The “brand image” is the key to the development of strategic concepts
Here’s what you need to know: Strategists are not exempt from commercializing their ideas. Far from there. The jingle or ad campaign that government officials, members of Congress, or any significant audience we target can’t get out of their heads. “Containment”, “balancing at sea”, “restraint”, “engagement”, “enemies” and of course “Thucydides’ trap” are just a few slogans that strategic entrepreneurs have devised over the decades. Strategic branding is about conveying ideas in a persuasive manner.
“Branding,” or labeling, of people, ideas, and things is a competitive sport in Washington, DC, and America has a president who celebrates it. For two professors at Harvard Business School, branding means learning to “strategically create powerful, resonant and unique brand positions to help products stand out amid the cacophony of the market.” Entrepreneurs are looking for that memorable image, slogan or slogan that lodges in the brains of influential people and gains influence for producers of goods and services.
Strategists are also not exempt from commercializing their ideas. Far from it: we’re like marketers on Madison Avenue, always looking for the strategic counterpart of the World’s Most Interesting Man or the GEICO Gecko – the jingle or the ad campaign that administration officials, members of Congress or any important audience we target can’t get out of their heads. “Containment”, “balancing at sea”, “restraint”, “engagement”, “enemies” and of course “Thucydides’ trap” are just a few slogans that strategic entrepreneurs have devised over the decades.
Since strategists are strategists, we often look to history – or to historical figures – to help mark our ideas. The Thucydides trap, for example, spread in large part because the Peloponnesian War and its chronicler still exudes glamor two millennia after the fall of Athens to Sparta and its league of allies. Or, because few people today know the Roman dictator Fabius Maximus, it is common to put George Washington’s face on “Fabian” strategies. Washington remains a popular figure and was a skillful practitioner of Fabius’ brand of delaying measures. The imagery stays with the students, as does the strategic concept.
However, not all efforts to use story as a sales technique work. What makes a good historical metaphor? First, choose from the story that is familiar to a critical mass of the population you are trying to persuade. World War II is an obvious source of analogies to reach the American public. This is our Iliad. Alternatively, choose a story that may not be familiar but has a simple message that has been proven successful, even to newcomers. The classics are full of analogies.
Important lessons can emerge in obscure cases; they do it fluently. But the more you have to cover the historical context to explain the metaphor, the less easily it will register with readers or listeners. Some world historical events are now largely forgotten, as attention span expires in haste. Think of the battles that made Britain ruler of North America and the maritime world in 1759. These victories changed the fate of nations, including our own. However, it would be difficult to publicize the battles of Quebec or the bay of Quiberon. You would spend too much time reviewing the basic facts of the Seven Years’ War to put the analogy into context. The eyes would turn glassy.
So well-known historical episodes, simple or both should be your first resort. When addressing a Chinese audience or Chinese specialists, for example, citing the Great Wall evokes a lot. Toshi Yoshihara and I once compared an early chain of islands fortified by American allies to an “upside down Great Wall” that traps Chinese ships and planes in the seas of China. The imagery struck a chord. Seen from China, the notion of a barrier that keeps China inside rather than nomadic looters or other enemies outside is deeply troubling.
So make the analogy or metaphor short and punchy, and make it speak to your particular audience. Ideally, it should be expressed as a parable, a simple story with takeaways immediately intelligible to listeners or readers. Too much ambiguity or nuance subtracts the power of the metaphor.
Second, beware when pulling ideas from historical figures. The concepts of diplomatic or military theory may seem simple to you, but many are not in the everyday lexicon, even for lawmakers or military officials.
What kinds of ideas from the strategic canon resonate? Here’s one: it often seems like a threesome strategy. Clausewitz has his “trinity” of rationality, passion, luck and creativity, the three elements which he believes constitute any fighter in war. Thucydides designates fear, honor and self-interest as the “most powerful motives” for human affairs. Mahan has two triplets: he defines sea power as commerce, bases, and ships, and he proclaims that commercial, political and military access to important trading regions is the goal of sea power. And so on. Numerology? May be. But there is something about all three.
