The key lesson from military history is that there is almost never a “decisive victory.” We often call out some wars or battles as being “wars of attrition,” but the simple fact is that every war is a war of attrition.
Almost every battle comes down to, not who wins or loses, but who stops fighting first. As military historian B. Liddell Hart said, “All experience has shown that victory is a mirage in a desert created by a long war.”
Hart also noted, as emphasized by Ryan Holiday in his book The Obstacle is the Way, that in an analysis of 280 military campaigns throughout history, only 6 — 2% — ended with a decisive victory against the enemy's main forces.
In fact, when we do have examples of “decisive victories,” like the Confederate's defeat at Gettysburg, we find that the particulars of the loss or victory didn't change the outcome of the war, but its affect on morale and public sentiment led to less willingness to continue the fight.
Luckily for us here in the future, the Confederates were looking for decisive victories (and instead suffered devastating defeats) instead of solely striving to say in the fight long enough to have Britain or France or another world power recognize the Confederates States of America as a sovereign nation (instead of a rebellion).
Luckily for us, Jeff Davis and Robert E. Lee believed, at least briefly, that one major win would turn the tide of the war.
And luckily for us, U.S. Grant knew that wars were won, not when victory was declared, but when the other side's will to keep fighting was broken.
But what does any of this have to do with you, me, or marketing? Well, it turns out that loss of public support is what puts an end to wars — and loss of executive support is what puts an end to marketing efforts.
There will never come a time when you feel like you've “won” your marketing competition against your competitors. You've never “won” your audience fully over to your side. It's just that, at some point, your CEO will decide it's no longer worth the struggle. Or that the other side has too much money, or too many people, for your company to ever “win.”
And that's the mistake. Because winning is a process. There is never a decisive victory. Winning is simply not giving up. Winning is adjusting your ends to your means. Winning is always looking for another angle. Winning is deceiving your competition into giving up first.
It's like Hemingway's “Law of Motion” as described in The Sun Also Rises:
“How did you go bankrupt?”
“Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.”
How did you lose your market share to your major competition? Gradually, and then when you decided you couldn't win, suddenly.
How will you create more value for your business? Gradually, as you work every day to eke out more revenue, more customers, and higher margins, and then suddenly when you realize you've cornered the market.
My favorite lesson of Hart's is this: “In the conquest of mind-space it is the inches, consolidated, that count.”
And in the conquest of market share, profit share, or building a brand new business, it is the inches, the slow, steady gains, that lead to a sense of victory. Not a decisive push or a one-time splashy campaign.
Maybe one big campaign will push you over the edge. You just might be in that 2%. Just like you might get rich by gambling — but that doesn't make it a good plan.
Better to do the work every day, and never give up, and one day realize you've crossed the threshold, not into victory, but into a business that thinks and works victoriously every day.