle to the benefits that would result from it.  It’s not enough to define your most obvious competitor as “the enemy” – unless that competitor is in the way of changes that would improve the lives of consumers and communities in your marketplace.  In that case, take them out with a passion.

  • Remember, that enemy doesn’t have to be an external force. When the great Mike Roberts led McDonald’s revolution from “worst to first” six years ago, the enemy was the reality and the image of what the company had become in its operational nadir at the beginning of this century … to its customers, its owner-operators, to its suppliers and to its communities.  “Junk food” was the enemy – and “good food fast” was the goal.   Although the documentary “Super-Size Me” was mostly hype, it corresponded with a profound effort by McDonald’s to improve the quality and healthiness of its food.  “The Puzzle Palace” style of management of the Oak Brook headquarters was also the enemy; that had allowed an “okay is good enough” attitude to creep into the system over the years.  Friction between headquarters and the franchisees had evolved into open warfare in many areas.  For Mike and his team a true partnership in change with the owner-operators was the goal.
  • Often it’s a good idea to characterize the competition as a group in a “rat pack” – all are part of the traditional order of things in your market which must change for consumers and others to get a fair shake.  That “rat pack” often includes the incumbent market leaders and those who imitate them in “followership.”  For Ray Kroc the “rat pack” was the uneven quality and value mom ‘n’ pop hamburger joints that dotted the landscape before McDonald’s.  One was terrific; the next was ptomaine.  McDonald’s stood for an expectable level of quality and value.
  • It’s not only important to know your enemies – you must know who your friends are – comrades in arms in this revolution. While the Arab saying is true, “My enemy’s enemy is my friend;” it’s even more true that “my friend’s friend is my friend.”  You must be ready to do what you can for others in your cause.  You must constantly be trying to move the Soft Support of your revolutionary cause to Hard Support.  Almost everybody noted the moment last year when Apple Computer’s net value exceeded that of Microsoft.  Few remembered that Apple once survived only because of a $500 million infusion of cash from Bill Gates.  My friends’ friends are my friends.
6)  Communicate, Communicate, Communicate.

One of the first and most important positions filled in any revolutionary organization is “Minister of Information.”  Whether the revolution is just a bully’s power grab or a truly democratic action, effective communication are essential to success.

  • Our political experience in every part of the world has taught us a lasting lesson: the most effective form of propaganda is the truth. But even the truth must be well told (As H.K. McCann of McCann-Erickson said).  As a revolutionary, you must build your support (in the electorate or marketplace) from nothing; create disciples and missionaries of your cause.  You do this from the inside/out; and you must transfer ownership of your goals and your strategies to all who join your cause (as participants or customers).  Core Strategy Group has developed a discipline we call “CEO as Candidate.”  It recognizes that today’s corporate leader must be able to communicate like an effective political leader.  Yes, that also means that everything you say and do communicates to your friends and enemies.  It’s not just the speeches and presentations and press conferences.  The political rule applies: what can be known will be known.  Prepare yourself for that reality – when euphemism evolves to evasion, you have pointed your ski tips down a very slippery slope.  We advise all leaders: “You’re going to tell the truth eventually.  You’re going to tell the truth whether you want to or not.  You’re going to tell the truth on your terms on other the terms of your opponents.  So it’s best to tell the truth early and well and often.”
  • Once you’ve defined the revolution – you must find the most compelling, simple and credible way to communicate it.

You must …

  • Define your cause (what and whom this revolution is all about).
  • Define yourself (and the values basis on which you make decisions).
  • Define the stakes in this revolution for everyone who takes part.
  • Define the future that will be achieved when you win.

These definitions create the framework of your basic message, what we call the “3X5 Card” (it’s the basic communications tool of any successful political campaign).  This is the fundamental argument for the revolution.  It’s the fundamental narrative of your brand and company.  It must be simple, resonant, stated in personal terms (with clearly defined personal benefits) and constantly repeated.  These basic messages should not change unless the underlying “campaign” strategy changes.  That means this basic message framework should be communicated in every kind of situation – from marketing communications to industry events to sales presentations to internal meetings and even informal conversations … everything and all the time.  Loyalists and all friendly stakeholders or experts and opinion shapers should be encouraged to communicate those same messages.  The spread of the revolution’s narrative helps soften the beaches for each new advance of your cause.

  • Remember that actions communicate loudest of all. Never lose sight of the fact that the tiniest details of operations and communications must align with your revolutionary strategy and objectives.
7)  Embrace Change.

We have already spoken of the incumbents’ aversion to change.  An autocracy is static – its rules are immutable (and the number one of those rules is that “what was, will be”).  At the heart of the incumbent leader is a profound dislike of deviation and difference.  The revolutionary organization is the opposite; it is dynamic.  All of the experts talking about the various popular revolutions taking place in the Middle East have cautioned: “You just can’t know how things are going to turn out.”  To be a true revolutionary, you must accept, embrace and encourage change.  That’s what Jefferson wanted for America forever.

  • This is particularly tough when you think your revolution has been a success. For instance, everyone will agree that Barack Obama ran a brilliant insurgent campaign to win election to the Presidency in 2008.  A great majority of the American people embraced his call for fundamental change as a revolution against the status quo in Washington.  However a great majority of the political elite on the Democratic side had all the fundamental change they wanted when Obama was elected.  And the President almost immediately handed the keys to the Oldsmobile to the Democratic leaders of Congress.  Suddenly he started to act and quack like an incumbent.  If he’s going to be re-elected in 2012 … he’ll have to position himself as an insurgent again.  And it won’t be as easy this time around.
  • An insurgent organization is opportunity-driven.  That’s why insurgents love change – because change creates opportunity.   What we’ve learned in our work is that in today’s high-speed information environment crisis and opportunity have the same dynamics.  The opportunistic organization is also best at facing sudden challenges.
  • Being opportunistic is not just about being aggressive, however.  Successful revolutionaries never meet armies with armies. That’s a sure way to get wiped out by the incumbent powers.  Instead, take the advice of famous football coach Boyd Williams: “Take what they give you!”  Constantly probe the market for opportunities provided by weaknesses in the incumbent’s operations, distribution system, marketing and brand meaning, or CRM and overall value proposition.  It’s those soft spots that you attack – in football terms, that’s the daylight you run to.
  • When you attack, put every resource you have behind that attack – force your larger competitors to react to you; force them to go from offense to defense. Force them to re-draw strategy and undoubtedly uncover new soft spots and new opportunities for you.  Once the incumbent engages you, you have credibility; you have the spotlight and become the market’s main event.  That’s the ideal.
8)  Create a democracy.

