Marketing Lessons from Ulysses S. Grant

  "The Peacemakers,"  by George P.A. Healy. From left: W. T. Sherman, U. S. Grant, A. Lincoln, D. Porter

"The Peacemakers," by George P.A. Healy. From left: W. T. Sherman, U. S. Grant, A. Lincoln, D. Porter

Marketing is not a war

More than 600,000 people died during the four-year Civil War. That’s the equivalent of more than seven million people today, adjusted for population. It would be unwise at best to try to draw any direct lessons from the horrors of war itself—that’s a job for smarter people than me.

But there are lessons we can learn from every human experience that can help us do our jobs better. And the experiences of individuals, like those who have fought and won wars, can teach us a lot about our own challenges and struggles, and how we might manage them better.

Of more than one hundred thousand soldiers who pitched into the fray, twenty-four thousand had been killed or wounded. Shiloh’s casualties eclipsed the total of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War combined.
— Ron Chernow

LEARNING FROM HISTORY

In marketing there’s almost nothing we have total control over. We don’t get to control our budgets, usually. We don’t get to control the product. We don’t get to control the industry, the media, or our competition.

The only things we have control over is what we do, and how much we know.

For me, that means to become a better marketer, to do better marketing, means knowing more than my competition. It means knowing about as much as possible that could be relevant to my customers’ needs.

Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.
— Otto von Bismarck

I end up reading a lot about war not because I like war itself (I’m a stereotypical Canadian pacifist), but because I believe that the more I can learn about how people have reacted and adapted to adversity, the better I can get at dealing with difficulties or surprises in my own life and work.

It’s very hard to learn anything from people who don’t know more than you do—who haven’t experienced hardships worse than your own.

When you only look at the people around you for advice, you end up doing the same things as the people around you. Which is bad for marketing and bad for business.

What I want is generals who will fight battles and win victories. Grant has done this, and I propose to stand by him.

Grant is my man, and I am his the rest of the war.
— Abraham Lincoln

Grant’s Lessons

Grant wasn’t the first general Lincoln put his hopes in. In fact, he was the 4th or 5th. But finally, given command over the entire 1,000,000+ person Federal army, U.S. Grant was the general who could win the war.

  Grant  by Ron Chernow

Grant by Ron Chernow

Like a lot of people, I recently read Ron Chernow’s incredible biography Grant. There are a few things Ron Chernow credits for Grant’s success, where other generals failed, that can be applied to our work:

1. Technology

Grant didn’t love technology. He wasn’t inherently interested in the new and shiny. He was a Westerner (a mid-westerner, we’d now say), with simple habits and only two passions: his wife Julia, and horses.

But he knew what technology could do: it could be an extension of himself. The telegraph and railroad were new inventions in the mid-19th century, and Grant’s success can, in large part, be attributed to his quick adoption and mastery of both technologies. He kept his telegraph operator with him at all times, even on the battlefield, so that he was in constant contact with his forces.

Anything is better than indecision. We must decide. If I am wrong we shall soon find it out, and can do the other thing. But not to decide wastes both time and money and may ruin everything.
— U. S. Grant

Having trained as a quartermaster in the Mexican War during the 1840s, he understood the importance of supply lines and how to manage them better than any other general in the field. He mastered using the new railroads crisscrossing the country to keep his troops well supplied.

Grant’s strategic achievements were inseparable from the advanced telegraphy of the Union side, which strung 15,389 miles of wire during the war, operated by an army of 1,500 linemen and operators.
— Ron Chernow

In fact, his troops were so well supplied that on multiple occasions instead of fighting the Union forces, Confederate soldiers ransacked their camps for the food, coffee, blankets, and shoes that they didn’t have, even though they were fighting on their own turf and the Union forces were far from home.

2. The Element of Surprise

After being given his first command at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Grant was nervous. He knew how to fight—as quartermaster in the Mexican War he would run to the front as soon as fighting broke out, even though he didn’t have to—but he didn’t yet know how to win a battle.

Racked with anxiety and migraines, he approached the enemy camp, only to find that they’d fled as they saw Union forces coming. In that moment, he realized that the enemy was as afraid of him as he was of them. The lesson? The army that strikes first and seizes the initiative can win.

It is always a great advantage to be the attacking party. We must fire the first gun tomorrow morning.
— U. S. Grant

But catching your enemy off guard is only one way to surprise them.

Late at night, after the first bloody day at Shiloh, Grant sat under a tree and puffed away at his cigar. His friend William T. Sherman approached, planning to tell Grant they should prepare to retreat in the morning. But as he got close he realized he shouldn’t give that advice.

“Well, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Sherman said.

“Yup,” said Grant, taking a puff. “Lick ’em tomorrow, though.”

Grant was convinced that the army that kept pressing the enemy—that could keep going even when things looked bleakest—was the army that could win. Sometimes surprising the enemy isn’t about catching them asleep—it’s about pressing them even when they think they have you beat.

When a man flies into a passion his adversary who keeps cool always gets the better of him.
— U. S. Grant

Grant won the war because he never stopped pressing.

3. The Big Picture
Finally, Grant won where others were beaten because he never approached any battle in isolation. It was always as part of a greater war.

The telegraph let him organize and lead his troops even as they spanned the continent. The railroad allowed him to reinforce and move his troops constantly.

