The Marketing Playbook
Five Battle-Tested Plays for Capturing and Keeping the Lead in Any Market
Every company needs to figure out the best way to beat the competition. What do you do if the other guy is already dominating the market? Should you challenge them head on or lie low for a while? Should you offer customers high-end features or a low-end price? Or both?Introduction
During their years at Microsoft, John Zagula and Richard Tong answered such questions so effectively that they helped Microsoft Office and Windows grow from a 10 percent to 90 percent market share. As venture capitalists, Zagula and Tong have continued to test and perfect their system with hundreds of companies of all sizes and at all stages.
Now they’re sharing their best ideas and methods in an easy-to-apply book that will be enormously helpful to marketers in every industry and leaders in every size company.
The Marketing Playbook explains the five basic strategies for a competitive market—The Drag Race Play, The Best of Both Play, The High-Low Play, The Platform Play, and The Stealth Play. It illustrates how each one works, how to pick the best one for a given situation, and then how to implement it effectively in the real world.
Just like a great sports coach with a well-designed playbook, managers who read this book will have the tools, tips, and tricks they need to leapfrog market research, craft a smart strategy, motivate their team, and start scoring major points with customers and against the opposition.
What do a rural telecom service provider, a fifty-person call center, a high-end computer manufacturer, a three-PhDs-in-a-garage start-up, the world’s largest software company, and you all have in common?
Probably lots of things. But certainly one of the most surprising is that, for any given product and at any given time, each of them follows one of only five marketing strategies—or plays, as we like to call them—to win in their marketplace. Just five. Seriously.
Consciously or unwittingly, rightly or wrongly selected, well or poorly executed, these plays have been and are being used by companies as diverse as those above, each placing its bet on one of only five strategy alternatives to gain or defend its position in its market. And that includes you, whether you know it or not.
The Marketing Playbook has been over seventeen tough years in the making. Even before we knew we were following an actual system that could be articulated, we were continuously testing, retesting, and refining this book’s methods, tools, and guidelines in the rigors of the real marketplace.
The core concepts at the heart of this book were first forged in the furnace of Microsoft’s highly competitive market situations in the late 1980s and 1990s, when the two co-authors of this book were in the thick of the company’s crucial marketing efforts. Whether you’re facing large, entrenched competition, numerous smaller players, or an as yet undefined market landscape, finding the right path to market leadership is a hard thing to do. But across all these situations, through repeated trial and error, we found a common thread, a basic logic that lay behind all the moves that ultimately succeeded.
It wasn’t until we were asked to share our methods and techniques to help train other marketing and business folks that it actually dawned on us we were following a discrete, focused system.
When we sat down to plan out the lessons we wanted to share with other Microsoft businesspeople and reviewed all the strategies that we had in fact deployed across our various product launches, competitive battles, and customer targets, we were surprised to find that, no matter how hard we tried to come up with more, we discovered that in each case, one of only five basic approaches had provided the path to victory. And this was not because our imaginations were limited; it was because these five really covered all the situations we faced. These are the five plays, the heart of the Playbook system.
The people with whom we shared these plays were struck by their clarity and simplicity, and how well they fit every type of situation. Many were seasoned marketing and business professionals, but time and time again, they consistently found the plays one of the easiest ways to understand and effectively guide their own plans.
The five plays really seemed universally applicable. But maybe we were just biased by our experience; maybe these strategies would not apply beyond the scope of our current jobs. After all, very few companies have the market position or financial wherewithal of a Microsoft. And indeed, after we left Microsoft and started a venture capital firm, we found ourselves confronting a whole new set of challenges.
The companies we worked with boasted fewer resources, had less-tested products than their rivals, and often faced competitors much larger than themselves. Further, they were under the gun, knowing that one significant misstep and they could easily go under. So there wasn’t a lot of room for error. These companies needed to find a simple, reliable way to map out an effective marketing strategy that fit their unique goals and means. And it turned out that no matter what the company, product, or challenge they faced, one of the five plays worked for them, too.
