In The Art of War, Sun Tzu said: “Brands that venture blindly into marketing “tactics” without a strategic map by which they are positioned, strategise their own demise.

A wise man was Sun Tzu. I bet he didn’t know back in 450 b.c. he’d be getting a #mention in such a prestigious blog some 2,468 years later.

I’m sure he’d be chuffed with himself.

Why Is He Relevant Now?

writing strategy quill

Ok so obviously Sun Tzu didn’t mention brands or marketing when he wrote his legendary script.

But what did he have to say then in his candle-lit room with a quill, that is applicable in our unrecognisable, ever-changing digital world a couple of millennia later?

Well, The Art of War outlines the landscape of strategy and tactics in the context of battle, though it is a text for anything where thought and consideration is needed in order to execute a sound plan of attack.

The reason that CMO’s, brand managers, founders, entrepreneurs and business owners alike, would be wise to have a flick through his book, is because of what is needed in order to be successful. Actual strategy.

Strategy Isn’t Tactical Channel Selection

channel selection

When it comes to promoting business, the options that require choice are so vast, it makes it seem like there is sound strategy involved because channels are being included and others excluded.

But “Strategy” is far more than a tactical selection of channels.

If we were to reword Sun Tsu’s script to directly apply to promoting a business, would it be “The Art of Marketing” or “The Art of Branding”?

If we called it “The Art of Marketing” the original text would have been “The Art of Battle”.

The difference between marketing and branding is that branding is the strategy, while marketing are the tactics. Branding is the war while marketing is the battle.

“The Art of Branding” therefore is the strategic art of promoting a business whereas marketing are the tactics that a brand has at its disposal.

A Brand For Every Taste

brand for every taste

It’s true that the book is of another time. It’s less about appealing to your audience emotionally than it is about bludgeoning your competitor to death.

Though when you read it, you begin to understand why “Strategy” is considered an art and brands that embrace the subtleties of strategy, are the ones claiming new territories.

“There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.

There are not more than five primary colours, yet in combination
they produce more hues than can ever been seen.

There are not more than five cardinal tastes, yet combinations of
them yield more flavours than can ever be tasted.”

Just as music, painting and food have countless combinations, so does a brand. The right mix of brand elements can appeal to any given audience or taste when balanced correctly.

The Lost Art of Strategic Branding

lost art branding strategy

The Art of Branding though has become more of a lost art, with businesses choosing instead to decide upon a collection of tactics as their strategy.

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win” 

Going to war first, then seeking to win describes most businesses today.

Seeking to win with marketing tactics such as Facebook ads or Google AdWords without any real strategic consideration for their brand seems to be a well-trodden path for the modern business.

Brands that take a “win first” approach, use tactics as tactics. It doesn’t mean that they will certainly win with the tactics they have chosen simply because they have a strategy (you have to take old Tsu with a pinch of salt). But they do have a strategy if a chosen tactic doesn’t advance their approach.

Brand Strategy Has A Framework

branding framework

While music has notes, painting has colours and cooking has ingredients, a brand strategy also has key elements.

This foundational framework, just like any art, can be manipulated to create countless expressions of a brand.

Here are the core elements of a brand strategy

  • Brand Purpose
  • Vision and Mission
  • Brand Values
  • Audience
  • Competitors
  • Differentiators
  • Positioning
  • Personality
  • Language and Tone
  • Communication

The right balance and combination of these elements (Amplified by tactical marketing of course), can win the minds (but more importantly the hearts) of an audience, on the battlefield that is the market.

Brand Strategy Holds Command Over Marketing Tactics

sun tsu command

When considered and strategically applied, all of these elements will arm a brand with the necessary tools to appeal to whom their audience is, in a way that will mean something to them.

Businesses that build their brands on a solid strategy, won’t just know what to say to their audience, they’ll know how to say it.

When the tactical decisions of marketing arrive, they will know what tactics to deploy in order to win as many individual battles as possible.

Each battle won results in an increase in territory gained (or market share) on the battleground that is their competitive landscape.


strategy big picture

We all think we approach business strategically. But reading through Sun Tzu’s 2,500-year-old text re-emphasises how subtle true strategy actually is.

Consideration for all the elements at play and emphasis on the importance of psychological (and emotional) influence will position a brand advantageously against their competitors.

“Ponder and deliberate before you make a move.” 

Does your brand have a solid strategy? Is your communication, positioning and personality all strategically considered to appeal to who your audience is in a way that your competitors don’t?

Share this with a modern general in your network.