Too many revolutionaries don’t really believe in democracy.  They believe so strongly in their vision that they don’t really want to accept the ideas of others.  That’s understandable; often, that’s part of the drive of a genius.  Still, history shows us that doesn’t work for long.  Nobody’s that good — not Stalin, not Mao, not Muamar.  The most effective revolutionary organizations are democratic organizations.  As our group has traveled the world doing political and business campaigns, we’ve learned a very simple lesson: democracy is good; more democracy is better; and fluid democracy – a constant interactive dialogue – is best of all. That dialogue is vital to a company and its system; all the way up the supply chain and down the demand chain.  A great leader must be a great communicator – but a great leader must be a great listener first.  In this dialogue is where you will spot the earliest signs of trouble or opportunity.  Both opportunity and crisis arise faster than ever before.

  • As General David Petraeus has shown in his success in Iraq and Afghanistan … you’ve got to be in the dialogue in order to shape the dialogue.  His “surge” strategies have emphasized open dialogue with friends and the not-so-friendlies.  Constant, fluid dialogue is what stops the unexpected flare-ups.
  • Democracy means listening and hearing what your people are saying – the leader often has to demonstrate listening through actions and recognize those who provide useful ideas.  Recognition is vital part of communications in a revolutionary organization.
  • You want to create a team of leaders … all of whom accept the challenges of the revolution as their personal challenges.  So train and encourage your people to make leadership decisions themselves.  And teach them to be democratic leaders – to believe in democracy and use it to make themselves smarter and better.
  • Clearly define which decisions are going to be centralized and which are de-centralized: clearly define your decisions, those you make with your team’s input, those they make with your input and the decisions that are theirs alone.  Then avoid the no-man’s land of “our decisions.”  Consensus decisions are owned by nobody … with no consequences and no rewards.
9) Celebrate!

You undoubtedly know that the cardinal rule of insurgent strategy is “do the doable.”   That means making the most of all resources.  Waste is a mortal sin.  So …  

  • You must establish achievable goals.
  • Start with the fruit on the ground even before you reach for the low hanging stuff.
  • And it’s important to celebrate every achievement – high-five every first down on the way to the ultimate score.
  • Celebration and recognition create the juice that feeds your colleagues in this revolution.  It helps fuel the momentum that will provide a sense of inevitability of your success.
  • Recognition is the most important kind of reward for great work.  So work that into every celebration – transfer ownership of the good feelings.

Winning is good – winning a true revolution is even better.

Make your mark on the market forever.  Change direction of your own company and the marketplace in which you operate.  In the end it will be your customers and all consumers who will get the true and lasting benefits of this revolution.  That’s what really makes it work.  To win … make sure lots of others win.

No great challenge is overcome without risk.  Know clearly what you’re willing to risk to win – then put your square your shoulders and hit the line.

Read more » SportsMoney article regarding Miguel Cabrera: A Case Study in Crisis Management

Detroit Tigers star Miguel Cabrera was arrested late Wednesday on suspicion of drunk driving in Florida, leaving teammates concerned about the slugging first baseman less than a week into spring training.

The 27-year-old Cabrera has struggled with drinking-related problems in the past, but he’s coming off perhaps his best season. He hit .328 with 38 home runs in 2010 and finished second in the American League MVP vote.

Mr. Cabrera’s transgressions are yet another example of how an athlete’s behavior casts a negative light upon the team or organization he represents. And as this continues to happen in sports, it becomes all the more important for teams to be equipped and skilled at crisis management.

I raise this point because recently I became familiar with The Association of Media and Entertainment Counsel. ”M/E Insights” is their quarterly publication, and the Fall 2010 issue dedicated to sports has an article by Core Strategy Group’s Michael Harbert entitled ”The Deadliest Words in Crisis Management: Could Have and Should Have”.

There isn’t a single pro or college sports organization that couldn’t benefit from reviewing this piece.

Some of the key points Mr. Harbert makes:
– Sports organizations need a CRO, or Chief Reputation Officer, that is charged with monitoring potential crises and implementing strategies to address crises that arise;

– There needs to be an ‘Early Warning Infrastructure’ in place so that organizations can be proactive and not reactive in handling crises;

Teams can’t be expected to play ‘wet nurse’ to all of their players 24-7, 365 days a year.

But that said, Cabrera has a drinking problem and the Tigers knew it. In 2009, police said Cabrera got into a fight with his wife after a night of drinking, shortly before his team lost the AL Central title to the Minnesota Twins. In short, the most recent incident is not isolated.

The Tigers let their guard down in terms of monitoring his behavior most likely because they thought he was supposedly clean in 2010, and he had a great season in 2010.

But think of the ‘could have’ and ’should have’ here.

The Tigers COULD HAVE had a team employee shadow Mr. Cabrera and alert management if his drinking became a problem.

The Tigers SHOULD HAVE insisted that he have a driver on hand in the event he relapsed so that he wouldn’t get behind the wheel of a car if intoxicated.

Quoting Trace Armstrong of CAA Sports whom Mr. Harbert cites in his AMEC story:

It’s very important that the team’s ownership and management stop playing ’gotcha’ or, worse, looking the other way when players have an issue…and instead have systems in place to help shape and, if necessary, modify their behavior. What’s good for the player is good for the institution, and vice-versa.

It seems the Tigers could have had a system in place (either imposed by management or by team leaders) to minimize the chances of this incident recurring. We can only hope going forward that the Tigers have an effective system of making sure Mr. Cabrera gets the help he needs, as well as address the public about the issue.

This is consistent with another quote from Mr. Harbert’s article from Richard Wirthlin, a Partner with Latham and Watkins LP:

Organizations must have an infrastructure in place that provides for rapid analysis of the situation, immediate access to skilled advisors and consultants, and ultimately selection and execution of the most effective response or approach.

So only time will tell how well the Tigers and Mr. Cabrera handle things going forward.

But it seems that they could have and should have done more to minimize the likelihood of this incident from occurring.

Perhaps Mr. Cabrera’s transgressions are a reminder to pro and college sports organizations that they would be well-served to have a Chief Reputation Officer charged with handling such matters in a skillful, tactical, and strategic fashion.

CLICK HERE for the complete article from The Association of Media & Entertainment Counsel_Fall 2010 Issue

Read more »

The Deadliest Words In Crisis Management: “Could have and should have”

It’s easy to imagine this scene – even if you haven’t gone through it. Yet.


GENERAL COUNSEL, headset on, paces in front of the window as he talks.



