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The Marketing Playbook: Five Battle-Tested Plays for Capturing and Keeping the Leadin Any Market

The Marketing Playbook: Five Battle-Tested Plays for Capturing and Keeping the Leadin Any Market

by John Zagula

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Every company needs to figure out the best way to beat the competition. What do you do if the other guy is already dominating the market? Should you challenge them head on or lie low for a while? Should you offer customers high-end features or a low-end price? Or both?

During their years at Microsoft, John Zagula and Richard Tong answered such questions so


Every company needs to figure out the best way to beat the competition. What do you do if the other guy is already dominating the market? Should you challenge them head on or lie low for a while? Should you offer customers high-end features or a low-end price? Or both?

During their years at Microsoft, John Zagula and Richard Tong answered such questions so effectively that they helped Microsoft Office and Windows grow from a 10 percent to 90 percent market share. As venture capitalists, Zagula and Tong have continued to test and perfect their system with hundreds of companies of all sizes and at all stages.

Now they’re sharing their best ideas and methods in an easy-to-apply book that will be enormously helpful to marketers in every industry and leaders in every size company.

The Marketing Playbook explains the five basic strategies for a competitive market—The Drag Race Play, The Best of Both Play, The High-Low Play, The Platform Play, and The Stealth Play. It illustrates how each one works, how to pick the best one for a given situation, and then how to implement it effectively in the real world.

Just like a great sports coach with a well-designed playbook, managers who read this book will have the tools, tips, and tricks they need to leapfrog market research, craft a smart strategy, motivate their team, and start scoring major points with customers and against the opposition.

Editorial Reviews

Soundview Executive Book Summaries
Five Battle-Tested Plays For Capturing and Keeping the Lead
Venture capitalists John Zagula and Richard Tong spent years as marketing executives at Microsoft, where they learned how to launch successful brands and market popular product lines. During their activities at Microsoft and beyond, they determined that there are only five distinct strategies for marketing any product or service. In The Marketing Playbook, the authors describe these five plays in detail, and illustrate them with numerous examples from the front lines of effective marketing campaigns.

The authors explain that The Marketing Playbook can serve as a guide that can help any business develop its own playbook that will direct its specific marketing decisions and actions. By choosing one of the five plays they offer, a business can begin to focus on an appropriate strategy and follow a set of straightforward guidelines that can lead it to market leadership and success.

To make the most of its unique playbook, the authors write that a company must first select a play that fits its situation and goals, then create a carefully thought-out map of its playing field that will help it confidently apply the chosen play, and then run the play in action. They explain that this playbook will arm any organization with a set of simple guidelines that will help it successfully run the play and respond to the market's response.

The Five Plays
The authors write that the five plays are simply strategies for winning the race in a competitive field. These five plays are:

  • The Drag Race: Pick a single competitor to which you compare yourself, then put everything you can into beating it across the finish line. The authors explain that those who choose this strategy must have what it takes to get there first.
  • The Platform Play: Ignore the competition, and focus on becoming a platform from which the entire industry can win as well. Make it easy and profitable for others to partner with you and painful for them to let you lose. At the top of a category, you must be on the lookout while gathering allies and defenses.
  • The Stealth Play: Focus on a specific niche where you can build your strength unnoticed. Try to peacefully coexist with the market leaders until you have what it takes to openly challenge them. You must remember to stay out of the way of big, dumb slow competitors because they "can still squish you."
  • The Best-of-Both Play: Aim to dominate the whole category by collapsing both high- and low-end offerings into a new offer that lets customers have their cake and eat it too. "If you appeal to the most important needs of each part of the market," the authors write, "you can win them all."
  • The High-Low Play: Instead of offering a combination that collapses the extremes of a category, you emphasize the importance of choice. With this play, you try to close out the competition by splitting the category and owning both halves. You offer both extremes, no compromises, and a migration path between them. Although this is the hardest play to manage, it can lead to high volumes and high margins if it is done correctly.

Moving From Play to Play
After describing how companies such as winemaker Robert Mondavi, Microsoft, American Express, DaimlerChrysler and others have used these strategies to succeed in their own industries, the authors explain how companies can learn more about their situations, understand key factors and address the market dynamics that are essential to their line of attack. They write that "doing your homework" helps in three ways:

  1. It helps you discover, define or refine the vision that inspires you and the mission that motivates you.
  2. It helps you reach conclusions that define the boundaries and constraints for choosing your strategy.
  3. It can help define your investment priorities.

