Are You Surprising the Competition – Part 1?

Business Strategy can take two forms: (1) the direct approach and (2) the indirect approach. The former consists of a direct advance to the competition, culminating in a powerful marketing frontal attack designed to overpower them. The indirect approach involves coming at the opponent from a round-about direction that he is not totally prepared to resist. Throughout history, most great generals have consistently chosen the indirect approach, risking almost anything to catch the enemy with his guard down.

Hannibal led an army of 50,000 Carthaginian infantry and 9,000 cavalry on his famous march across the Pyrenees and Alps. He emerged in Northern Italy to defeat the great Roman commander Saipio’s troops on the bank of the river Ticinus. In a snowstorm, he crushed two Roman armies along the river Trebia. Two more armies under Roman consuls Flaminius and Geminus were raised to block Hannibal’s path to Rome.

Hannibal followed a shorter, but more dangerous route through treacherous marshes to come out on Flaminius’s unprotected flank. Hannibal chose to face the most hazardous conditions, rather than the certainty of meeting his opponents in a position of their choosing. He followed this by hiding his light and heavy infantry and cavalry in gulleys near the road, so they could not be seen, and then taunted Flamininus into a foolish attack by making camp a short distance down the road from his army. As the unsuspecting Romans marched into battle, the Carthaginians poured out of their hiding places and attacked from all sides, decimating them.

Business history also reveals the advantages of the indirect approach. Marketing failures have often resulted from head-on attacks against the entrenched positions of stronger marketing rivals. Even brute force and having sheer resources are often not enough to insure the right outcome.

Surprise has been called “any commander’s greatest tactical weapon.” Confederate General Stonewall Jackson’s maxim: “Mystify, mislead, surprise your enemy.” Clausewitz, the Prussian General maintained that to one degree or another, surprise is, without exception, the foundation of all military undertakings.

Surprise follows a course of least resistance. The most stunning surprises are the result of a novel, creative idea. Creativity many times consists of merely connecting two or more heretofore unrelated ideas or things. Napoleon gained a decisive surprise by connecting cannon and manure. He ordered a rocky mountain road covered with horse droppings to muffle the sound of the wheels of his artillery carriages. This allowed him to move under the cover of night and to surprise his opponent by being in a completely new position in the morning.

In warfare, a preliminary bombardment might weaken the enemy’s lines, but also eliminates any advantage you might have gained by surprise. The use of intensive market surveys and market tests practically give away any hope of sneaking up on the competition. Choosing the element of surprise, a company may quickly enter a market, with the intent of a decisive victory. The idea is to strike quickly and adjust the marketing strategy and tactics as you learn from your encounter.

The element of surprise has worked successfully throughout history, regardless of the field of play. As the mighty Goliath, in his battle array, lay on his back after being hit between the eyes by a small smooth stone launched in a sling by a shepherd boy named David, he no doubt wondered what hit him. By then it was all over, he had lost the battle and the war.

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