Are There Generic Principles of Strategy?  

Copyright 2002 by William A. Cohen based on an earlier presentation published in Annual Proceedings of the American Marketing Association, August 5, 1990

All rights reserved, but may be reprinted of quoted with attribution.



Over several thousand years, military strategists have analyzed warfare and derived and published certain fundamental truths or principles which, when properly applied, lead to success. This paper contrasts these principles with what has been called "marketing warfare" and various approaches to strategy development. Through empirical research generic principles of strategy applicable to other competitive situations are confirmed.



The word “strategy” goes from the Greek word, “Strategos” which means “the art of the general.” In both military and non-military definition it has come to mean today how one achieves an objective. In marketing terms, it has been described as answering three simple, but difficult-to-answer, questions (Markides 2000):

n     Which customers should be targeted and which not?

n     What should these customers be offered and what not?

n     How should this be done most efficiently?

          However, the definition of marketing strategy can be further expanded in two directions. Marketing strategy can be considered at a higher level approaching corporate policy and closely connected to business strategy. This would incorporate not only concepts such as positioning, penetration strategy, market share expansion expansion, etc. but at the lower end what has been referred to as marketing tactics. That is, the familiar product, price, promotion and distribution. In this concept, marketing strategy has been described as being encompassed by a strategic pyramid. At the top of the pyramid is strategic marketing management having to do with achievement of the overall company objective. To accomplish strategic marketing management at the top of the pyramid requires a marketing strategy at the middle such as market segmentation, and an entry strategy. To accomplish the marketing strategy decided on requires using marketing tactics located at the base of the pyramid. That is manipulating, the controllable variables of product, price, promotion, and distribution. (Cohen 2001).

          For more than two thousand years, strategists have sought and/or proclaimed that certain fundamental truths exist as a guide for action in one of mankind's most frequently engaged in, yet least desired activities: warfare. Primarily because of commonality in the fact of competition, several researchers and practitioners have suggested that military strategy might be applied to marketing in highly competitive situations (Hansen 1959; Kotler and Singh 1981; Hendon 1986; Ries and Trout 1986).

          However, in the main, the "strategies" that have been suggested for adoption consist of military maneuvers such as "frontal attack," "flank attack," or "envelopment" or a category of war such as "offensive," "defensive," or "guerilla warfare." While this paradigm does provide some insights to potential marketing actions, it does little to take advantage of the fundamental truths or principles of strategy claimed by many military strategists resulting from an analysis and study of war.

          Other approaches include generic strategies (Porter 1980), strategy types (Galbraith and Schendel 1983), and strategy archetypes (Wissema, Van Der Pol, and Messer, 1980). Note however, that these are offered as strategies or strategic approaches. They are distinct from principles by which strategies may be successfully operationalized.

          The principles of strategy have been proposed for use in developing marketing strategies previously (Cohen 1983, 1986, 1988; Peacock 1984). This application has been based on the assumption that marketing and war are close analogues, an assumption also made in justifying the military maneuver paradigm. In brief, the argument is that both are competitive situations involving risk, uncertainty, limited resources, and a limited but significant payoff to the winner. The counter arguments argue that war is too different from business to apply principles derived from warfare to business. The first and more obvious is that competition in warfare is far more extreme in that it requires the taking of human life, while marketing does not.

The second argument against adopting principles derived from war has to do with the fact that war is not a continuous activity. A war is fought, and then it is over. It may start up again later, but for a time, it is done and the forces that were engaged draw down. A successful business, goes on and on nonstop. In the U.S., there are businesses that are more than a hundred years old. In Europe and Asia, there are businesses that are centuries old.

          However, several social scientists and noted military strategists maintain that all types of competition (not just war or business) are sufficiently close as to be treated and analyzed in a similar fashion  (Bernard Brodie 1959, Liddell Hart 1962, Rubin 1980, Kohn 1986). Essentially these scientists argue that fundamental truths claimed for a single social phenomenon of competition in which there are winners and losers may be true for all. This claim provides guidance for a new direction from which to explore the relationship between military and marketing strategy. If military strategy is applicable to all other human endeavors in which competition is a significant component, it is also applicable to marketing.