All five are great plays. That said, it became clear that no matter what the play, if you’re running it on the wrong playing field or with the wrong resources, it just won’t work. Our experiences with small companies in different industries underscored how important it is to do your homework on these conditions before you bet your resources, reputation, and future on any given strategy. How well you do this homework can mean the difference between roaring success or auguring into the earth, fast.
And so, in addition to the five plays, we developed, tested, and applied a simple method for understanding your market and the conditions you face. This shorthand for plotting conditions as a map of your playing field has become a standard, both for how we as venture capitalists assess our investments and also for how our companies chart their course and choose their own play.
Finally, across all these companies and throughout our own careers, we have learned over and over that no matter how well you plan, execution is what ultimately determines the winner. Whatever your objective or strategy, you need a great, hard-hitting marketing and sales campaign to actually bring you across the goal line. And this is one of the hardest things in the world to pull off.
Through our work on multiple product launches of Microsoft Office, Windows, and related products, and in our work with portfolio and partner companies, we have accumulated a very tight set of skills, rules of thumb, and basic principles for pulling off great campaigns and ultimately capturing the lead position even in the most intense contests. These methods have also proven consistently easy to adopt and effective to apply no matter what the company, industry, or situation.
Another thing that this wide ranging set of companies and businesspeople we have worked with (and you) have in common is that they don’t have a lot of time to spend reading marketing or business strategy books. They’re too busy working their butts off trying to grab or hold on to the leadership slot in their market.
Why We Wrote This Book
And they told us that the method we had developed, tested, and shared with them really worked. They were convinced that others would benefit as well from reading and learning how to use this system.
In addition to our own accumulated experience, our interactions with these businesses and businesspeople have taught us huge, consistent, and enduring lessons. It is these lessons that we share with you here.
The will to win is important, but the will to prepare is vital.
Everyone thinks marketing is the fun and glamorous part of business, where you get to play around with creative stuff, brainstorm clever headlines, go to photo shoots, do press interviews, see yourself in print, and finally get a chance to toot your own horn. Marketing as imagination, art, and magic.
Sure, there is some of that. But marketing is deadly serious. Whether you’re a stodgy financial services firm or a whimsical children’s brand, winning companies with effective marketing derive even their most creative, off-the-wall efforts not simply from creative thinking but from sound strategy. Why?
Because winning matters—and it usually takes a strategy to win.
OK—so how do you go about deriving a winning strategy in a way that makes sense?
You can hire a consulting firm, spend man-months educating them about your business, and hope that, besides regurgitating a lot of what you told them, they might also give you some valuable input that justifies the expense.
You can have a bunch of off-sites with lots of brainstorming, soft drinks, junk food, and scribbling on whiteboards. But even with a strong agenda and a good moderator, too often nothing focused or actionable or tangible results.
Or you can take control of the process. In a very short timeframe, you can build a “Playbook” to guide your marketing decisions and actions—mostly using information you already know. Based on this homework, you can then choose which of five plays is appropriate to your situation, and then apply a set of straightforward guidelines for driving successful action that is practical and proven.
Fine. Sounds good. But, what exactly is this Playbook?
First of all, it is your Playbook. The Playbook isn’t this book. This book is just here to help you write and use your own Playbook—the version best suited for your needs. By this we don’t mean that your Playbook helps you craft a nicely worded strategy or do a better job managing those consultants or running those off-sites (though it does those things, too). We do mean that your Playbook is the essential guide you will create and keep at your side to help you win, to help you define, establish, and defend your desired position in your market— whatever that may be.
Your Playbook should be the tool you refer back to, to guide your actions and decisions and to motivate those of your team.
What does this Playbook consist of? It’s simple. Just three things:
First, your Playbook will identify one of five possible plays that you select as best fitting your situation and goals. (Sure, at this point it’s hard to imagine that just five plays could cover all business situations. But as you’ll discover for yourself in Part I of this book, five are all you need to have a full range of choices.)
