In The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote that "It’s more important to outthink your enemy than outfight him." Even after 2,500 years, this maxim is still so universal and relevant.
Sun Tzu warns against waging war without a strategy or understanding what your ultimate goal is. Tactics are not strategy. In the business world it’s common for people to confuse the two, because engaging in tactics makes it appear as if you have strategy, even when you don’t. The best leaders must first understand what their goal is and then work to develop unique tactics that will help you achieve that goal. But they must also be prepared to change that goal, then employ new tactics to achieve it.
Here are some strategies to employ to outthink your competitors:
Search for unique marketing arbitrage opportunities: In the early days, Google search ads were very cheap and drove high-quality traffic to ecommerce sites effectively. Today mobile advertising is still relatively cheap and can be used in a similar fashion, but it’s getting more expensive. Street teams and guerrilla marketing have proven cost effective for many new soft drink brands such as Red Bull. Lots of companies employ technology evangelists, whose job is to attend hackathons and meetups to promote tools to programmers.
Find lower-cost suppliers: This is what drove most manufacturing out of the U.S. to far flung regions of the world. It also drove technology companies to outsource engineering resources to Asia or Eastern Europe. Ikea actually pioneered this approach by moving manufacturing from Sweden to Poland, which was at the time a communist country and difficult for westerners to operate in. There are still opportunities to be had by finding low-cost suppliers, if you’re willing to put in the time, effort and energy to find them.
Take risks with your brand: Use spokespeople or content that other more conservative brands won’t use. Fiat has done this successfully by using Charlie Sheen, who was fired from his own show for unprofessional behavior, as a spokesperson. Virgin brands are well known for using unique, creative and outrageous marketing techniques. Its chairman, Richard Branson, once tried to circumnavigate the world in a hot air balloon. He was unsuccessful at the journey, but extremely successful at generating PR for his company.
Seek out and solve big challenges: Look explicitly for hard problems or difficult-to-employ strategies that others are avoiding and master them. Before Apple, everyone in the industry believed that a touchscreen only device was impossible to make. When the iPhone came out, it was revolutionary. A blog where one posts only 140 characters at a time sounds like a ridiculous idea, but that’s exactly what Twitter is. In many organizations there are systems, departments, technology or partners that people avoid because it’s viewed as difficult. Take on these challenges, master them and you will become an invaluable and unduplicated resources.
Study your competition, carefully evaluate yourself and be honest. It's only through truth and self awareness, combined with a careful analysis of the situation, that you will find your path to success.
Related: How to Outwit Your Competition