5 Marketing Lessons from Alexander the Great

By Jonathan David Lewis

Alexander the Great is considered one of the foremost military minds in history. In roughly 10 short years he conquered the entire known world and impacted future generations in ways that are still felt today. His exploits were so ahead of their time that his stratagems and tactics are still taught in modern military colleges.

But it wasn’t the size of his armies or advanced weaponry that made his accomplishments possible. Alexander’s true genius came from a deep understanding of what moves men and women to action.

The tenets of war and marketing are more akin than one might think. If you are to be successful in marketing, just as in war, you must not only master the sword, but the heart.

Below are five principles of war from Steven Pressfield’s novel about Alexander the Great’s life, The Virtues of War. If you apply their lessons with the same courage and intensity that led Alexander to the banks of the Euphrates and the jungles of India, you might just earn a taste of marketing glory.

“War is academic only on the mapboard. In the field it is all emotion.” Strategic initiatives, annual planning, and marketing processes are priceless when facing a battle. And worthless when the first blood is drawn.

It’s easy to intellectualize from the comfort of your war room, but do not make the mistake that many generals have before. Battles, like customers, are won through emotion. Nothing else matters if you first don’t set out to make consumers feel something.

Unlike you, your target doesn’t think about your product all day. They don’t make pros and cons lists when standing in front of the store rack. They either love your brand, hate your brand, or don’t care about you. And when customers are won through emotion, consumer ambivalence is a worse fate than Sisyphus’ endless boulder on a hill.

“No advantage in war is greater than speed.” As Alexander said in Pressfield’s novel The Virtues of War, “Great multitudes are not necessary. The optimal size of a fighting corps is that number that can march from one camp to another and arrive in one day.” With an army never more than fifty thousand strong, Alexander the Great destroyed forces ten and twenty times larger.

With mobility comes advantage. In war, as in marketing, whoever determines the field of battle often wins. If an enemy intended to march their army to a great open space, Alexander would march faster and force pitched battle in a mountain pass. If an enemy desired mountainous terrain to gain advantage, Alexander would cut him off in the plains.

Speed enables adaptability. And when perfect plans become chaos in the dust of battle, adaptability beats scale every time.

The phrase “Too big to fail” entered the global conversation not long after the Great Recession brought the economy to its knees and the powers that be bailed out certain companies deemed too large to be allowed to fail. Unfortunately that line of thinking is nonsense. “Too big to fail” means “too big to win.” “Too afraid to innovate.” “Too slow to adapt.”

As Alexander proved when facing the greatest force ever assembled up to that time, fifty thousand men trained to adapt and strike with speed can defeat a Persian army over a million strong.

Do not seek size just for the sake of size. Instead, concentrate on building companies, departments, and marketing programs that are big enough to make an impact, but small enough to adapt with speed.

“…we need win at only one point on the field, so long as that point is decisive.” It is not great power one must have to win, but great focus. There is a nerve in a man’s jaw that if struck at the correct angle with enough force, will immediately knock him out. There are critical joints in every bridge that if altered, would debilitate the entire structure.

Your marketing program doesn’t have to win every battle with every competitor. Your product offering doesn’t have to match every feature in the market.

Just those that count.

Steve Jobs didn’t turn around the flailing Apple brand in the 1990’s by expanding product offerings, but by limiting them.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz didn’t revive the coffee giant in 2008 with brand extensions, but by refocusing the company on the fundamentals that made the iconic brand successful in the first place.

Focus is power. Alexander didn’t seek to destroy armies. Instead, his one aim in nearly every battle was to locate and destroy the king and send his foes into disarray. This is how Alexander broke the back of the Persians and every kingdom from Macedonia to modern Afghanistan.

“Always attack. Even in defense, attack.” It is not the sword that kills in battle, but indecision and apathy. The moment your company gets comfortable, cocky, or distracted is the moment it becomes weak.

To win the battle, one must always stay on the offensive.

Ask yourself, does your marketing make your competition uncomfortable? Is your R&D department working on disruptive innovation? Are you setting the rules of the debate?

If you are not acting, you’re reacting.

“…save our supreme ruthlessness for ourselves.” While it is true that Alexander razed entire cities to place kingdoms under his rule, his harshest judgments were reserved for himself and his troops.

Alexander was always the first to rise in the morning and the last to rest. He was known to abstain from wine, meat and other pleasures as a self-imposed punishment for mistakes. And he led the cavalry charge in every battle his army faced.

Discipline. Perseverance. Courage. These are the virtues that win wars.

It was not the enemy’s sword that Alexander feared, but his own weakness. When facing aggressive competition in fickle markets, remember that you have everything you need to succeed in your own hands. The competition doesn’t force you to put off that decision or avoid that problem. You do.

There will always be boom and bust economies, new competitors, and unforeseeable obstacles. In the end you must focus your sweat and tears on the things you can control.

If Alexander the Great’s short, violent, and glorious life taught us anything, it is that those who act succeed. Those who adapt overcome. Those who win understand minds and hearts.

And the only enemy standing between you and the glory of Babylon is yourself.

The Virtues of War
By Steven Pressfield
Published by Bantam Dell, 2004
Pages 179, 180, 181

Jonathan David Lewis

President and author, Jonathan specializes in the spirit of the matter. Call Jonathan when problems feel ambiguous and morale is low. He’ll know what to do.

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