I don’t give a damn what the Commissioner would like to do, we’ve
already agreed there won’t be a rule change this year.

General Counsel turns as he hears his office door open and COACH enters. He’s obviously worried as he moves toward General Counsel who holds up his hand to stop his progress, then puts his finger to his lips as he mouths “quiet”.


I know it’s a big pain-in-the-ass problem but…

He listens as he paces and Coach maneuvers to get in front of him, slicing his fingers across his throat and mouthing “hang up” as:

General Counsel throws his hands up in the air, shaking his head “I can’t” as:

General Counsel follows with his eyes as Coach moves to the phone on the desk, puts his finger on the “off” button and mouths “hang up now” as:


Sorry folks, got to bail out and call you back later.

General Counsel flips his headset off as:


(very edgy)

Better be damn important, Coach.


(sitting behind the desk)

And you better have a damn great criminal attorney in Atlanta.




(typing on keyboard)

Because TMZ just posted video of two of our superstars naked in a
hot tub with some very naked, very young girls.

Coach turns the computer screen toward General Counsel.


(looks at computer screen)

How young?



Fourteen. Maybe.


(looks close at the screen)

What’re they doing now?


Snorting cocaine, counselor.


The playing field you’re on:

And so it begins: A crisis management saga that will define not just the values and character of the team’s brand/image/reputation, or its relationship with its fans, but also the scope of the damage to its economic value in the competitive marketplace.

While this is not your average day in the perpetually-under-the-microscope world of professional (and primetime NCAA) sports, it will surely be a crucible experience that tests top management to the fullest. For of all of the skills needed to run any organization successfully, crisis management is the one where the metrics of success are most easily calibrated and measured – and the most closely scrutinized in today’s all-seeing, always-viral world of cell phone cameras, saved text messages, Facebook postings, and 24/7 global media coverage of the “celebrity athlete industrial complex” (including of course all the wanna-be celebrities).

This is why there needs to be a separate playbook in every team’s front office (and in the appropriate legal affairs office of every NCAA school) that lays out the strategies, tactics, and implementation methodologies developed and approved by the ownership and top management for how to deal with this, or any other variation of SNAFU or TSJHTF or, in printable language, “What in God’s name were they thinking?”.

Unfortunately, the answer is as obvious as it is painful: They, of course, were not thinking at all – not about their team nor their role as a representative of their sport or university, and certainly not about their obligations to their fans and community.

But this harsh reality doesn’t help the organization deal with an event that, at the very least, can devalue or wipe-out a multi-million dollar investment in a talented player or the (in good standing) ranking in the NCAA. Or, at the worst, inflict serious long-term damage to the franchise’s brand/image/reputation, the loyalty of the fans that support it, and therefore its overall economic value to its owners (or in the case of the NCAA school), its value to the university/college, its alumni, supporters, sponsors, and business partners.

Just ask the folks at the Pittsburgh Steelers who are dealing with the hyper-embarrassing  blowback from Ben Roethlisberger’s character-defining, maximum–trashy, posse-supported behavior, not to mention his alleged criminality. (See sidebar “What was he thinking”  page 8)    


 CLICK HERE  for the complete article from The Association of Media & Entertainment Counsel_Fall 2010 Issue   

The Deadliest Words In Crisis Management: “Could have and should have” article begins on page 5.

Read more »

The Rise of the Insurgent Brand

Maybe you remember the recurring scene in the classic Western, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as Paul Newman and Robert Redford are tracked relentlessly by posse, Newman’s Butch Cassidy character keeps looking back: “Who are those guys?!”

Today, this is the scene in the biggest global companies’ executive suites. Suddenly, they are facing a kind of competition they never faced before. “Who are those guys?!”

It used to be that big market leaders competed only with other big market leaders. It was incumbents versus incumbents. In mass marketing’s hey-day, two or at most three brands dominated virtually every product category – information was forced through the pipeline of just three television networks. There was little choice and little change.

But those days are over. And the information revolution has opened up a new age of increased choices and constant change. Today, the big guys have new competitors . . . thousands of them . . . and they seem to appear from nowhere: “Who are those guys?!”

Today’s incumbent market leaders continue to rely on traditional mass marketing approaches, and even out-dated, “by-the-numbers” marketing: Ubiquitous distribution, production optimization, prime in-store placement, regular price promotion, heavy broadcast advertising, major league sponsorships . . . the whole enchilada.

But now, these market leaders are facing competitors who do not play by the rules of mass marketing. As with incumbents in politics, long-term leadership seems to lull many market leaders to sleep. They barely notice the insurgent brands rising up around them.

Suddenly, today, upstart or underdog brands are appearing on the radar. And they are shaking up the market and rattling the supply chain with street-level, street-fighting marketing strategies. “Who are those guys?!”

Indeed, you might be surprised by these insurgents: not all of them are start-ups or small upstarts. We have seen, for example, that brands as big as McDonald’s, Google or Southwest Airlines are all but unstoppable when they play by insurgent rules. It’s worth studying the insurgent strategy secrets these companies have learned.

In many CPG and B2B categories, insurgent brands are leading the development of new segments. And the cost to incumbents of following these insurgent brands – and following consumers who are looking constantly for choice and change – is immense. For example:

 Consider the soft drink industry: It isn’t the dominant market leaders who have pioneered the development of bottled water, energy drinks and shooters, premium bottled coffees and teas, functional juices and soft drinks and natural ingredient-based drinks. Rather, dozens of brands like Arizona Iced Tea and Red Bull have grown meteorically to lead their segments – and they are still not playing by the incumbents’ rules or with the attendant traditional costs of distribution or marketing.

In fact, at present, this is true in every industry and virtually every product and service category. It is a new world out there; and it is not a very friendly world for incumbents. There is guerilla warfare in every market, as the traditional mass marketing leaders have to fight off these new and very tough competitors. It is the age of the insurgent.

This is why we wrote “The Underdog Advantage,” exhorting companies of every size and shape to learn to think, plan and act like insurgents. Now we are writing about the rise of insurgent branding. This represents the most remarkable change to markets and marketing since the beginning of mass marketing 75 years ago.

Suddenly, the Goliaths of marketing are facing new armies of Davids. As never before, the top brands must fight for their lives against the smallest brands. But how did this happen? And more importantly, whether you are a Goliath or a David, how can you win in this market environment?

Today, as our economy claws its way out of the Great Recession, marketing must drive growth in companies large and small. In fact, the mass marketing model is very obviously broken and must be fixed; it is at once unproductive and inefficient. And the remedy is an insurgent model that teaches marketers a radically new way to achieve maximum return on investment . . . as long as they are willing to learn.

