The Marketing Flank

The marketing flank is a very effective positioning strategy, an overarching strategy that was discussed previously.

The flank is taken from military warfare and applied to marketing as a strategy to sidestep the competition to take an offensive advantage or gain market share.

In Jack Trout and Al Ries’ book “Marketing Warfare”, they discuss specific marketing tactics based on their positioning concept/ strategy[1]. In an overly simplistic view, it can be very loosely perceived as doing the opposite of what the competition (everyone else) is doing.

In marketing, going head to head with the competition is never a good idea. All parties generally take big hits even if one comes out on top. It is a drain on resources, time, brand name and morale.

Jackie Chan made a classic flanking move to stand out from the rest of the Kung Fu action stars and stuntmen. He often recounts his approach to differentiate himself in the seventies, at the beginning of his career. In the era where Bruce Lee was reigning supreme by bringing Asian martial arts to mainstream movies and pop culture, everyone was trying to be Bruce; resulting in multiple clones (wannabes) of the master.

Jackie flanked everyone by doing the opposite of what Bruce Lee did. While Bruce was the tough action hero, Jackie always portrayed himself as the often hapless and reluctant hero. Bruce Lee always kicked high to show off his skills and flexibility; Jackie always kicked low. Bruce always ended his punches with an aggressive battle cry. Jackie would grimace in pain and shake his hand[2].

His flanking strategy of combining physical comedy with martial arts paved the way to his success; not discounting his talent, hard work and technical skills.

The concept of flanking can also be used to create a position against what is already established in the consumer’s mind or against who is already in the marketplace.

Well-known examples of such a flank include:

  • Bollywood – India’s Hollywood.
  • Shen Zhen – China’s Silicon Valley (home to tech giants such as Tencent and Ali baba).
  • Speed (1993 film starring Keanu Reeves) – Die Hard on a Bus, a position against the 1989 Bruce Willis movie.
  • Pork – The other white meat (chicken)
  • 7-up – The “Un-Cola”, a position against the leader in soft drinks, Coca Cola.

[1] Ries, Al; Trout, Jack, “Marketing Warfare”, (1997). McGraw-Hill.

[2] Chan, Jackie, “I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action“, (Jun 1999). Ballantine Books.

The Marketing Flank | Evolve & Adapt


Here is another example of the power of flanking strategy in marketing. A couple of years ago, I remember watching the Royce Gracie & Akebono Taro fight from K-1 Premium 2004 Dynamite!! show on YouTube. On paper and first glance, it would seem like an unfair fight as Akebono outweighs and is much taller than Royce.

However, if you watch the short match below, Royce won the match cleanly.

For those unfamiliar to mixed martial arts, Royce made Akebono give up (submit) via shoulder lock who signalled it by tapping out. The tap out can be signalled by tapping the mat or opponent.

Generally, in a fight with all things being equal, the bigger opponent will always win. But, the reality is, things are never equal. Technique, experience and innovative fighting style can get a win over a much bigger opponent, even if the bigger opponent (in Akebono’s case) is highly skilled and formidable.

The parallel can also be drawn in marketing, specifically for guerrilla marketers who tend to go up against bigger and more mature (in the marketplace) competitors.

In marketing, it is highly possible to come out on top against a bigger competitor (who has more money, more resources, more time & more manpower) if you are more skilled and work faster, smarter & harder.

If we analyse the Royce/ Akebono match as a marketing battle, these are the analogies we can make:

Royce’s strategy was clear. He never tried to go head to head with Akebono. If Royce had gone blow to blow with Akebono and not gone to the mat, he would have been beaten to a pulp within seconds.

Instead, he executed a marketing flank. At the 24 second mark of the match, Royce drops to the mat deliberately – he did not fall or get beaten down. His tactic was to cut down the size of his opponent since when fighters are on the ground, a big size difference is somewhat neutralised, compared to if the fighters are standing.

Marketing parallel – With a good positioning marketing strategy (choosing to fight on the ground) and well-executed tactic (dropping to the mat safely), a flanking strategy can be successfully implemented on a bigger competitor.

Once on the ground, Royce was fighting from the bottom. If you watch the video, he was moving with Akebono who was on top. Due to his guard (a defensive position when a fighter is on his back), Royce ensured Akebono was held close to him so could not raise his arms/ hands to strike him. He moved laterally with Akebono so that Akebono could not get a stable fixed position to do any damage. Eventually, Royce slipped out and both fighters returned to their feet.

Marketing parallel – The more agile guerilla marketer who can react quickly to a larger slower competitors marketing tactics can survive an offensive onslaught.

At the 1.19 second mark, Royce is back on his back and is preventing an advance by Akebono by using his feet pressed against Akebono’s thighs so he cannot move up. While on his back, Roye was actually more in control  than Akebono, at this point, and was actually getting offensive strikes to the head from the bottom. At the 1.37 secod mark, you can see Royce’s feet holding back an Akebono’s attempt to advance.

Marketing parallel – A good defensive tactic from a guerilla marketer can hold off an offensive by a much bigger competitor.

Eventually, Royce used his skill and experience to work his legs up to wrap around Akebono’s shoulders. In fact, he locks his own left leg around his own right leg that was wrapped around Akebono’s shoulder. With the combined torque from Royce’s legs, hands and eventually full body weight all focused on Akebono’s shoulder, Akebono had no choice but to tap out unless he wanted his arm ripped off.

No matter how big the opponent is, when all the weight and strength of a fighter is focused on a single body part, there is almost no way of getting out.

Marketing parallel – A smaller guerrilla marketer can defeat a bigger competitor if he focuses all his efforts on a well-planned & executed marketing tactic.

It is natural to assume that fighting from the bottom, whether in a physical fight or marketing battle, may seem like a losing position. But a guerrilla marketer or Brazilian Ju-jit-su exponent knows otherwise.

In the real world, you will most likely be fighting from the bottom, especially in marketing if you are not one of the big boys. The current business environment that has increased the proportion of the long tail of the marketplace also means that you stand an excellent chance of winning a fight from the bottom. More so than ever before.

This is especially true in a niche market or geographically defined marketplace when your bigger competitor’s only advantage is its size, a lot of the times due to a legacy business or a bigger business entering a new market.

A good position, along with well-planned and executed marketing tactics coupled with hard work can enable a guerrilla marketer to keep a hold on the marketplace and stay on top.

If you are a run a business who is not the market leader in your niche market or industry, you cannot compete head to head with the market leader. The market leader will have a strong brand, possibly a bigger budget and the bias of the market on his/ her side. However, as shown above, it does not mean you have to lose all battles to a market leader. You can position yourself to be a better alternative to the market leader by leveraging on your strengths.

J C Sum

J C Sum is a certified management consultant (TR 43:2015), an American Marketing Association Professional Certified Marketer (PCM®) in marketing management as well as a certified digital marketing strategist (SSG-WSQ accredited) with 12 years of experience specializing in search engine optimization, content marketing, and analytics. J C holds a Bachelor of Arts from National University of Singapore and is the author of "Evolve, Adapt or Collapse". He has been featured on The Straits Times, Business Times, Channel News Asia, The Edge Singapore, CNA938, and Money FM 89.3.