Marketing is a Battlefield: A Review of Marketing Warfare, by Authors Al Ries & Jack Trout

Ries, Al & Jack Trout. (2006). Marketing Warfare 20th Anniversary Edition. New York, Ny: McGraw-Hill. 217 pages. List price $20.01,

Let me begin by mimicking the intro to the book, Marketing Warfare, “Marketing is War” (p. 1). I implore, is marketing really war? I think not. Of course, if you are responsible for the profits of a multimillion dollar company or the life savings of the local mom and pop, I’m sure you feel differently. According to the authors if you don’t, then you are doing it wrong. The Al Ries and Jack Trout definition of marketing includes a call to action for businesses to engage in a paradigm shift from customer-oriented thinking to competitor-oriented thinking. Through this definition success is defined as “strategy and tactics that win the battle in the marketplace” (p. 7). Their leader in this thought process? General, Karl von Clausewitz.

If you read my review of the authors’ first book, Positioning, you already know my “position” towards their writing style. They again rise to the occasion. When I’m reading prose by Ries and Trout it conjures up images of smoking jackets, scotch, and the click-clack of some Gal Friday fetching the this-and-that to help run the engine of the ol’ boys club. I suppose I should cut them some slack, the first printing of the book was in the 1980s when the business world was trying to adjust their old school mindset amidst the backdrop of rapidly rising technology.

So who is their torchbearer, Karl von Clausewitz? According to Ries and Trout Clausewitz’s military strategy book, On War, is the greatest marketing book ever penned. However, principles of Marketing Warfare may be based on an incorrect translation of Clausewitz’s ideas. According to the article, Everything you know about Clausewitz is Wrong, the translation of the General’s definition of war as “the continuation of policy by other means” is incorrect. The author, James R. Holmes, insists that “by” should have been translated as “with”. This small change denotes that the practices of democracy and negotiation should be taking place despite what is happening on the battlefield. The translation of “by” implies that at unresolved conflict, all communication is dropped other than those pertaining to weaponry and violence (Holmes, 2014).

The overall premise of, Marketing Warfare, is built on a superficial understanding of translations of Clausewitz’s ideas. According to an editorial on the Clausewitz Homepage website, “In general, just as war is a particular manifestation or subset of politics, business analogs to war are subsets of a larger phenomenon—thus, business as a whole is properly compared to politics, not war” (

Resting on the more aggressive interpretation of Clausewitz’s words, the main principle of the book, Marketing Warfare, can be divided into four subcategories under the “strategic square”: Defense, Offense, Flanking, and Guerrilla (p. 9). The authors argue that only market leaders should engage in the principles of defensive marketing. Offense is best used by number two companies, flanking should be utilized by small companies, and guerrilla tactics are reserved for regional or local businesses.

The bulk of the book is devoted to the strategic square. It also includes what I would call a few “buy in” chapters where Ries and Trout attempt to get the reader amped up on the idea of marketing as war. These chapters include a section devoted to their philosophy, an analysis of 2500 years of war, and sections devoted to military maneuvering such as force, defensive strategies, the battleground and competition. The book also includes four mini case studies on how industries in the private sector have fared in the “battleground”.

In looking at the strategic square, it is easy to see how they apply the principles to for- profit companies. But I wonder if the same principles can be applied to the nonprofit sector? To begin, let’s look at Defense Marketing. In Defense Marketing the authors suggest organizations practice defense in an offensive way that protects their share of the market. They can do this by attacking themselves by way of introducing new products that replace their old lines. Or, they can block strong competitors by introducing similar products in a swift manner before the competitor establishes it with the consumer. This is recommended only for number one organizations.

In the context of the nonprofit world, United Way is a clear leader. According to a December 2014 article, The United Way was the number one largest charity in America with over $4 billion in revenue and 1,300 affiliates (Barrett, 2014). The United Way website explains that it was founded in 1887 in the spirit of several religions to promote 10 health and welfare related organizations ( Although we cannot see blocking moves they have leveraged against other nonprofits, it is evident that they are fiercely defending their share of the market. This point becomes clear when you learn that much of their fundraising is in the form of automatic payroll deductions. This is a hard move to beat.

The number two in nonprofits according to the Forbes list, The Salvation Army, with its own church, over $4 billion in revenue and a presence in over 120 countries (Barrett, 2014). What differentiates their strategy from The United Way? According to Ries and Trout, the tactics of the defense and the offense look similar on the outside. The difference lies in the strength of the number two in sustaining an attack on the leaders market share. One way to do this is to create a leading offer where the leader has none. Perhaps this is the force behind The Salvation Army church since both The Salvation Army and The United Way operate in the same category in the same city.

The third part of the strategic square discuss ways small organizations can engage in Flanking tactics. In Flanking Marketing the authors suggest that organizations try to capture an “uncontested” part of the market in a way that is unsuspected. The organization must then stay true to that mission or product and should not reallocate resources after success.

With over 7,000 posts and approximately $5 million in revenue, the Veterans of Foreign Wars is small in comparison to the previous two examples ( What has kept this organization going for 100 years? Perhaps it is entry into the nonprofit world via a select category of services for those that served the country. They also draw proceeds off their bar sales which is a major distinguishing feature from other nonprofits.

The fourth part of the strategic square is confined to local or regional organizations. Principles of Guerilla Marketing include defending a small segment of the market and never getting too big for ones britches. Employing members of a small organization with a foot soldier mentality means that the organization stays on the pulse of the consumer and marketplace. This calls to mind our very own Southeast Missouri State University. As a small but growing institution they obviously cannot compete with the Ivy Leagues or Big 10s of the world. What they can do is leverage their affordability and willingness to remain in the trenches of distance learning to attract regional students who cannot afford or cannot attend larger universities. With emphasis on access and regional competitiveness as part of their mission and vision statements it appears that is how the University plans to stake out its territory (

Whether you agree with the Ries and Trout aggressive view of Clausewitz words, or whether you believe that marketing is innocuous, Marketing Warfare, is written in a fashion that will provide some take-away. At the very least it helps the reader understand the importance of knowing how an organization’s place in the market, or size of market share, relates to ways of engaging in customized marketing to wage war on “the enemy”. Perhaps Pat Benatar had it all wrong? It’s not love as a battlefield, Marketing is a Battlefield.


Barrett, William P. The Largest Charities in America. Dec. 10, 2014

Clausewitz Homepage website. Editorial, n.d.

Holmes, James R. The Diplomat website. Everything You Know About Clausewitz is Wrong. Nov. 12, 2014

Ries, Al & Jack Trout. (2006). Marketing Warfare 20th Anniversary Edition. New York, Ny: McGraw-Hill.

Southeast Missouri State University website. 2014 Strategic Plan: Mission Statement, Vision, Values Statement and Priorities. n.d.

United Way website. History, n.d.

Veterans of Foreign Wars website.