Flank the devil

How to respond when competitors attack

There was a Union general in the Civil War who constantly frustrated his enemies.

He avoided all their traps and artfully moved around their entrenched positions instead of fighting them head-on, like they expected him to.

He’d flank the enemy army and keep moving, forcing them to fight on his terms, where all his advantages of speed, maneuverability, and strategic thought were brought to bear.

As a result, he lost far fewer men than this peers, and he never lost a campaign.

In fact, so devious were his manoeuvres that one opposing soldier said, should the general die, he’d “flank the devil, and make heaven in spite of the guards.”

It can be tempting to respond directly when you feel attacked. Perhaps by a competitor trying to “steal” your customers by drastically undercutting your prices. Or by running negative ads or spreading gossip. Or maybe by simply copying your marketing tactics.

But to respond in kind is to rush headfirst into battle against someone who wants you to fight on their terms.

Good marketers, like good generals, don’t take the bait.

Tit-for-tat battles within industries are like Warren Buffet’s proverbial crowd at a parade:

“Once a few people decide to stand on their tip-toes, everyone has to stand on their tip-toes. No one can see any better, but they’re all worse off.”

Cutting your prices in response to a competitor hurts your business and your industry. It forces you to reduce your quality or run your business at a loss. Both of which harm your customers by making the product worse or by making your business less sustainable and reliable.

And negative advertising or gossip hurts customers’ confidence in the industry as a whole. It suppresses interest in the category and makes people less likely to buy any of it (look to politics for the canonical example of this phenomenon).

Instead of immediately responding in kind to your competitors, try to go around them. To continue focusing on your market position. And to keep looking for opportunities to increase value for your customers.

Let them cut their prices and become known for being the cheaper but lower quality option, while you continue to focus on what you’re best at.

Let them use your old marketing tactics—you’re moving on to new ones because you have the creativity, drive, and ambition for originality that they don’t.

Let them try to “steal” your customers—your best ones will find their attempts off-putting, and discount-chasers weren’t your ideal customers anyway.

If your business is truly focused on what you’re best at—you’ve adjusted your end to your means—and your business goals are based on your ultimate desires for life, nobody else can do the same thing, in the same way, for the same customers.

The lesson isn’t to do nothing. It’s to work very hard, very consistently, at reinforcing your unique market position as your competitors desperately try to keep up with you. But you keep moving past them.

It can be tempting to want to fight back. We can all easily let our anger get the best of us and we can be blinded by our feelings of betrayal or backstabbing.

But remember: your mission is not to win a war against a competitor, it’s to keep moving forward, on your own terms, toward your goals and desires.

And when someone gets between you and what you want for your business, you have two choices:

A potentially disastrous head-on battle against someone who wants you to come down to their level.

Or you can flank the devil, and make heaven in spite of the guards.


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Further Reading:
They’re stuck too.
Every decision is a marketing decision.

Have a particularly frustrating competitor you don’t know what to do with? I’d love to chat it out: joelkelly@hey.com