To maximize the outcome of doing your homework, they point out that you must: first, look at the developments that came before you and define the industry as it stands today, as well as the state of the other industries that support it; look for the openings in the dynamics of that industry; isolate the key economic and other levers in the industry that are required to exploit that opening; and finally, focus all your energies, priorities and decisions on moving those levers.

Why We Like This Book
The Marketing Playbook offers a workable metaphor for making marketing work. Seen as a team sport that requires running plays to create a winning marketing campaign, the authors offer organizations succinct strategies for building teams, choosing tactics, calculating time horizons and planning the next move while outmaneuvering the competition. The authors' conversational tone and relevant experience make it a useful resource. Copyright © 2005 Soundview Executive Book Summaries

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt


What do a rural telecom service provider, a fifty-person call center, a high-end computer manufacturer, a three-PhDs-in-a-garage start-up, the worldÆs largest software company, and you all have in common?

Probably lots of things. But certainly one of the most surprising is that, for any given product and at any given time, each of them follows one of only five marketing strategiesùor plays, as we like to call themùto win in their marketplace. Just five. Seriously.

Consciously or unwittingly, rightly or wrongly selected, well or poorly executed, these plays have been and are being used by companies as diverse as those above, each placing its bet on one of only five strategy alternatives to gain or defend its position in its market. And that includes you, whether you know it or not.

The Marketing Playbook has been over seventeen tough years in the making. Even before we knew we were following an actual system that could be articulated, we were continuously testing, retesting, and refining this bookÆs methods, tools, and guidelines in the rigors of the real marketplace.

The core concepts at the heart of this book were first forged in the furnace of MicrosoftÆs highly competitive market situations in the late 1980s and 1990s, when the two co-authors of this book were in the thick of the companyÆs crucial marketing efforts. Whether youÆre facing large, entrenched competition, numerous smaller players, or an as yet undefined market landscape, finding the right path to market leadership is a hard thing to do. But across all these situations, through repeated trial and error, we found a common thread, a basic logic that lay behind all the moves that ultimately succeeded.

It wasnÆt until we were asked to share our methods and techniques to help train other marketing and business folks that it actually dawned on us we were following a discrete, focused system.

When we sat down to plan out the lessons we wanted to share with other Microsoft businesspeople and reviewed all the strategies that we had in fact deployed across our various product launches, competitive battles, and customer targets, we were surprised to find that, no matter how hard we tried to come up with more, we discovered that in each case, one of only five basic approaches had provided the path to victory. And this was not because our imaginations were limited; it was because these five really covered all the situations we faced. These are the five plays, the heart of the Playbook system.

The people with whom we shared these plays were struck by their clarity and simplicity, and how well they fit every type of situation. Many were seasoned marketing and business professionals, but time and time again, they consistently found the plays one of the easiest ways to understand and effectively guide their own plans.

The five plays really seemed universally applicable. But maybe we were just biased by our experience; maybe these strategies would not apply beyond the scope of our current jobs. After all, very few companies have the market position or financial wherewithal of a Microsoft. And indeed, after we left Microsoft and started a venture capital firm, we found ourselves confronting a whole new set of challenges.

The companies we worked with boasted fewer resources, had less-tested products than their rivals, and often faced competitors much larger than themselves. Further, they were under the gun, knowing that one significant misstep and they could easily go under. So there wasnÆt a lot of room for error. These companies needed to find a simple, reliable way to map out an effective marketing strategy that fit their unique goals and means. And it turned out that no matter what the company, product, or challenge they faced, one of the five plays worked for them, too.

All five are great plays. That said, it became clear that no matter what the play, if youÆre running it on the wrong playing field or with the wrong resources, it just wonÆt work. Our experiences with small companies in different industries underscored how important it is to do your homework on these conditions before you bet your resources, reputation, and future on any given strategy. How well you do this homework can mean the difference between roaring success or auguring into the earth, fast.

And so, in addition to the five plays, we developed, tested, and applied a simple method for understanding your market and the conditions you face. This shorthand for plotting conditions as a map of your playing field has become a standard, both for how we as venture capitalists assess our investments and also for how our companies chart their course and choose their own play.

Finally, across all these companies and throughout our own careers, we have learned over and over that no matter how well you plan, execution is what ultimately determines the winner. Whatever your objective or strategy, you need a great, hard-hitting marketing and sales campaign to actually bring you across the goal line. And this is one of the hardest things in the world to pull off.

Through our work on multiple product launches of Microsoft Office, Windows, and related products, and in our work with portfolio and partner companies, we have accumulated a very tight set of skills, rules of thumb, and basic principles for pulling off great campaigns and ultimately capturing the lead position even in the most intense contests. These methods have also proven consistently easy to adopt and effective to apply no matter what the company, industry, or situation.