Second, your Playbook will include a carefully thought-out map of your playing field that will allow you to execute your chosen play with confidence. This map will show where you want to get, what you’re up against, and what you actually have. You will create this map by reviewing your situation, goals, and challenges in a way that validates the play you have chosen and guides you to the right play for each step in your progress. That’s Part II of the book.
Finally, your Playbook will prepare you for the true test of strategy—the reality of running the play in action. It will arm you and your team with a set of simple guidelines to help you successfully run the play you have chosen and to best respond to the live action of the real market. That’s Part III.
For each of these three sections of your Playbook, we’ll arm you with a corresponding set of basic concepts or rules that you can turn to for making sure that you’re actually moving ahead in the most effective way.
The best part: it actually works, and in hours, not weeks.
Here’s a quick advance look at what you’ll be doing.
Step 1. Your Strategy Options—The Five Marketing Plays
One of our favorite examples of an effective play comes from the time when we were still at Microsoft.
The year was 1999, and one of the product groups was gearing up for the launch of Microsoft SQL Server, a terrific new database server product that was a key part of one of Microsoft’s most important growth businesses. At the time there was one dominant player in this high-end enterprise database server market: Oracle.
The Microsoft SQL team was all pumped up. They had delivered a great product, the first real contender for the space in a long time. They had also done their homework: they knew everything there was to know about the Oracle product, they had talked to lots of potential customers, and they knew their own product upside down and sideways.
When we first sat down together to map out the launch campaign, their plan was to attack Oracle head on.
And why not? Everybody at Microsoft—and a great many other people, as well—was sick and tired of Larry Ellison’s bombast. And we envied Oracle’s loud, hard-hitting, and exorbitant PR and advertising claims. So why not attack? We had a great new product, it cost a lot less than Oracle’s, we knew we were committed to supporting it, and we had the marketing dollars to do it. We were Microsoft, for Pete’s sake, we should be able to win.
The problem was, we were making some wrong assumptions. The straightforward, head-on play wasn’t appropriate. Even though our product was better in a lot of ways, Oracle still had us beat on a few key dimensions such as the ability to scale up to very big installations and highly complex jobs. Even though most users would rarely if ever need the capability, Oracle always beat its chest over that one issue. To be candid, our competition had us on this one; it was Oracle’s true position of strength. And it happened to be the area that a lot of large companies were paranoid about.
Oh, sure, they also cared about price, but not that much. Also, our Microsoft heritage and reputation didn’t really help us that much in this market. While everyone trusted that we built great, easy-to-use consumer software, we were far from being perceived as a truly “enterprise-class” provider, at least not for mission-critical applications. Oracle, on the other hand, had enjoyed that reputation for years.
So the smart play ended up not being the direct attack (a.k.a. a Drag Race Play, as you will see soon)—at least not at this stage. Instead, we decided to find the areas where Oracle’s biggest strength didn’t matter as much. Rather than attack Oracle directly and get compared on the criteria that it had already successfully established, we would have to use something more like a quarterback sneak (which we call a Stealth Play).
The campaign we settled on said in essence, “Go ahead, use Oracle. That’s fine in those instances that it’s really needed—but on jobs like X, Y, and Z, do you really need to spend so much money and lose so much flexibility?”
Stepping back and choosing the right play made all the difference. With this more humble approach, Microsoft SQL Server was able to gain a true foothold in the market. We reduced the barriers for initial trials and we got people to start using the product and experiencing its benefits. We focused on the targets for whom this made a lot of sense. And although the jury is still out, SQL Server sales have gone from zero to huge and market share from zero to a very significant percentage, in just three years.
Sounds good. But how do you actually pick the right play for your Playbook? Every situation is so different.
Don’t sweat it too much. It may seem hard to believe, but our experience with hundreds of businesses and their specific challenges has shown over and over that there is always one obvious basic strategy that’s right for the situation. Once selected, your play becomes a starting point; it’s your path, your line of attack. From it, the rest of your in-market action plan comes to life.
And it gets even simpler. Remember that there are only five plays to pick from. Here they are.