What’s Happening?

How did the incumbent brands lose their incredible market advantages of size, scope and (theoretical) marketing efficiencies? The simple answer is that it happened because consumers changed . . . but marketing didn’t.

This is part of a larger dynamic. Mass marketing was the natural extension of manufacturing efficiency and optimization – using the minimum technology on the maximum audience; and applying the philosophy of “one size fits all” to a mass audience. So “mass” came to mean “middling” – the lack of choice in most markets meant consumers simply had to settle for a narrow range of quality and product differences that appealed to the largest group with the most efficiency of development and manufacture. Mass marketing was established on a confidence that consumers could be pushed toward brands by dominating the market dialogue with advertising and promotion; and held to those brands through their generally low prices and ubiquity.

But the advent of new choices in cable television, satellite radio and the Internet made consumers aware of an avalanche of new choices in almost all categories. Through the communications of these new choices, consumers became more aware of several things: Negative information about the former incumbents; lower quality and less natural ingredients; and the compromises of trying to create “one size fits all” in every category. For a long time, consumers had been complacent about these compromises – but no longer.

The explosion of information caused by the widespread adoption of the Internet changed everything . . . politics, science, art, entertainment, sports, warfare, sex, business and marketing. And web search taught consumers that they could look for “one size that fits just me.” So they began to demand more and better choices.

And these constantly increasing choices began to ensure that “pull marketing” would replace “push marketing” in all markets. Brands pulled by consumer choice were much less costly to market and could carry higher margins.

Soon, consumers began discovering these new brands at retail and on the Net. Indeed, new retailers emerged as insurgents in their categories to meet this consumer demand for new and different offerings – for example, Whole Foods, Amazon, Starbucks, Gilt Group . . . or even the store around the corner.

At the same time, however, retailers, even mass retailers, began responding to consumer demand for more choices by lowering the barriers to market entry for these new brands. Of course, these new and different insurgent brands did not get premium placement on shelves. But they began fighting their way into mainstream stores without the slotting and marketing allowances charged to incumbent brands.

Suddenly, the battle was being waged on incumbent turf, but by insurgent rules of engagement – indeed, the incumbents’ size and heritage of success was often being used against them. As in modern guerilla warfare, mobility and speed began beating size and sophistication. An example:

 A couple of years ago, we began studying and meeting with one of America’s oldest incumbent brands, Clorox. The company’s strategy was evident to any observer — emphasize the Clorox brand heritage to consumers to remain top-of-mind when they go to shop; dominate the end-position of the cleaning products’ aisle; maintain packaging consistency (the same traditional design and look for several decades) to complete the synapse of preference to purchase.

 This strategy was considered foolproof for a trusted brand in what is essentially a very boring category. Most category-leading brands shared very similar strategies. So we did “flash” research at our own cost of Clorox’s customers . . . as the typical constituents of a market incumbent. And what we found was remarkable – if unsurprising given today’s insurgent-friendly shopping and decision ecosystem.

 We found most consumers did indeed enter the store with high preference for Clorox. But we could literally see this preference fade as they neared the cleaning products aisle.

In fact, once they turned their carts in this direction, though they registered the wall of Clorox’s incumbent brand identity, they tended to walk past it toward the many shiny new product forms, packages and claims arrayed on the same aisle.

 Most of these brands had very little heritage; most were not even supported with advertising, although a few did come from big consumer products companies. And they certainly did not have high awareness — in fact, many were private-label “store” brands. Some were products of infomercials, using demand created in direct marketing to drive distribution and sales at retail. Of course, a few of these new products simply tried to follow the leader – and look, act and quack like Clorox (a very bad strategy as we’ll say again and again). They had a very short shelf-life.

Interestingly, what most of these new products had in common was that they provided the consumer a break from the traditional boredom of the category with new ideas and differences. What might seem like inconsequential differences made a big difference to these consumers. So the cleaning products aisle was a theater of differentiation for shoppers. Notch another one up for the insurgents!

The oriental art of jiu-jitsu is designed to use the power and momentum of a bigger aggressor against them. Similarly, mass marketing, itself, has become a force to drive consumers away from mainstream brands – in search of new, different and better options. As we said, Web search taught consumers to believe a better, more customized solution to their needs was just around the corner or a click away. Lack of sophisticated marketing has become an advantage of the insurgent brands. And just imagine the ROI advantage for the insurgents over the incumbents!

The Principles of Insurgent Brands

For years, we’ve heard about “challenger brands.” And quite often, this has described a tactical approach of the number two or number three brand in any market taking on the leader with comparative advertising. To be sure, driving relevant differentiation is a good thing for any brand of any size. But simply challenging the leader does not define a truly insurgent brand. Most often, these challenges are played out by the incumbent’s rules and on the battleground of their choice.

Insurgent brand-building, by contrast, means adopting a new set of rules of engagement.
Of course, in politics, business or warfare, most insurgent forces operate without a playbook. Desperation is the CMO of insurgent businesses. But we’ve studied the successes of these insurgent brands, the market underdogs, and have found commonality in terms of strategic and tactical approaches. And we use these basic principles as the core discipline of our work — whether in brand development, innovation, internal or external communications, crisis avoidance and resolution or organizational strategies. Today, this is about the best way of getting a win in any situation.

So we developed our insurgent strategic approach as a new way to win in business and marketing for any kind of company or organization, big or small, new or old. And we were led to this approach by our first corporate client, the classic insurgent, Steven Jobs of Apple. Since then, we’ve had the opportunity to work with many insurgent brands, business revolutionaries and political candidates globally. All that time, we’ve known the rise of the insurgent brand has been inevitable – even if it almost always depends on incumbent brands continuing to play by the traditional incumbent rules.

Let’s look below at the way the principles of the insurgent strategy apply to brand building.

1. Do the Doable

Many insurgents start with nothing. The cardinal rule of insurgent strategy is to marshal resources carefully. Never waste resources on impossible goals. Set achievable goals – instead of going for the “Hail Mary,” get some first downs and gain momentum while creating a culture of success. And focus and align everything you do and say. That creates optimal efficiency.

Yes, this is the way successful start-ups operate out of necessity. Increasingly, though, it’s the way successful insurgent companies operate out of choice. For example, all of us have heard many marketing experts marvel at the way Zappos has become extremely successful without marketing. But we see the situation as exactly the opposite: everything Zappos does – from product to customer service – is marketing. Everything they do follows the dictionary definition of marketing to add value to transactions. All of the tiny details of interaction with Zappos align to one unified and highly satisfying product experience.