Another thing that this wide ranging set of companies and businesspeople we have worked with (and you) have in common is that they donÆt have a lot of time to spend reading marketing or business strategy books. TheyÆre too busy working their butts off trying to grab or hold on to the leadership slot in their market.

Why We Wrote This Book

ItÆs because of the same group of businesspeople that we decided to write this book. These colleagues have repeatedly let us know that what they want is a more helpful, straightforward marketing guide than the hype, buzzwords, or academic theory they typically see. They told us that they would like to read a book that not only shows them how to gain and hold on to their rightful leadership position but also helps them repeat the process over and over, a book they could believe, a book whose methods and suggestions have been tested and proven in the heat of battle, a book written by people who knew from experience how to attain and retain the lead in a market but who also knew how to make the process easy to follow and implement.

And they told us that the method we had developed, tested, and shared with them really worked. They were convinced that others would benefit as well from reading and learning how to use this system.

In addition to our own accumulated experience, our interactions with these businesses and businesspeople have taught us huge, consistent, and enduring lessons. It is these lessons that we share with you here.

The will to win is important, but the will to prepare is vital.

1. Getting Started

What exactly is a ôMarketing Playbookö and how do you use one?

Everyone thinks marketing is the fun and glamorous part of business, where you get to play around with creative stuff, brainstorm clever headlines, go to photo shoots, do press interviews, see yourself in print, and finally get a chance to toot your own horn. Marketing as imagination, art, and magic.

Sure, there is some of that. But marketing is deadly serious. Whether youÆre a stodgy financial services firm or a whimsical childrenÆs brand, winning companies with effective marketing derive even their most creative, off-the-wall efforts not simply from creative thinking but from sound strategy. Why?

Because winning mattersùand it usually takes a strategy to win.

OKùso how do you go about deriving a winning strategy in a way that makes sense?

You can hire a consulting firm, spend man-months educating them about your business, and hope that, besides regurgitating a lot of what you told them, they might also give you some valuable input that justifies the expense.

You can have a bunch of off-sites with lots of brainstorming, soft drinks, junk food, and scribbling on whiteboards. But even with a strong agenda and a good moderator, too often nothing focused or actionable or tangible results.

Or you can take control of the process. In a very short timeframe, you can build a ôPlaybookö to guide your marketing decisions and actionsùmostly using information you already know. Based on this homework, you can then choose which of five plays is appropriate to your situation, and then apply a set of straightforward guidelines for driving successful action that is practical and proven.

Fine. Sounds good. But, what exactly is this Playbook?

First of all, it is your Playbook. The Playbook isnÆt this book. This book is just here to help you write and use your own Playbookùthe version best suited for your needs. By this we donÆt mean that your Playbook helps you craft a nicely worded strategy or do a better job managing those consultants or running those off-sites (though it does those things, too). We do mean that your Playbook is the essential guide you will create and keep at your side to help you win, to help you define, establish, and defend your desired position in your marketù whatever that may be.

Your Playbook should be the tool you refer back to, to guide your actions and decisions and to motivate those of your team.

What does this Playbook consist of? ItÆs simple. Just three things:

First, your Playbook will identify one of five possible plays that you select as best fitting your situation and goals. (Sure, at this point itÆs hard to imagine that just five plays could cover all business situations. But as youÆll discover for yourself in Part I of this book, five are all you need to have a full range of choices.)

Second, your Playbook will include a carefully thought-out map of your playing field that will allow you to execute your chosen play with confidence. This map will show where you want to get, what youÆre up against, and what you actually have. You will create this map by reviewing your situation, goals, and challenges in a way that validates the play you have chosen and guides you to the right play for each step in your progress. ThatÆs Part II of the book.

Finally, your Playbook will prepare you for the true test of strategyùthe reality of running the play in action. It will arm you and your team with a set of simple guidelines to help you successfully run the play you have chosen and to best respond to the live action of the real market. ThatÆs Part III.

For each of these three sections of your Playbook, weÆll arm you with a corresponding set of basic concepts or rules that you can turn to for making sure that youÆre actually moving ahead in the most effective way.

The best part: it actually works, and in hours, not weeks.

HereÆs a quick advance look at what youÆll be doing.

Step 1. Your Strategy OptionsùThe Five Marketing Plays

Before you place your bets, before you jump into action, you need to understand your options. You need to choose a strategy with the best chances of success. This basic marketing and competitive strategy is what we mean when we talk about your ôplay.ö

One of our favorite examples of an effective play comes from the time when we were still at Microsoft.

