How Colombian Guerrillas Teach Advertisers to Stop Fighting
By Eric Layer
Marketing is often characterized as a war. It’s not hard to see why when so many campaigns are long, expensive conflicts between two sides. The Cola Wars of the 80s. Battles over features between cellular providers. Microsoft’s painful rebuttals to “I’m a Mac.” The status quo in advertising is to shoot and shoot back.
Truly brilliant marketing, though, wins without firing a shot. The best, most confident brands don’t need to tell you why they’re better than the other guy, because they’re focused on winning the hearts of their target. The surprising part is that doesn’t mean winning every battle. It doesn’t even mean fighting every battle.
In a now-famous example, the Colombian government had a literal battle on its hands, struggling to demobilize bands of guerrillas roaming the country’s jungles. But after countless other strategies had failed, the Colombians decided to try a different approach, and hired Jose Sokoloff of ad agency Lowe SSP3 to appeal to the guerrillas using advertising. Sokoloff adopted an emotional approach, lighting up jungles with Christmas lights, recording and distributing messages from loved ones, and plastering war-torn areas with family photos and calls to demobilize. It worked: thousands of guerrillas have since laid down their weapons, and the campaign even won a Cannes Lion.
Guerrilla revolutionaries have been fighting in Colombia for so long that it’s a cliché. Tragically, ongoing conflicts over five decades have cost more than 200,000 lives. In other words, every strategy to stop the conflict that has been tried before has failed. And while the costs of failure are rarely so high, many stalled brands can feel similarly overwhelmed when no campaign, product, or effort pulls them out of the rut. The costs keep piling up, internal and external audiences become disillusioned, and desperation sets in. That’s when it’s most tempting to lash out at competition or resort to a logical argument for why you’re better.
Sokoloff and his team succeeded because they resisted that temptation. They stopped fighting. Even after the decision was made to try advertising, Sokoloff had to exercise discipline to win hearts instead of trying to win an argument. It would have been tempting to advertise on features—to use statistics and testimonials about guerrillas’ likelihood of getting killed, or the odds against the success of their cause, or why the opposing side is right. But these were simply distractions from the real objective.
One tactic Sokoloff employed was to have Colombian soccer fans sign thousands of soccer balls with the message “Demobilize. Let’s play again,” and drop the balls by helicopter into the jungles. Appealing to the guerrillas as humans and soccer fans rather than as enemies of the state provided an emotional impact that was impossible to argue with—an important reminder for advertisers when we’re tempted to speak to the brain before winning the heart.
That temptation to beat a target into submission with logic is one of advertising’s most troublesome obstacles for both agencies and clients. Lists, numbers, and testimonials are all popular approaches, but they’re not enough to make a devotee. Advertising is more romance than courtroom drama. If you make a good argument, the customer will always leave when somebody else makes a better one. But if someone falls in love with you, they’ll stick with you even if they can’t explain why.
When Sokoloff’s advertisers—inserted by Blackhawk helicopter and protected by commandos—decorated jungle trees with Christmas lights, they weren’t attacking the guerrillas. They were romancing them. The accompanying message, “If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home,” stayed focused on the brand’s emotional entreaty, rather than on rebutting the competition. By keeping his message on why home is good, and avoiding a fight about why the guerrillas are wrong, Sokoloff fought the battle on his terms, where he could win.
Sun Tzu said “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Any good brand has lists of reasons why it’s better than its competition, but these lists don’t make for very good love letters to customers. Target doesn’t have to always undercut Walmart’s prices to be successful; it just has to focus on the superior shopping experience its shoppers love it for. Ford Trucks shouldn’t waste time worrying about becoming the cheapest or most efficient brand as long as long as it can defend its turf as the toughest. And Apple will do much better by concentrating on its next innovation than it will by boasting about why it’s smarter than Microsoft.
The bad news is that most brands instinctively jump into the fight every time they can get a shot in. The good news is that this allows ample opportunity for confident, disciplined brands to stand out by rising above the fray.
And that’s how you win the war.
Partner and author, Eric specializes in building things faster and better than mere mortals. Call Eric when you have an impossible mountain to climb. He’ll get you to the top.
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