The same is true for Gilt Group and their trunk show philosophy. The focus is on the product quality, character, value and scarcity. The Gilt Group projects the “treasure hunt” shopping experience that has become increasingly important to consumers in this recession; these consumers must seek value, but keep hoping for a few pleasant surprises. Indeed, this is part of the formula for the big box insurgent, Costco. While the cardinal sin at Wal-Mart is to run out of inventory, Costco uses limited availability of products to increase usage of their stores: because, “You never know.” That’s why Costco has become the largest purveyor in the world of Dom Perignon champagne . . . “Surprise! Look at the price of this bubbly!”

Most big companies think of design and development, manufacture, distribution, sales, marketing and customer relationship management/service as separate functions, very often operating from separate silos. Insurgent brands, by contrast, create greater value by aligning every aspect of the brand experience — all of it based on the product’s essence and its unique user experience. What does it feel like to use this product? This is the question they answer; and this answer goes beyond the product characteristics to the total experience that begins with discovery and begins again with the decision to re-purchase.

 There is an obvious lesson here: Alignment is far more efficient than traditional silo-ed marketing communications. It is inconsistency that chips-away at your brand’s power and credibility.

Though this point may be obvious, it is often forgotten by mainstream brands, because of the departmentalization and compartmentalization of development, manufacture, distribution, marketing and customer service. And this insurgent mindset and strategic approach, driven by consistency throughout the brand experience, can be used by any company of any size from any position in the market.

In this sense, the insurgent brand is defined primarily by the characteristics, quality and values of the product or service and the relationship that brand develops with its users. In very rare cases, this experience is captured in an advertising tag line. But never does the tag line create the experience. It is this context of authenticity and transparency that incumbent brands find difficulty competing with.

Interestingly, most of the genuine upstart brands are run by founder-entrepreneurs. They are vision-driven, while most incumbent brands are heritage-driven – building strategy based on approaches that have worked in the past. Insurgent brands, then, are established because of the founder-entrepreneur’s sense of frustration or opportunity. And this frustration or sense of opportunity drives every aspect of the brand’s creation and communication. Put simply: “Me, too” marketing is over. And the product’s functionality, form, relevant benefits and differentiation define its value. Some key points:

 You might ask whether a brand manager in a big CPG company can develop and be motivated by a similar sense of frustration and opportunity. Our answer: “Why not?” Too often, though, motivation is developed through consensus building or simply playing an internal political game. Are authenticity and transparency encouraged by the drawn-out and harrowing brand planning process in your company?

 Since the product’s character and values are in the forefront, the authenticity of the brand is paramount. A shiny new object on the shelf may attract a look or even trial – but if it doesn’t live up to its imagery or claims, it will be dropped like a bad habit. Simplicity and transparency are important because they have been missing in incumbent brands over the years. Today, for example, the longer the list of ingredients, the less attractive the CPG product is to consumers. Natural ingredients imply transparency – and natural is far more important than “organic” to the insurgent brands (“natural” is simpler to understand and deal with than “organic”).

 Market leaders in B2B categories have often used complexity of product bundling or service to hide margin. Insurgent brands, by contrast, bring these costs out of hiding. In an open information environment, you don’t fool purchasers twice (in fact, with a true insurgent brand, you don’t try to). Honesty in dialogue with your constituents is a must, particularly when problems arise; break that trust at your own risk.

Defining Success: “Do the doable” is therefore about efficiency and putting the wood behind the most effective strategies. And nothing is more inefficient than ill-defined goals or objectives for any project, team or company.

It’s the same for a brand. And so creators of successful insurgent brands must be crystal-clear about what a win will mean: If the brand’s development – its positioning and value proposition – is executed perfectly, what will success be like in two or three years? What will be the metrics of success? What’s the “Election Day” by which these results must be achieved? And how will all internal and external constituents (most importantly, your consumers) of your brand think, feel and act differently as a result of this success?

No brand today can afford to buy its way to success – so insurgent strategy emphasizes using just the right resources against just the right objectives to achieve efficiency and effectiveness.

Setting Momentum Goals: A new or repositioned brand must build momentum. So we recommend creating objectives for your brand that are arranged in order of difficulty. These objectives (product distinction in development, distribution, trial, re-purchase, preference/performance/profitability, etc.) ramp up toward your ultimate definition of success for the brand . . . attaining each one also gives a sense of momentum to customers and stakeholders; and momentum helps with every aspect of a company’s operations and communications.

Distribution and Discovery: The top priority for marketing of an insurgent brand is to establish the right distribution to allow for discovery by the Early Adopters in your marketplace.

What’s the “right” distribution? This must be defined by the Early Adopters themselves. These are the most self-confident of all consumers. They are constantly on the lookout for new ideas in your category. And they take pride in being there first — gaining social currency by recommending new and better options to their peers. So these early adopters are at the leading edge of broad market acceptance – and they can kill that acceptance if they are turned off. Moreover, these early adopters want to find the product and discover its appeal for themselves. So they will tell you where they would expect to find a great new idea (and where they wouldn’t expect to find it).

The importance of discovery to Early Adopters means they don’t want to be pushed to the brand or have the brand pushed at them. For example, the simple facts of life for most craft brewed beers are that they become successful without traditional advertising; and when they begin traditional advertising, they fail (the only exception is our long-time client, Boston Beer’s Samuel Adams). This puts enormous weight on distribution, placement (rubbing elbows with the right kinds of products and brands) and packaging. So insurgent brands must use the above elements and shape the product experience to answer the fundamental marketing question: “Why me?”

Brand Story/Brand Narrative: The insurgent brand is vision-driven. It is founded on the belief in its righteousness, which in marketing terms is relevant differentiation. And because it must define the “why me?” answer quickly and directly, the insurgent brand develops a narrative of its “reasons why” and how it achieves its vision in very simple and clear terms.

Often, this brand story appears on the package itself: What was the motivation for its invention; who invented it; what was their conviction; how did they make it better and different? Like the “3×5 Card” messaging discipline we practice to align all messages in any political or marketing campaign, this brand narrative must be repeated in all communications, formal or informal. It’s the reason to support the insurgent brand: it must inherently carry the company’s passion and pride.

2. Move the Movable

Accurate targeting of your constituents is the best way to manage resources and return on your marketing investment. So we look at targeting (among internal or external groups) differently from most firms. From politics, we learned to go beyond demographics and psychographics to segment by preference (which candidate/brand do you like best?) and by performance (how likely are you to vote….how have you voted in the past/do you actually purchase the brand you say you prefer?). In business, we’ve added profitability as a third screener (will you remain loyal when the competition is having a sale?) to preference and performance.