The year was 1999, and one of the product groups was gearing up for the launch of Microsoft SQL Server, a terrific new database server product that was a key part of one of MicrosoftÆs most important growth businesses. At the time there was one dominant player in this high-end enterprise database server market: Oracle.

The Microsoft SQL team was all pumped up. They had delivered a great product, the first real contender for the space in a long time. They had also done their homework: they knew everything there was to know about the Oracle product, they had talked to lots of potential customers, and they knew their own product upside down and sideways.

When we first sat down together to map out the launch campaign, their plan was to attack Oracle head on.

And why not? Everybody at Microsoftùand a great many other people, as wellùwas sick and tired of Larry EllisonÆs bombast. And we envied OracleÆs loud, hard-hitting, and exorbitant PR and advertising claims. So why not attack? We had a great new product, it cost a lot less than OracleÆs, we knew we were committed to supporting it, and we had the marketing dollars to do it. We were Microsoft, for PeteÆs sake, we should be able to win.

The problem was, we were making some wrong assumptions. The straightforward, head-on play wasnÆt appropriate. Even though our product was better in a lot of ways, Oracle still had us beat on a few key dimensions such as the ability to scale up to very big installations and highly complex jobs. Even though most users would rarely if ever need the capability, Oracle always beat its chest over that one issue. To be candid, our competition had us on this one; it was OracleÆs true position of strength. And it happened to be the area that a lot of large companies were paranoid about.

Oh, sure, they also cared about price, but not that much. Also, our Microsoft heritage and reputation didnÆt really help us that much in this market. While everyone trusted that we built great, easy-to-use consumer software, we were far from being perceived as a truly ôenterprise-classö provider, at least not for mission-critical applications. Oracle, on the other hand, had enjoyed that reputation for years.

So the smart play ended up not being the direct attack (a.k.a. a Drag Race Play, as you will see soon)ùat least not at this stage. Instead, we decided to find the areas where OracleÆs biggest strength didnÆt matter as much. Rather than attack Oracle directly and get compared on the criteria that it had already successfully established, we would have to use something more like a quarterback sneak (which we call a Stealth Play).

The campaign we settled on said in essence, ôGo ahead, use Oracle. ThatÆs fine in those instances that itÆs really neededùbut on jobs like X, Y, and Z, do you really need to spend so much money and lose so much flexibility?ö

Stepping back and choosing the right play made all the difference. With this more humble approach, Microsoft SQL Server was able to gain a true foothold in the market. We reduced the barriers for initial trials and we got people to start using the product and experiencing its benefits. We focused on the targets for whom this made a lot of sense. And although the jury is still out, SQL Server sales have gone from zero to huge and market share from zero to a very significant percentage, in just three years.

Sounds good. But how do you actually pick the right play for your Playbook? Every situation is so different.

DonÆt sweat it too much. It may seem hard to believe, but our experience with hundreds of businesses and their specific challenges has shown over and over that there is always one obvious basic strategy thatÆs right for the situation. Once selected, your play becomes a starting point; itÆs your path, your line of attack. From it, the rest of your in-market action plan comes to life.

And it gets even simpler. Remember that there are only five plays to pick from. Here they are.

The Five Go-to-Market Plays

Drag Race: In some circumstances, your best bet calls for singling out one competitor and putting the pedal to the metal racing against them to win the category. This can be quite exciting, so itÆs a really tempting choice. But you better have what it takes to beat them over the finish line.

Platform: Success can be hell. Once youÆve secured a lead in your category, you have to hold on to it and make the most of it. Standing on your platform at the top of the category, you need to be on the lookout. You must gather allies and defenses. Sounds kind of boring. But itÆs essential. Success begets envy and you never know from where a new challenger is likely to emerge.

Stealth: Just because youÆre not strong enough yet to win the battle doesnÆt mean you canÆt win the war. In this play, you undermine the status quo in your market by whittling away at the incumbentÆs weak points. And maybe even by making them look foolish. But remember, you still have to stay out of their way and survive. Big, dumb, slow competitors can still squish you.

Best-of-Both: Go ahead, have your cake and eat it, too. While in many cases the smart decision is to focus, requiring a trade-off at the high end or the low end of the market, in the right circumstances you donÆt have to. With this play, instead you gain dominance over the whole of a category by collapsing these two ends. If you appeal to the most important needs of each part of the market, you can win them all.