Select theoretical ideas carefully
Some analogies to battlefield strategy retain their appeal for centuries, if not millennia. Take Cannes. Cannes was a battle of ancient Roman times (216 BC, to be exact) in which the Carthaginian general Hannibal deployed cunning and deception to stage a “double envelopment”, often simplified to “pincer movement. », Against a Roman army. The Carthaginian army surrounded and slaughtered the Romans almost to the last man, and he did so on Italian soil, which earned Hannibal his place on the honor roll of the fighting generals.
Now Carthage has ended up losing the Second Punic War, but not before Hannibal sacked the Italian peninsula for seventeen years. Few blame him for a possible defeat. Soldiers studied Cannes until the 19th and even the 20th century. For example, the battle inspired German strategists who strategized for the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). The Prussian army’s Carthaginian approach to the Battle of Sedan (September 1870) was so successful that Sedan achieved the stature of a historical metaphor in its own right.
In fact, General Alfred von Schlieffen, the architect of Germany’s famous Schlieffen plan for World War I, commissioned a series of “Cannes studies” of encounters including both Cannes and Sedan. After reviewing the history of land warfare from antiquity to modernity, the editors of Études de Cannes concluded that double envelopment, the gold standard in the era of close quarters combat, remained the key to success. triumph on the battlefields of the industrial age. So there is a parable for you: Perform an effective double wrap and you can engrave your name in martial history alongside Hannibal.
Cannae resonates through the ages. The US military reprinted Schlieffen’s studies as recently as the 1980s.
Third, an effective analogy cites a successful strategy, commander, or statesman. Why associate your big idea with failure in the minds of your audience? No one would name a strategic concept after Fort Necessity (1754), George Washington’s cataclysmic failure as commander, not even to capture Washington’s allure. Dien Bien Phu, the debacle of the French army in Indochina (1954), also made a loser for the brand of strategic ideas. The public can reject your argument even under the best of circumstances; why start with a credibility deficit by presenting yourself as someone with suspicious ideas?
Channel success, not disaster, and make a positive first impression
This warning also applies to good ideas that have failed. Mahan assesses the strategic logic behind the Sicilian campaign in Athens (415 BC Results matter. Don’t label your strategic idea A Sicilian campaign that works!
Likewise, avoiding the Schlieffen plan would be astute. Yes, Schlieffen was hailed as one of Germany’s most gifted soldiers of the 19th century, and yes, his campaign design made sense. But he failed. If you cite a historical analogy and immediately need to start making excuses, you had better look elsewhere to mark your concept.
I always laugh when preparing to teach Desert Storm, “my” war. Comparing certain aspects of the coalition offensive to the Schlieffen plan became somewhat fashionable at the time. For example, Colonel John Warden, the architect of the air campaign, described it as an aerial Schlieffen plan. Many have also compared the ground offensive to the work of Schlieffen. And unwittingly telegraphed this message: I’m selling you a masterpiece of an idea that will fail when put to the test of combat, the true arbiter of what works and doesn’t work in martial competition.
The air and ground campaigns worked with great fanfare in Desert Storm, but the Commanders’ sense of selling to them was average at best.
Another example to be avoided is the Maginot line. Edward Luttwak rightly points out that the French fortifications never fell into German hands during World War II. But then what? The Maginot line is defeated. France has fallen. A total defeat doesn’t make an inspirational banner for your big idea. Indeed, naval promoters used the Maginot Line to warn of the “hollow” US Navy of the 1970s. It is better as a cautionary tale than for branding.
And finally, beware of quite successful analogies if they take place under uncertain circumstances. Think of the Morice Line of the French Army in Algeria (1957). FLN activists smashed an army against the Morice Line. It ranks as one of the most impenetrable defensive frontiers in history. But the Franco-Algerian War (1954-1962) is hardly considered forgotten for your average American, it was a struggle for decolonization in which torture played a major role, and France ended up losing the war despite the excellence of French engineers in defensive work. In short, the Morice Line is tainted with association with the larger North African conflict.