War games

Prepare your marketing counterattack


Companies have missions and territories; they formulate strategies and tactics. They conduct forays into enemy territories and engage in advertising blitzes to capture market share.

Managers map out campaigns and issue orders; subordinates carry them out. They use guerrilla marketing tactics; they soften up the beaches with ads and promotions before they send in their troops of sales representatives.         

Sounds like war.         

We do use a surprising number of metaphors for war in marketing. Perhaps that is why the War Game has become such an effective strategic planning tool.

War Gaming is a method of dealing with rapidly changing business conditions. It allows managers to assess consumer and competitor activities and prepare a suitable counter strike.       

Here’s how it works:

My client heard that a competitor from another state was about to introduce a new product in this market, where he enjoyed a 40 percent share. We decided to simulate a War Game to help us determine the best plan of attack.       

We divided his team (including employees, outside advisors, family and friends familiar with his company) into two groups. Group 1 represented the competitor trying to break into his market and overrun his market share. Group 2 was to dream up countermeasures to combat the enemy/competitor’s advances.   

Group 1 attacked with a superb ad campaign based on the claim that more customers in the competitor’s home state buy their product than any other product of its type. After careful review, we decided this strategy might indeed undermine the market for our product.     

As a countermeasure, Group 2 devised a response that deflated the competitor’s claim. They chose the strategy of a “pre-emptive strike.” Their ad campaign stated: “More customers in Wisconsin buy our product than any other.”

My client immediately began using this campaign in his advertising, and subsequently the competitive product bombed when it reached the market. We heard from a media sales rep that the out-of-state competitor had “delayed his advertising unexpectedly.” We later learned the competitor had originally decided to use exactly the advertising strategy our War Game had predicted.

War Gaming allows us to test alternative scenarios against alternative responses. Like a crystal ball, War Games can give us “hindsight in advance.”

Some consulting firms use computer models to simulate changes in market share based upon advertising spending, or customer responses to changes in pricing, etc. Such computer-generated simulations can be expensive, ranging from $10,000 to upwards of $300,000.         

If you are not a multinational behemoth introducing your product in Western Europe with a bilingual ad campaign and a huge product sampling effort, a more moderate non-computerized approach may better fit your budget.

1. Define the problem as narrowly as possible.

“I’m not happy with our level of profit” is vague. “A competitor is invading our market with a new product” is specific.     

2. Next, assemble your teams carefully.

Choose right-brain creative types and left-brain analysts for each team. Provide each team with all the facts, from spending limits to market share, production capacity to distribution techniques.       

3. Be prepared to set aside your ego.

War Games work best when the expectation is not simply to parrot your opinions and management style. After all, one of the objects of the game is to “think outside the box.”       

A good consultant experienced in War Gaming can get you where you want to go. He or she can simulate the necessary scenarios and force you and your managers to think in fresh and unexpected ways. Dropped into a strange new world, your teams might just arrive at strange new solutions.

War Games can have remarkable predictive power. They get you to think differently about the future. They help you develop and test alternative strategies to rapidly changing markets.   

They can provide other benefits, as well. By identifying market needs not currently addressed by your competition, War Games may even lead to the development of new products.

War Gaming brings the collective imaginations of your best and brightest thinkers to bear on your most critical problems. They provide an atmosphere of teamwork, helping management teams bond.

Best of all, they give you the courage to face an uncertain future.

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