HighûLow: Compromise is for weaklings. With this play, you try to close out the competition by splitting the category and owning both halves. It takes a lot of finesse, but when you need to keep a competitor from establishing a Best-of-Both foothold, you need to appeal to the distinct prejudices of both the elites and the common folk, the high end and the cheap. This is the hardest play to manage, but if itÆs done right, youÆll achieve high volumes and high margins at the same time.

In choosing the right play, there are some important questions you will need to ask yourself. Different plays are best suited to different conditions. Different plays require different strengths. Do you have the right ones to pull off your choice? Some plays are riskier than others. How tough are your nerves? Depending on the play, succeeding can take a long time. Do you have the time, patience, and resources? After all that, how big is the goal youÆre after? Is it achievable? Is it worth it?

Step 2. Mapping the Playing Field No matter what marketing strategy youÆre currently following, you have to execute it in the reality of the marketplace. Your play succeeds or fails on the actual playing field. So itÆs a darn good idea to know everything you can about the terrain.

This is where the second part of your Playbook comes in. Whether youÆre refining your existing play or moving into a new one, youÆre making a betùa bet on finding or recognizing a new gap opening in the marketplace and a bet on your ability to bridge that gap.

You can think of your playing field in the same way. Where should you be placing your bets and investing your time and energy? No one wants to punt from the seventy-yard line against massive headwinds. So before jumping into a market, you had better know what youÆre up against and what youÆre aiming for. ThatÆs why finding and understanding the gaps in your playing field is so important.

Here are the key gaps to look for, map, and measure on your playing field:

The overall marketùits economics, history, and trends;
Your customersùtheir desires, frustrations, and unmet needs;
Your competitionùthe strengths and vulnerabilities of the other contenders out there who are vying for the lead spot with the same customers;
Your capabilitiesùyour strengths and weaknesses; the gaps YOU will have to fill in your own capabilities and resources in order to meet your customer needs and to stake out your position in the market.

Step 3. Turning Your Play into a Killer Campaign

Great marketing campaigns sing. When all of the components hang togetherùfrom your basic sales pitch, to PR and tradeshows, to collaterals, to ads to Web sites, e-mails, and bannersùthey complement and enhance one another. Great marketing campaigns take your play and motivate action in your favor. No matter how well founded and well chosen your strategy, lousy marketing campaigns (or even just pretty good ones) lead to defeat or significant loss of ground.

Whatever the scale, there is no such thing as a marketing campaign that you do by yourself or a play you run yourself. It takes all kinds of people. Sometimes these include ad agencies, Web masters, road warriors, PR mavens, channel partners, and even the people who answer the phones. YouÆre not just writing your Playbook; itÆs your whole extended teamÆs Playbook. The key is for everyone to understand whatÆs needed and what they have to execute.

This is where the final part of your Playbook comes into action. Here weÆll introduce you to a set of simple, powerful techniques, design tools, and guidelines that make it easy to do each of the above, over and over again, no matter what play youÆre running or what kind of audience youÆre targeting.

So those are the elements of this process: doing your homework to best understand your situation and map it to your play; selecting the correct play; and turning the play into action through a focused, dynamic, effective in-market campaign.

Take-Aways for Getting Your Playbook Started

1. Marketing is not just a barrel of fun. If it is to be effective, it has to be based on sound strategy. And strategy is not some theoretical exercise. ItÆs got to be practical. Doing practical, strategic marketing doesnÆt have to kill you. You just need to create and follow a simple Playbook to make it happen.
2. Creating your Playbook starts with selecting the correct playùthe core strategy that guides all of your actions. The good news is that there are only five plays to choose from.
3. To choose the correct play, youÆll need to understand your playing field. This means creating a basic map of the gaps and opportunities of the market, your customers, your competitors, and yourself.
4. The proof of your planning and decisions is in the marketing and sales campaign that takes you to the goal line. To do this you have to rally your squad of players, take the action to the market, and do a better job than the other guy in persuading your targets to choose you.
5. The Playbook is yours. DonÆt write it and put it on the shelf. It gets better the more you use it. Keep it up to date as the conditions you face change and evolve. Taking your hill and holding it takes constant work. And when you win, the hills just keep coming.

Coming Up

Understanding The Marketing Playbook begins with understanding the five plays. ThatÆs what we focus on in Part I of the book.

Meet the Author

John Zagula spent eight years at Microsoft, where he developed the Microsoft Office brand and marketed the desktop and server application product lines.

Richard Tong worked at Microsoft for ten years, serving as VP of marketing and business development for Microsoft Windows, Office, and Back Office. Both are venture capitalists with Ignition Partners.

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