Counter-Insurgency Marketing (Guest blog by David Nichols)

Last week I was invited to a small conference of Defence academics on ‘counter-insurgency’, or ‘war’ as we ordinary folk tend to call it.  Why was I there?  Because they think they are facing some of the same issues that brands are facing, in particular the threat of challenger brands and the rise of new media.

The way it used to be was that big, established ‘country states’ got all hot and bothered and declared war on each other, a battleground was chosen and then the respective armies would square up to each other using traditional methods of fighting. Communication was state-controlled propoganda, using posters, press and TV. If you replace a few words (e.g. ‘brands’ for ‘country states’; ‘advertising’ for ‘propoganda’) it rather quickly resembles the kind of thing that used to happen between Coke and Pepsi, or Persil and Ariel.   

Nowadays, however, war isn’t like that.  Small state-less groups make unannounced terror attacks on disparate targets and 80% of the ‘fight’ is the impact it makes via myriad new media networks.  This is called ‘Insurgency’.  Armies are having to re-organise and re-equip to fight this kind of battle-that-isn’t-a-battle, and this is called ‘counter-insurgency’.  However well they manage to do against these armies-that-aren’t-there, the real problem is not being addressed; the new media battle. Hence the reason for the conference and my attendance. 

The question for the armed forces of state-nations has become one that marketers are fighting on a daily basis: how do you fight a small challenger who appears overnight, attacks via un-governable new media channels and whose aim is not to gain market share head-to-head with you, but to fundamentally change your market?  This is what is happening to EMI in the music business; it’s what iPhone is doing to Motorola and Nokia and what Method is trying to do to Unilever and P&G in household cleaning. 

What could NATO learn from Coca-Cola? (Or could Coca-Cola learn from NATO?)

It’s a challenging thought but not entirely without merit.  Of course, the stakes are much higher and the scope broader, but the parallels are there.  I am not suggesting that the Army should put in a call to Stop-Gap tomorrow and hire ex-brand managers to fight Al Qaeda for them.  But I am saying that it may be worth the Defence strategists putting their heads together with Marketing strategists and comparing notes.  There may be some principles and practices that, if re-thought, could help counter the new media insurgency that is now sadly a regular part of our daily news.

Next time you hear of some atrocity from a troubled state, consider that it is not just the bombs and guns that the army has to fight, but the accompanying grainy YouTube video as well.  Are they properly equipped?

David Nichols is a Managing Partner of the brandgym, leading our invention practice. See his profile here.