          The purpose of this study was to determine whether principles of strategy developed over the millennium from an analysis of war in any way correspond to principles of strategy leading to favorable or unfavorable outcomes in other competitive life situations. If this were true, than by inference they would also apply to specific classes of activities such as marketing.



The principles of strategy developed from warfare lead to success in other competitive life situations.



The research was conducted in two phases. In the first phase, writings by military strategists were analyzed for recommended principles of war. General principles of strategy were developed from this analysis.

          In the second phase a questionnaire was prepared based on the output from phase I. The questionnaire required respondents to select a competitive life situation in which they had been personally involved. Using a semantic differential with descriptions ranging from "not very important" to "very important," respondents were asked to comment as to the extent a particular strategy principle was important to the outcome of the situation. Respondents were asked to designate the outcome of the competitive situation as to either "favorable" or "unfavorable."


In Phase I, more than eighty writings were analyzed ranging from the Chinese General Sun Tzu (500 B.C.) to more modern military strategists such as Basil Liddell Hart, Jomini, and Clausewitz. This analysis was assisted by two volumes (Alger: 1982; Collins: 1973) which in part dealt with the various principles of war that have been proposed at one time or another. For example, Table 1 from Collins: 1973 shows a comparison of various principles as recommended by various sources.












Sun Tzu










































Economy of Force
















Unity of Command


































Freedom of Action





























Quality of Divisions














Ability of Commanders







Stability of the Rear







* U.S. Army only ; ** Listed as an “element,” rather than a principle

From John M. Collins, Principles of Strategy (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press,1973) p. 23

   TABLE 1

From these writings, several hundred recommended principles were extracted. Fourteen principles were selected as being non-repetitive and of potential universal applicability to strategy. These were:

                    1. Objective - Every strategy must have specific objectives decisive to the operation. These objectives must be clearly understood.

                    2. Initiative - Initiative implies action rather than reaction. It means dominating the situation rather than allowing a competitor to do so.

                    3. Concentration - Most military strategists consider this the fundamental principle of strategy. Resources must be concentrated so that there is superior strength relative to a competitor at the decisive point. In marketing strategy, it is concentration of resources at the decisive point that produces a competitive advantage.

                    4. Economy of Resources - Because maximum strength cannot be attained at the decisive point by trying to be strong everywhere, resources must not be wasted by allocating them where they will have less than a decisive impact.

                    5. Positioning - Resources must be positioned and moved in a coordinated fashion that support the overall strategy to attain the objective.

                    6. Unity of Decision Making - To ensure maximum coordinated effort in accomplishing every assigned task, there should be only one individual responsible.

                    7. Coordination - To achieve maximum effectiveness, different tasks must be integrated in carrying out the overall strategy to achieve maximum effectiveness.

                    8. Security - Secrecy of intended actions must be maintained until it is too late for a competitor's actions to be effective.

                    9. Surprise - Actions taken should employ unexpected elements such as deception, innovation, audacity, speed, etc.

                    10. Simplicity - Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Therefore, plans should contain as few elements and be integrated in as uncomplicated a fashion as possible.

                    11. Flexibility - Implementation is not the same as planning. Clausewitz called this difference "battle friction."  An effective strategy can be changed quickly to meet changing environmental variables and may even contain alternate objectives.

                    12. Organization - All actions should be organized for maximum efficiency.

                    13. Morale - Maintenance of a positive attitude and persistance despite setbacks.

                    14. Exploitation - The momentum of action is maintained until success is complete.

          In Phase II, 293 questionnaires were distributed. 200 questionnaires were distributed to marketing students (seniors and graduate students) and 93 to business practitioners. There were no significant differences in the results between the two groups of students versus practitioners. 11 of these questionnaires were unusable because the respondents failed to indicate a favorable or unfavorable outcome at the completion of the questionnaire. This left 282 usable questionnaires.

          The respondents were asked to pick a competitive situation of their choice in which they were personally involved. Typical situations were suggested: sports, office politics, school, business, and romance, but respondents were permitted to chose any situation that they wished.