Our segmentation looks like this:


HO = Hard Opposition: They hate you and the horse you rode in on. They may be competitors or activists against your brand or category. And while you can’t ignore the effect of this group, you also can’t waste resources in trying to win them over. So just don’t enflame them and carefully manage their effect on other groups.

SO = Soft Opposition: This group may prefer a competitive brand or have had a bad experience with yours. But they are not market activists. Still . . . there is not enough money in your corporate vault to win them over to your side of the aisle.

UNDECIDED: In a political campaign, you will do anything to win these votes on the way to a one-day, 50.1% win. But in the business world, you must win decisions more than one day every two, four or six years….you may even have to win decisions several times every day. And too many consumer-focused marketing companies target far too broadly – including the very tempting and huge segment of Undecided consumers. In fact, we find these consumers are undecided by character or circumstances — either they refuse to affiliate loyally with one brand, or they simply make purchase decisions based on price or availability. These are the brand “switchers” in all categories. And their loyalty (and profitability) is simply too expensive to win.

SS = Soft Support: This group represents those who may prefer your brand, but do not purchase it loyally. Fundamentally, we believe the Holy Grail of marketing is to get more consumers to come back more often to buy more. In fact, this is what made the difference in McDonald’s recent “worst-to-first” revival. McDonald’s had to sell current customers on reasons to come back more often and buy more. And the behavior and buzz of current customers attracted all the new customers they could ever need. This, not advertising, is what re-built their business. And thus moving these targets to more frequent usage and loyalty is a key goal. Ultimately, this Soft Support momentum and buzz is the most effective and efficient advertising medium in the Universe.

HS = Hard Support: These are your loyalists. And you must lock down their support – most importantly, you must clearly understand their support. These loyalists’ perceptions of your brand’s unique qualities provide the foundation for the product’s positioning and can help motivate the Soft Support and parts of the Undecided.

We follow a simple mantra in developing and activating against market segmentation: our process is to Identify, Understand and Activate. We believe in focusing narrowly on the audience of Hard and Soft Support (based on preference, performance and profitability), and then opening the aperture more broadly to understand their perceptions, attitudes and behaviors across a spectrum of competitive choices. This is the best way to develop an effective activation strategy.

For example, in soft drinks we focus narrowly on a brand’s Hard and Soft Support, but we look for growth among a very wide range of substitute choices in different occasions or locations – i.e., it’s not about cola versus cola or even soft drink versus soft drink. Too many business category leaders become fixated on one competitor and miss both the opportunities of other segments and the challenges of upcoming market insurgents.

Targeting the Early Adopters: At the outset, new products and categories do not have established loyal consumer franchises. So they must establish recognition, trial, re-purchase, usage and then loyalty. This, to be sure, is not easy. But today’s turbulent “choice and change” environment favors the upstarts. After a decade of binge buying, consumers have become increasingly self-confident and marketing savvy. And Early Adopters are the most confident of all consumers – they welcome change:

 Early Adopters not only accept choice and change . . . they demand it.

 Early Adopters pay a premium price. For example, the remarkable loyalty of its Early Adopter group is why Red Bull energy drink has been able to hold its introductory margins even in the face of an exploding category of choices (a category it largely created). For the price of an 8.3 ounce cylindrical can of Red Bull, you can buy roughly 60 ounces of Coca-Cola. That is the price power of Early Adopters.

 Early Adopters are the segment of consumers who move first to a new product, idea or category.

 Early Adopters like to be the “first on their block” – or the “first on their blog” – to try out new concepts.

 Early Adopters will try just about any new product in categories in which they are active . . . and they derive their social currency from leading others to the best new ideas.

Most importantly, other consumers follow the lead of these Early Adopters. With the rise of social networks, the power of word-of-mouth has grown as a factor in the acceptability of any new product or service (candidate or Party, too). So if you don’t attract the Early Adopters, you stand little chance of attracting the larger mass of consumers. Turn them off and you’ve turned off the market.

Again, the good news is these Early Adopters are on the lookout for the next new idea. They self-identify in market research . . . and you can spot them at the front of the line in any new category. Two key points:

 First, marketing loves Early Adopters, right? There’s just one little problem . . . Early Adopters hate marketing; particularly mass marketing. They reject advertising as a motivation; they are sophisticated and cynical; they want to discover new ideas for themselves; and they don’t want products pushed at them. So you get one strike – fool them once and you’re dead.

 Second, Early Adopters care more about product character and quality, and care more about the company and person/people behind the product than any consumers since the days when the Industrial Revolution overtook craft manufacture. At the same time, however, these consumers are the most image conscious ever. They are hyper-finely tuned to product imagery, user imagery, usage imagery and particularly to associative imagery. So they’re not buying generic anything.

The key: You must master this (product, company/founder, user and usage) imagery in establishing and continuing a relationship with the Early Adopters. But, at the same time, never let this conversation get one-sided. Moreover, you must never let your imagery slip into slickness.

These Early Adopters are tough customers; maybe the toughest in history. They’ll flatter you with trial (remember, they’ll try anything new) . . . and then they will not only drop you like a condo leaflet in Las Vegas . . . they’ll talk you down to other consumers.

 Importantly, according to our segmentation model, Early Adopters enter your franchise as Soft Supporters. Moving them to Hard Support means achieving the Holy Grail of marketing: getting them to come back more often to buy more (and bring the throng with them). Soft Support can be a skid pad for these consumers, however. If you disappoint them, they slide all the way from Soft Support to Hard Opposition – and become activists against your brand. It’s like a vineyard winning the opportunity of having your new Chardonnay reviewed by Robert M. Parker, Jr. – if he turns up his educated nose at your wine, it can easily become an “insurmountable opportunity” . . . one that kills the future of your new product and maybe your whole vineyard.

Brand Positioning According to the Hard Support: Hard Support brand loyalists not only know your brand better than other consumers, they know it differently. They perceive different benefits and competitive differentiation for your brand; this is why they are loyalists and the others are not.

Interestingly, our experience is that very few brand managers are actually Hard Support consumers of the brands they manage (remarkably enough, this is true even in the beer business). Indeed, in many categories, these brand managers barely achieve “Undecided” in terms of their personal Preference, Performance and Profitability factors. It’s not a knock – it doesn’t mean they’re not qualified to manage their brands effectively. But these brand managers simply must begin by recognizing they don’t really understand the brand positioning.