And he understood something more clearly, more viscerally, than anyone else: when an enemy strengthens one area, they have weakened somewhere else—and that is where you should attack.

Grant’s strategy embraced a continent; Lee’s a small state. Grant’s ‘logistics’ were to supply and transport armies thousands of miles, where Lee was limited to hundreds.
— William T. Sherman

Where failed General George B. McClellan, once touted as the “Young Napoleon,” could only see an ever-growing enemy that dwarfed his own, Grant could see that a strong front meant a weak rear, that a stronger left meant a weaker right.

He knew that his own resources were limited, even though the Union army was twice the size of the Confederate’s. He knew his own troops were exhausted, even though they were far better fed and rested than the Confederates. He knew that his supplies were not unlimited, so an enemy's show of strength was almost always meant to mask a weakness somewhere else.

 During his brutal “March to the Sea,” William T. Sherman fulfilled his promise to “Make Georgia howl.” His troops tore up railway lines,  destroyed telegraph poles, and freed slaves during their scorched earth campaign to disrupt the Confederates and keep them from reinforcing their northern armies.

During his brutal “March to the Sea,” William T. Sherman fulfilled his promise to “Make Georgia howl.” His troops tore up railway lines,  destroyed telegraph poles, and freed slaves during their scorched earth campaign to disrupt the Confederates and keep them from reinforcing their northern armies.

During the final Overland Campaign, he knew that his friend William T. Sherman was in Georgia, destroying rail lines and supply depots, keeping Lee from reinforcing his troops in Virginia.

And so as he began crushing Lee’s army in battle after battle, getting nearer and nearer to the Confederate capital at Richmond, he knew that all he had to do was keep pressing. Keep attacking. Keep moving. Eventually, his enemy would break.

And break they did. Grant was finally able to surround and capture Lee’s army at Appomattox Court House, winning the war.

Because it’s never just about the enemy in front of you, it’s about the entire context within which you’re fighting.

APPLYING THE LESSONS

How can you apply Grant’s lessons in your own work?

First, like Grant we should not fall in love with technology. Grant did not become an expert in telegraphy, or build his whole army around a single technology, game-changing though it was. He understood that it was a tool best used as an extension of his strategy and his way of thinking. He mastered the technology, he did not let it run his army.

So there is no single technology you should build your marketing strategy around, whether that’s programmatic advertising, social media, or anything else. These are tools in a toolbox meant to extend your own abilities. Do not fall in love with technology or you will find it leading you, instead of you leading it.

Second, we should always remember that surprise is our most powerful weapon. Pre-announcing your plans might get you the PR buzz you’re hoping for—buzz Grant sorely could have used in the North during his long campaigns, as public sentiment shifted against the war—but it tells your competitors where and how to prepare. And how to beat you to whatever product or service you’re planning to launch.

The papers are requested to say nothing relative to military operations in South and North Carolina, for they are read by Gen. Grant every morning of their publication.
— John Jones, Confederate War Clerk

Notably, Grant was able to keep tabs on the movements of the Confederate army in Virginia because he would read the newspapers out of Richmond every morning, which would gleefully publish details about the movements of Lee’s army. Lee was getting the positive PR buzz he needed—which unfortunately survives to this day—but Grant was getting much more valuable intel.

And where a surprise announcement, launch, or fight isn’t possible, surprising resiliency can be just as powerful. Your competitor may want to crush you completely, and they may be willing to spend a lot to do it.

But sometimes just surviving, keeping your business running, is enough to beat them. Let them spend their money. Let them discount their product. Let them organize a defence so strong it scares you. But just keep pressing. No one’s resources are unlimited, as much as they might seem to overwhelm us, like McClellan constantly worried. Often, we might be as wrong as he was.

And finally, like Grant, we need to understand the field and our competitors as well as he did. We should understand that when they put marketing dollars behind one initiative it means that money has come from somewhere else. When they pre-announce a product that won’t be launching anytime soon, they are hiding a weakness somewhere else. It is a smoke screen to deflect attention from a real problem. Where there is smoke, there is a fire... somewhere else.

Don’t attack your competitor where they are strong—find out where they’ve become complacent or neglectful, and attack them there.

The Last Lesson

Unfortunately, the Civil War created one industry that dwarfs all the others it helped build, like railroad empires and the telecom industry. It stimulated the industry of war. It created a million-man army that was larger, more experienced, better trained, better equipped, and better funded than any other army in the world.

 Grant after Cold Harbor, the one battle he would forever regret fighting.

Grant after Cold Harbor, the one battle he would forever regret fighting.

The army became one of the largest parts of not just the government, but the economy. And so, it was simply too big to disband. There were too many people making too much money.

And maybe that’s the final lesson. No matter what we plan for, and no matter how successful we may be in achieving our goals, the world is bigger than us. The industry is larger than our company. The economy is larger than our industry.

And the human experience is larger, more important, and more fragile than anything under our direct control. 

Embrace technology, but don’t let it lead you. Learn patience, and keep your plans to yourself.

And look for the big picture, in all things.

If a great soldier is indomitable in purpose and exhaustless in courage, endurance, and equanimity; if he is free from vanity and pettiness, if he is unpretentious, truthful, frank, constant, generous to friends, magnanimous to foes, and patriotic to the core, of him it will be said, ‘He is like Grant.’”
— The New York Times, 1860s, as quoted by Chernow