Sun Tzu’s magnum opus, The Art of War, is one of the oldest and greatest books on military strategy ever written and its principles have been borrowed by many other subjects and activities such as business tactics, leadership, sales and even poker.

Today I want to show you how the principle of “Heavy Ground” applies to marketing, because it’s very powerful.

Sun Tzu’s “Heavy Ground”

One way to win a war is to go deep into enemy territory before attacking. You catch your enemy by surprise and use this shock to gain a decisive victory. Sun Tzu calls this ground deep in the enemy territory “Heavy Ground.”

My favorite metaphor for marketing is that it’s a war for your prospect’s mind. The conflict is obvious: with your marketing efforts, you are trying to persuade him that your product or service is worth his attention and he is trying to tune you out. By thinking of marketing in this way, we can open a whole new world of possibilities and ideas.

More on that in a minute…Let’s go back to Sun Tzu.

He defines eight types of ground on which combat can occur. Of those, two are of great interest to us in our marketing efforts: Deadly Ground and Heavy Ground.

A Deadly Ground battle occurs when two forces meet with no escape route for either. This is a pure fight-or-die battle; one force will win and the other will perish. Whoever has the most firepower will win this battle and he will take heavy casualties.

Sun Tzu says, correctly, that this is the worst way to fight a battle. Allowing a Deadly Ground battle to happen reflects badly on the commander.

Compare this to the Heavy Ground battle in which you strive for surprise, deception and a strong advantage. A Heavy Ground battle allows a weak force to paralyze a stronger force simply by gaining the strategic advantage.

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Heavy Ground vs. Deadly Ground in Marketing Strategy

Imagine a Deadly Ground battle in your marketing–it’s you versus your prospects in a fight to the death where you hope to conquer their resistance. Who do you think has the upper hand in this battle–you or them?

Well, you show them an ad and at that moment the win/lose scenario is set up. Either you win by defeating their natural resistance and convincing them to take some sort of action or respond or they defeat you by ignoring you.

It’s pretty clear that you’re at a significant disadvantage here.

He can ignore you with no negative effects. In fact, he may even save a couple of bucks by ignoring you. The odds against you are great because today’s consumers have a very low tolerance for advertising. They’ve all seen so many ads that nothing is exciting anymore.

This is a Deadly Ground battle and it should be avoided at all costs. You, the marketer, will lose almost every time. You fire your primary weapon–your ad–and it just bounces off your prospect’s defenses.

The stronger combatant will always win the Deadly Ground battle and your prospects are always stronger than you in the battle for their minds.

How to Win the Battle for Your Prospect’s Mind

You don’t fight on Deadly Ground…you fight on Heavy Ground and only then do you have a chance of winning. But how do you fight a marketing war on Heavy Ground? How do you gain the element of surprise?

We learned that fighting a Deadly Ground battle with a prospect’s natural anti-advertising defenses is a battle we can’t win. More often than not, when a consumer sees printed material that looks like an advertising circular, into the trash it goes. We have to get out of that Deadly Ground battle.

Sun Tzu said, “Warfare is the way of deception. Therefore, if able, appear unable. If active, appear inactive. If near, appear far. If far, appear near. Attack where they are not prepared, go out to where they do not expect.”

These teachings apply to marketing–the battle for your prospect’s mind–just as much as traditional warfare.

Success in any type of warfare depends greatly on our ability to recognize “cues” in people’s behavior and then learn how to take advantage of those observations.

In the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong would sneak out at night and rattle the trees around our soldiers’ fox holes. This woke the GIs up and put everyone on alert for the ensuing hours. The Viet Cong would run away laughing about how much sleep our soldiers were losing.

This game would continue several times a night for a few nights in a row, frustrating the GIs more and more. Eventually the sleep deprivation would get to “Joe” and he’d throw in the towel and the next night, ignore the ruckus. “Charlie’s up to his old tricks again,” he’d think. “I’m going to get some sleep.”

Of course, when our soldiers finally surrendered their vigilance, the VCs would sneak in and kill them in their sleep.

The point is, we all become conditioned to react certain ways to particular cues. The North Vietnamese studied the way our soldiers reacted to particular cues and then adapted their strategies accordingly.

The only way to succeed in marketing is to do the same (adapt, not kill!). We have to realistically look at the skeptical, cynical way prospects act and react and create a strategy that will penetrate their defenses.

Good Marketing Strategy Requires “Ethical Deception”

Let’s talk about newsletters real quick. Many are more or less devoid of valuable content and instead just pummel us with advertising. It doesn’t take long for us to realize there there’s no point in reading them.

Most of us probably go through our inboxes every day with our finger poised over the “delete” key to eliminate the garbage. As marketers, it’s essential that we recognize this behavior and plan for it.

First, get rid of any cues that your newsletters are junk mail or content-free newsletters. Don’t fill them with ads. Instead get clever about how you can weave product recommendations into real, valuable information. And make that information so valuable that your recipients actually welcome its arrival. Address it to the person in a personal, interesting way.

In short, look for all the ways you can change it from being perceived as a thinly-veiled  grab for your prospect’s wallet to being perceived as great advice from a trusted expert.

This is what I call “ethical deception.” You’re not deceiving your prospects as to what you can offer–you’re using “deception” to control your prospect’s perception and attention in order to further a legitimate sales process.

The “Foot in the Door Phenomenon”

Getting someone to agree to a small thing is the first, and most essential step of getting them to agree to something larger.

It’s called the “Foot in the Door Phenomenon” and when properly applied it can exponentially increase your effectiveness in marketing, a field where you’re always a toss or a mouse click away from rejection.

Door-to-door salesmen are the masters of this. If you ever have one ring your doorbell, don’t slam the door in his face. Let him go through his song and dance and learn some lessons.

Let’s take the vacuum cleaner salesman, for example. If someone walks up to a strange house and asks the residents if they’d like to buy a vacuum cleaner, they wouldn’t get their foot in the door. They’d get a door in the face.

But the salesmen know that. The effective ones will say, “Excuse me, ma’am. We’re here today helping people out in the neighborhood. Would you mind if we vacuumed your living room carpet? It’s free of charge and there’s no obligation.” (Or sometimes cold calls are made to inform people that they’ve “won” a free carpet cleaning.)

Once the salesman gets his foot in the door, the show begins. The free cleaning is actually a presentation of the vacuum itself. And once he’s in your home, your instinct to be hospitable kicks in and you feel reluctant to ask him to leave empty-handed. You’d be surprised how frequently these door-to-door professionals get sales.

The easiest way to get your foot in the door with your prospects is to offering something valuable for free.

I can’t stress “something valuable” enough. If you couldn’t otherwise sell it, you shouldn’t be giving it away for free. Make sure it provides real value and whets their appetite for more. Get the person’s name and contact information (e-mail address, usually) in exchange for the free item and ensure it’s part of a strategy that smoothly walks the person from “free” to “close.”

The great Internet marketers are masters of this process. They provide valuable free “teasers” and then present “one-time offers,” follow-up offers, cross-sells, upsells, etc. They really push the “free line” and give away great content, which leads to think, “Wow, if the FREE stuff is this good…how good is the PAID stuff?”


Use ethical deception to control your prospect’s perception of your advertising, offer some truly valuable for free and plug your products subtly. Build a real sales process that gets your foot in the door with the free offering and then, hidden amongst great, expert advice, leads to a close.


What did you think of this take on marketing strategy? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!