This is why we develop a “Brand Positioning According to the Hard Support.” This is based on the perceived benefits, competitive differentiation and the active imagery of the brand according to its most loyal consumers. In fact, we try to understand the different benefits and competitive set for each of the loyalists’ usage occasions. And these brand dimensions may not be significant in motivating the Undecided — but they very often encourage parts of the Soft Support to increased usage (usage leads to loyalty even more surely than loyalty leads to usage).

This is especially important with Early Adopters. Never assume you understand the attraction of your brand for them. Again and again, you must constantly try to learn Early Adopters’ personal point of view in defining the brand, defining its benefits and differentiation and in defining the ideal usage experience, buying experience or ideal relationship with your company. This does not take sophisticated market research — rather, it requires developing an Early Adopter conversation and keeping it open and active. Today, that’s easier than ever. The ease of conversation in social media means they’re probably talking about your brand, whether you’re a part of the conversation or not.

As you know, we come from politics – and something we learned there applies to business and to all business relationships, internal or external: Democracy is a dialogue; democracy is a good thing; more democracy is better; and fluid democracy . . . in terms of an active and interactive conversation….is best. And remember: These Early Adopter consumers are very easy to identify by their behavior; they will self-identify as someone who likes to be the first to try new ideas. So start talking . . . and never stop listening.

3. Communicate Inside-Out

In this sense, the insurgent brand – big or small – has a chip on its shoulder. The insurgent brand is built on the belief, on the conviction, that no other product or service in the marketplace really meets the needs and wants of a particular group. The insurgent brand believes the market needs and deserves its product.

Often the founder-entrepreneur of the insurgent brand is developing a product for herself or himself; assuming others may share their taste. As a result, the founder develops disciples; often employees or investors, friends and family. For a start-up, all marketing begins inside . . . and works its way out. And the founder must sell these disciples along with investors and employees – because often they are accepting some of the entrepreneur’s risks with lower compensation or sweat equity. Along the way to success, this band of believers must convince developers, suppliers and distributors of their vision for the brand. As the next ring accepts the belief system, the brand becomes stronger. A common understanding of the brand’s value proposition is passed from one group to another. Here are some examples:

 In our work with McDonald’s former CEO, Mike Roberts, author of the “Plan to Win,” which resulted in one of the most impressive business comebacks in history, we learned the importance of communicating objectives and strategies inside-out. Mike built his credibility within the McDonald’s system first in the San Diego area, then California, then the Western Division, then the U.S., before taking his “Plan to Win” to the world. His team identified the Hard Support among McDonald’s owner/operators who believed in Mike and his strategy — they were the first line of implementation of any new product or plan. And they adopted immediately and executed faithfully and with energy.

Interestingly, these Hard Support franchisees also tended to be the best, most disciplined operators. And the success they created with “Paul Newman” salads, premium chicken sandwiches, new options for Happy Meals, extended hours, new desserts, improved drive-thru technologies and on and on spread virally throughout the system. And the momentum has been remarkable. McDonald’s worst historic store performance was only a little more than five years ago — within two years of the implementation of the “Plan to Win,” the restaurants globally were beginning to set records for cash flow and profitability month after month. It was a victory for “inside-out” communications.

This kind of victory depends on discipline and speed. And the key to these two factors is alignment of your total system on executing your strategy. In this regard, politics taught us an important lesson: everything communicates. Every detail of the campaign, planned or unplanned, communicates to some important audience. And in a successful campaign all details are formed around one compelling core strategy — and every aspect of the operations must be aligned with that strategy and its tactical plans. Any successful campaign is founded on communicating “inside-out” – through the organization and along these larger and larger concentric circles outward to its customers.

4. Play Offense

The late great Alabama football coach, Bear Bryant, used to say he looked for players who were, “Mobile, agile and hostile.” Playing offense is not just a matter of attitude; it involves, too, the kind of strategic discipline that enables speed of impact. In this way, the insurgent brand learns to play offense. While incumbent brands are trying to protect their turf and market position, the insurgent brand must attack constantly. And to manage an insurgent brand successfully, you must map the competitive battlefield to determine not only challenges – but opportunities for specific user and usage occasion wins….the kind of wins that helps to create bigger strategic wins. Here are some ways to do this:

“Take What They Give You!” Another great football coach, Boyd Williams, constantly exhorted his teams to “take what they give you.” Obviously, successful football coaches, like successful military leaders, think offense first. Chip Kelly of the University of Oregon is shaking up college football in 2010 and forcing all coaches to re-think their offensive strategies. Oregon is putting up over fifty points a game on average. That’s offense. This complex offensive system is built upon a simple principle of changing the pace of the game to take control of the battle. Oregon runs roughly twice as many plays from scrimmage as the typical college team. His teams are consequently in phenomenal shape – and his opponents are consequently too often on their heels. So “take what they give you” means you probe for opportunity, then drive a Mack Truck through it. And it means being inventive in every aspect of your insurgent brand’s marketing – achieving the same values and characteristics for every aspect of the marketing process as you do for the product itself. Everything communicates, right?

Opportunism in constant dialogue with your Hard and Soft Support is the only way to stay in control of the market competition. These loyalists provide the most reliable GPS for the insurgent brand. Never let this conversation lag. Instead, lead this conversation with constant testing of hypotheses. Moreover, successfully managing the dialogue with your most important consumers will allow you to create a brand quality that is often owned by the insurgents – anticipation: “What will they think of next?”

The way to win in the market, then, is to win control of the competitive dialogue. In many markets, the incumbent leader brand is actually following the moves of the insurgents. And the rule in politics is the candidate who controls the dialogue wins the campaign. This is true because this candidate dictates the issues to be discussed, the pace of change and the campaign’s tone and character. Similarly, this is absolutely true in brand marketing; the insurgent can lever the power and scope of the incumbent into a disadvantage for the leader. The incumbent simply cannot keep up with the mobility and opportunism of the insurgent.

No Wylie Coyote Spending: This nimbleness is a distinct advantage of the insurgent against the larger, more bureaucratic incumbent. Never give it up. This means never waste money creating brand infrastructure you don’t need. When thinking about this spending, we always conjure the picture of Wylie Coyote running out fifty yards beyond the edge of the cliff chasing the Roadrunner around a corner. Yikes!

Leave this spending behavior to the incumbent market leaders. Let them spend like drunkards in trying to create “the next billion dollar brand” out of an idea that might only (only?!) be worth ten million. So remember: Knowing when to say “no” to spending allows you to continue to be opportunistic as things change . . . and things keep changing faster and faster.