The Five Go-to-Market Plays
Drag Race: In some circumstances, your best bet calls for singling out one competitor and putting the pedal to the metal racing against them to win the category. This can be quite exciting, so it’s a really tempting choice. But you better have what it takes to beat them over the finish line.
Platform: Success can be hell. Once you’ve secured a lead in your category, you have to hold on to it and make the most of it. Standing on your platform at the top of the category, you need to be on the lookout. You must gather allies and defenses. Sounds kind of boring. But it’s essential. Success begets envy and you never know from where a new challenger is likely to emerge.
Stealth: Just because you’re not strong enough yet to win the battle doesn’t mean you can’t win the war. In this play, you undermine the status quo in your market by whittling away at the incumbent’s weak points. And maybe even by making them look foolish. But remember, you still have to stay out of their way and survive. Big, dumb, slow competitors can still squish you.
Best-of-Both: Go ahead, have your cake and eat it, too. While in many cases the smart decision is to focus, requiring a trade-off at the high end or the low end of the market, in the right circumstances you don’t have to. With this play, instead you gain dominance over the whole of a category by collapsing these two ends. If you appeal to the most important needs of each part of the market, you can win them all.
High–Low: Compromise is for weaklings. With this play, you try to close out the competition by splitting the category and owning both halves. It takes a lot of finesse, but when you need to keep a competitor from establishing a Best-of-Both foothold, you need to appeal to the distinct prejudices of both the elites and the common folk, the high end and the cheap. This is the hardest play to manage, but if it’s done right, you’ll achieve high volumes and high margins at the same time.
In choosing the right play, there are some important questions you will need to ask yourself. Different plays are best suited to different conditions. Different plays require different strengths. Do you have the right ones to pull off your choice? Some plays are riskier than others. How tough are your nerves? Depending on the play, succeeding can take a long time. Do you have the time, patience, and resources? After all that, how big is the goal you’re after? Is it achievable? Is it worth it?
Step 2. Mapping the Playing Field No matter what marketing strategy you’re currently following, you have to execute it in the reality of the marketplace. Your play succeeds or fails on the actual playing field. So it’s a darn good idea to know everything you can about the terrain.
This is where the second part of your Playbook comes in. Whether you’re refining your existing play or moving into a new one, you’re making a bet—a bet on finding or recognizing a new gap opening in the marketplace and a bet on your ability to bridge that gap.
You can think of your playing field in the same way. Where should you be placing your bets and investing your time and energy? No one wants to punt from the seventy-yard line against massive headwinds. So before jumping into a market, you had better know what you’re up against and what you’re aiming for. That’s why finding and understanding the gaps in your playing field is so important.
Here are the key gaps to look for, map, and measure on your playing field:
The overall market—its economics, history, and trends;
Step 3. Turning Your Play into a Killer Campaign
Great marketing campaigns sing. When all of the components hang together—from your basic sales pitch, to PR and tradeshows, to collaterals, to ads to Web sites, e-mails, and banners—they complement and enhance one another. Great marketing campaigns take your play and motivate action in your favor. No matter how well founded and well chosen your strategy, lousy marketing campaigns (or even just pretty good ones) lead to defeat or significant loss of ground.
Whatever the scale, there is no such thing as a marketing campaign that you do by yourself or a play you run yourself. It takes all kinds of people. Sometimes these include ad agencies, Web masters, road warriors, PR mavens, channel partners, and even the people who answer the phones. You’re not just writing your Playbook; it’s your whole extended team’s Playbook. The key is for everyone to understand what’s needed and what they have to execute.
This is where the final part of your Playbook comes into action. Here we’ll introduce you to a set of simple, powerful techniques, design tools, and guidelines that make it easy to do each of the above, over and over again, no matter what play you’re running or what kind of audience you’re targeting.
So those are the elements of this process: doing your homework to best understand your situation and map it to your play; selecting the correct play; and turning the play into action through a focused, dynamic, effective in-market campaign.
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