How to Become a “Grand Master” of Marketing

How to Become a “Grand Master” of Marketing

Big Ideas

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December 6 2017
Big Ideas

Chess might seem simple on the surface, but there is a lot of complexity as you begin to explore the game. It seems the deeper you go, the more complex it becomes.

There are more possible configurations on a chess board than there are stars and planets in the visible universe. As a mid-range chess player and a professional marketing consultant, I have noticed a few things that hold true in both chess and marketing.

Why the analogy? It’s an old “innovation engineering” trick… when we think about things from different perspectives (i.e. think about marketing from the perspective of a chess player), we expose ourselves to different stimuli which are a key ingredient in giving rise to meaningfully unique ideas.

Enough explaining. So what lessons can a marketer learn from a chess grand master?

Chess and Marketing Strategies

Studying openings is critical, but it’s not enough to win

In chess, an “opening” is a series of moves played at the start of a game (e.g. the queen’s gambit). It is critical to learn popular openings, variations and counters – simply to save you time. If, every time someone moved “Pawn to king 4” (E4), you had to attempt to calculate all conceivable possible games that could be played in order to be confident in a counter-move, you’d need to be playing a non-timed game with a very patient opponent.

To a marketer, researching industry trends, pulling search volume reports, studying past analytics, and gaining experience is very important. These things let you survey the “board” and play a good opening, but you can’t win by memorizing all the openings. Once you get more than a few moves in, you need to use a different set of principles in order to plan your next move.

And this takes us to the next similarity – strategy.​

Strategy comes before tactics

In chess, good strategy typically involves a few key concepts:

  • Controlling the center
  • Moving your pieces into stronger positions where they can accomplish more in your attack and defense
  • Breaking your opponent out of their strongest lines

This might sound overly-simplified, but before you can start formulating tactics, these are fundamental considerations you need to have.

We might overlook this fundamental strategic level in marketing and business, but we still need to start from strategy. Your marketing strategy should be focused on your business objectives - typically:

  • Finding new customer
  • Doing more business with existing customers
  • Being more profitable in our existing work

These may lead to an array of strategies:

  • Finding new customers through a lead-generation digital campaign
  • Leverage user-generated content to create engagement and interest (GoPro)
  • Produce exclusive content and services only available to our customers (Netflix)

You need to keep these fundamental strategies in mind while developing, executing and re-developing tactics. Does this sound familiar, “We need ideas for a contest to increase our likes on Facebook!”. While this may be fine, is it a blind tactic, or is it truly in line with your strategy?

In chess, every turn you waste moving your pawns around gives your opponent valuable initiative. In marketing, every tactic you undertake that isn’t central to your overarching strategy wastes your resources (time and budget). In either case, you will not be successful in the long run.

Use multi-pronged attacks

Anyone with the basic knowledge of the rules of chess can understand that sending a lone knight off to hunt the opponent’s queen will quickly be neutralized and eliminated. You need a well-thought-out plan combined with a coordinated assault engaging multiple pieces for back-up.

Executing an isolated marketing tactic is as doomed to fail as the lone knight queen assassin. A single impression will not win you a new customer. You need to develop a campaign to target your customer in the right channels at the right time in the right place... and make sure that you are hitting them multiple times with the right messaging in the right moments.

Pay attention to what’s going on around you

Chess isn’t solitaire. You can’t simply focus on what you’re doing and ignore your opponent. You need to pay attention to their developing strategies and tactics, and work to counter them while continuing to further your own tactics.

As a marketer, you need to keep a close eye on the marketing landscape as well. If you forge blindly ahead, following your original strategy and plan, you’ll most certainly be missing out. Watch your analytics, learn which campaigns are driving the most conversions, but also watch what your competitors are doing. Keep your eyes and mind open and let your campaigns change and evolve as you continue learning. Let data and sensibility guide your future actions – always be willing to have your mind changed.

Use each piece for a purpose

You start a game of chess with pawns, knights, bishops, rooks, a queen and a king. Each piece has its own strengths and weaknesses. Your knights are best deployed near the center of the board where they can attack (and defend) the most pieces possible; your queen should usually be kept out of the fray until mid-late game where things have opened up a bit and there is less risk. Your rooks are hard to get into play, but are among the deadliest pieces in that they can lock down open files.

Similarly, in marketing, you need to use each channel to its potential. A video pre-roll on YouTube should have a hook and your logo in the first 5 seconds… whereas a video campaign on Facebook needs to be attention-grabbing without audio. You want your company’s voice to be consistent, but in each channel, you will find unique ways to attract and engage your target audience. Be cognizant of these differences. 


Keep these lessons in mind, and remember… becoming a grand master takes a lot of time, experience, and intelligence. Check and mate!



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