Attack! If you’re proud of your insurgent product, you have got a useful chip on your shoulder at all times. This means insurgent brands are constantly on the attack against incumbents and those who act and quack like incumbents. After all, the insurgent brand represents change . . . the dominant force in American politics since at least 1992 . . . so you must constantly refresh the market dialogue. And, as long as the terms are relevant to your Hard Support loyalists, the marketplace loves a good fight.

Attack the competition – and be willing to attack yourself. Be willing to attack your own assumptions or even the meaning of a drifting brand. Remember, McDonald’s “worst-to-first” turnaround of the past few years is a classic insurgent campaign against its own image. So play offense when you defend your brand — or when you correct a problem with your brand’s value proposition. And, invariably, your best customers will be happy to tell you when you’ve strayed from your principles and values: just ask.

5. Be A Category of One

The final principle of insurgent brand building is to carve-out a space in your market that disrupts the status quo. Finding a strategic vacuum, a place where there is un-addressed consumer pain, is a fundamental step in developing the successful Insurgent Brand. This is the place where the differentiation of your brand can truly make a difference.

In other words, focus strategically on how to be a category of one – above all, to be sharply differentiated from your competitive set.

For Core Strategy Group, our marketing discipline was in a sense given to us by Steven Jobs in helping to develop the insurgent strategy against IBM for Apple. For years, we’ve practiced this discipline in politics – without knowing immediately that it could be applied to business. Today, we compete against marketing services firms of all kinds – but there is a sameness that dominates the competitive dialogue. It’s yet another category in which the dominant brand positioning is, “Me, too!”

So we opted out of this business from the beginning. Core Strategy Group wouldn’t be another marketing strategy group – we’d be the only insurgent strategy group. Necessarily, this filters-out some potential new business prospects – but we believe it shapes much stronger client relationships, by shaping expectations from the beginning. It attracts companies and teams obsessed with winning.

In today’s change environment, insurgent strategy is the way to win. And if you do a complete job of defining your relevant benefits and competitive differentiation, you, too, will compete in a category of one. You will be an Insurgent Brand.

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A More Insurgent President

The most talented communicator in modern political history is in danger of being out-communicated by his opponents. Why?

President Barack Obama must re-energize his presidency with the same kind of insurgent thinking, strategy and execution that elected him in the first place. As a company, we preach, teach and practice insurgent strategy. And, at this point, we’re wondering if the Obama Administration has forgotten what put them in power. It was pure insurgency. Today, all leaders, business or political, must communicate within the context of crisis – and so the 44th President of the United States must do three things to lead as greatly as he is capable of leading:

First, Focus and Simplify: President Obama must be less Law Professor and more Communicator in Chief. This means forgoing complex distinctions and not always finishing your sentences or adding new paragraphs. Some may dismiss the Reagan Presidency, but President Reagan understood the most important job our President must do: To communicate the complex workings of our government to the American people; to gain consensus behind his policies; to define America in the world.

Can anyone name one or two themes from the first 18 months of the Obama presidency? The reason you cannot is that the messages have been too reactive; too spread-out and thinned-down. Nothing has stuck – not even the Administration’s accomplishments.

For sure, President Obama has the communications discipline to do this. In fact, Candidate Obama’s discipline as communicator helped him win the White House and it can now re-energize his Presidency. But today, the President’s immense skills are not being focused. Instead, he’s being weighed-down by a nearly impossible inheritance and non-stop attacks from the right and left.

Again, think of Ronald Reagan: We still remember his “3×5 card”: “Get Government off your back; cut taxes; make America strong again.”

Second, Play offense. There was a moment early in the Obama Presidency when he very unwillingly supported a stimulus package not of his own design -one filled with the kind of pork that he opposed on the campaign trail. This was an important moment. Just as Reagan fired the air traffic controllers early on in his presidency, Obama had an opportunity then, there, with the stimulus package, to push back and say this is not the way we will be governing in Washington.

The same kind of boldness that allowed candidate Obama to brilliantly and courageously transcend the difficult issue of race in a speech about race is needed now. Instead, President Obama seemed to cede the decisions to the Democratic Leadership. The “fundamental change” the American people had voted for was not delivered.

Today, the White House is reacting, even over-reacting, to the extreme left and right. It’s time to play only offense, to be declarative, to define who he is, what he believes, how he decides, what the stakes are for all Americans and what future he wants to bring us And it’s not too late.

Third, Use Truth as Propaganda. The President can’t dive half-way into the water now. Since he’s commented on the issue, he must now be for or against the Islamic center near New York’s ground zero. In fact, Americans are yearning for this kind of leadership – leadership that can tell them important and even hard truths – especially during the one year, 2011, when the lack of national elections might allow some headway on the critical issues that government no longer seems capable of addressing.

In 2008, we elected the most skilled and talented communicator I’ve ever seen or worked with. But we did not do this in order to do political deals or allow his communications team to play defense or to parse statements. Truth is always the best and only effective form of propaganda. Obama told it brilliantly in the campaign. And he must do it again.

This means, for example, weighing back into the formal press conferences that the Obama White House has recently avoided. In fact, this remarkably intelligent and skilled communicator is at his best in free form and under pressure. Amidst the crazy extremes on the right and left, America and Americans need the truth now.

In sum, great leaders and great organizations learn as they go forward; they grow stronger, like the Borg in Star Trek. FDR did. Clinton did. And Obama must. It’s time for the White House to re-learn the lessons they taught us all during the 2008 campaign about insurgent leadership. It’s time to launch a more insurgent presidency for the sake of our nation.

David Morey is an award-winning author of The Underdog Advantage, Vice Chairman of Core Strategy Group and advised the 2008 Obama campaign on strategy.

He was recently featured in CNN’s article: “10 things Obama must do in 10 weeks”

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Learning from the Obama Brand

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Change You’d Better Believe In

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Is Your Company’s Sales Department A Growth Generator?

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Understanding and Managing Multi-Dimensional Brands

Why do certain brands like Starbucks, Nike, Coca-Cola and Disney, have such broad appeal and market acceptance? What enables these brands to resonate across a broad spectrum of consumers and provide long-term relevancy and value?

One answer lies in these brands’ multivalence – their ability to deliver multiple benefits to multiple customer segments within multiple potential scenarios. While these brands clearly own a unique space in consumers’ minds (Starbucks, for instance is a “personal oasis,” and Nike embodies a “just do it” attitude), they also possess relevance to a wide array of consumers on various occasions thanks to their multi-dimensional architectures.

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