          The actual selection of respondents and their outcomes categorized as favorable or unfavorable is shown in Table 2. Typical results in the "Other" category were actual battlefield military situations and games, but 92 in this category were not stated and were thus unknown.  





































   TABLE 2



          For each principle, the respondents were asked to describe the importance of that principle to the final outcome of the competitive situation selected. Each question included a short definition of that principle. For example, question number one was:

          "Objective - You had a clear overall goal."

          Numerical values were assigned by the respondent on a semantic differential which ranged from "not very important" to "very important."

          Respondents were asked to describe the outcome of the situation as "favorable" or "unfavorable" according to the respondent's viewpoint, after other questions were answered.

          In the analysis of the data, chi-square values were calculated for differences between favorable and unfavorable outcomes for all questions, for the 282 responses. The results are shown in Exhibit III.

          The calculated values of chi-squared varied from a low of -.0400 for Question 9 to a high of 6.972 for Question 5. At a level of 0.1, five of the fourteen principles of strategy exhibited statistical significant differences in perceived importance in achieving a favorable or unfavorable outcome. There tended to be differences in an additional eight of the principles. One principle exhibited a non-statistically significant inverse relationship between perceived importance and outcome.

          Based on the numerical values, principles of strategy from most to least important for success (favorable outcome) are ranked in Exhibit III.




Calculated Value

1. Positioning


2. Flexibility


3. Economy of Resources


4. Exploitation


5. Organization


6. Unity of Decision Making  


7. Coordination


8. Morale


9. Initiative


10. Security


11. Objective     


12. Simplicity     


13. Concentration        


14. Surprise       

-  0.0400

                                                  TABLE 3

          These results, while not conclusive, tend to support the hypothesis that the principles of strategy developed for warfare lead to success in other competitive life situations.

           However, two questions were raised from these results. First, of all the principles analyzed, why did the Principle of Surprise demonstrate an inverse relationship between perceived importance and favorable outcome?  In seeking an answer to this question, the question pertaining to the Principle of Surprise in the research tool was reviewed. It read as follows:

          "Surprise (Actions taken employed unexpected elements such as deception, innovation, audacity, speed, etc.)."

          Unfortunately the question does not specify whether the principle was used by the respondent or the competitor. This could account for the results produced.

          The order of importance achieved for the proposed principles based on calculated chi-squared values was itself surprising. If there is one unanimous principle of strategy among military strategies, it is that of the Principle of Concentration. As noted earlier, it is considered fundamental to all other principles, and some reflection indicates that it is required to attain a competitive differential advantage. In fact, concentration "at the decisive point" is fundamental to product differentiation, market segmentation, niche strategies, etc. Why than did the chi-squared differences rank it only thirteenth in importance?  Here again, the wording of the question is the probable culprit. It reads:

          "Concentration (Concentration of resources at decisive points to attain

the objective)."

          Note that "decisive points" is not defined. This may have also caused ambiguity in perception of what the question meant. There were potential ambiguities in other questions as well.


The major limitation to this research was, as already noted, the ambiguous wording of some of the questions. But there are others. The population surveyed was limited geographically, as well as by occupation (student or business practitioner). It is possible that respondents from other geographic and demographic groups would produce different results. These differing results would most likely manifest themselves in ranked order of importance of the principles, rather than in perceived importance. Also, differing principles of strategy may be of greater importance in different situations. This was not examined in this research due to the relatively small number of unfavorable outcomes when segmented by category of competition. But it also means that there may be principles of strategy which are of greater importance and which are operable only in non-warfare situations and therefore could not and were not derived from the analysis in phase I of the research.


The Principles of War have been developed by military strategists and thinkers as truisms which, when applied correctly, lead to success in war. If these principles are applicable to all competitive situations, they will provide a useful guide to the development and practice strategy in the competitive environment in which marketing is practiced. As Napoleon Bonaparte (Department of Art and Engineering, United States Military Academy 1954) wrote:

          " All of the great captains have done great things only by conforming to the rules and natural principles of the art of war . . . It is for this reason that they are our great models; and it is only by imitating them that we may hope to approach them."



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