The Lessons of Winning and Losing

A Primer for Marketing Communications

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Ali, Namath, Secretariat — we remember winners because they overcame staggering odds to reach the pinnacle of their sport. But if there’s a winner, there must be a loser.

History’s winners and losers can teach us a lot about how to communicate effectively. In this article, we consider a few classic victor vs. vanquished duos to uncover important marketing lessons.

Road Runner vs Wile E. Coyote

How does the Roadrunner always manage to stay one step ahead? He’s extremely resourceful and clever, yes, but the biggest reason has to do with agility. In marketing circles, agility refers to the ability to quickly assess market trends, make rapid business decisions and remove uncertainty. Move too slowly in marketing, and you could be run over, which is why Roadrunner says, “meep meep” — he wants you to get out of his way.

If the Roadrunner has an abundance of agility, Coyote has an abundance of perseverance. If he had given up after a few failures, the TV show would have ended after the first episode. Don’t let your marketing efforts be stalled by fear of failure. Push forward and success will surely follow. And stay away from Acme-branded resources or tools — they always fail.

Washington vs Cornwallis

Washington led by example. He set a high bar for his men, but he kept the bar just as high for himself. As a result, morale was high, and he was ultimately able to emerge victorious in the American Revolution. This is what leading by example can do for you — it can help you rally the troops, even when disaster seems imminent.

Cornwallis may have been defeated by Washington, but he didn’t shrink way in disgrace. In fact, he went on to have an illustrious post-Revolution career, reforming the organization of the East India Company, defeating the Tipu Sultan of Mysore and overcoming a limited French invasion in 1798. You can enjoy this “Cornwallis effect” as long as you don’t collapse when adversity presents itself.

VHS vs Betamax

Betamax may have come first, but VHS won out. All of which proves that being first to the market is not a guarantee of success. Even though they didn’t possess the better technology, VHS machines were lighter, played for longer, and were cheaper — features that attracted consumers. It’s a great lesson in Knowing Thy Audience.

Sony, the maker of Betamax, may have ultimately lost the battle of the videotape players, but they did stick to their guns, standing behind a “quality matters” messaging campaign. Sometimes, even in marketing, even when failure looms, it’s best to stay true to your core values and organizational principles — because some sacrifices aren’t worth making.

Billie Jean King vs Bobby Riggs

If Billie Jean King let boundaries stop her, she wouldn’t have won 39 Grand Slam titles as a professional tennis player. Marketers should also allow themselves to think and act beyond boundaries. They should take chances, blaze new trails and make bold, courageous moves. No one was ever remembered for following the rules.

Bobby Riggs didn’t respect his opponent. Would he have emerged victorious in the infamous Battles of the Sexes if he respected King’s skill? Who knows? What we do know is that his general lack of respect for women’s tennis set him up for a major fall. As a brand, pulling a Bobby Riggs could lead to similar disaster. To market effectively, you have to understand the competition, acknowledge their strengths and decide how to attack them.

Jonas Salk vs Polio

Jonas Salk’s journey to eradicate polio began with small steps. Salk first administered the vaccine to a small group of volunteers who never had polio, including himself, his lab scientist, his wife and their children. When that test worked, he began national testing with one million children — the Polio Pioneers — proving that the vaccine was safe and effective. As marketers, we can learn a lot from Salk’s approach. Start small, iterate quickly and test continuously.

The virus responsible for polio is successful because it can overwhelm its host. In tissue culture, poliovirus enters cells and replicates in six to eight hours, yielding 10,000 to 100,000 virus particles per cell! Sometimes, throwing resources at a problem can lead to success. For example, building a website often requires a dedicated army of writers, designers and developers to complete the project quickly.

Mammals vs Dinosaurs

You might think that mammals appeared only after dinosaurs became extinct, but that’s not the case. Mammals lived alongside dinosaurs for more than 150 million years, though they were primarily small nocturnal animals. It was only after the demise of dinosaurs that mammals got big and inherited the earth. If you’re a small brand, there’s a lesson in our long-ago ancestors: occupy your niche, remain patient and eventually your time to dominate the market may come.

By the same token, being a dinosaur can’t be all bad. Sure, they eventually disappeared (or evolved into feathery modern dinosaurs), but they were the dominant group of animals for more than 180 million years. How did they become so successful? They diversified to fill every available ecological niche. As a business, diversification may be just as useful, enabling you to take advantage of momentum in a new market, or to minimize the risk of your core market shrinking.

Thomas Edison vs Nikola Tesla

Okay, it might be debated which inventor, Edison or Tesla, was the real winner, but for the symmetry of our article, we’re going to label Edison as the winner based on the sheer weight of his invention record (Edison held 1,1039 patents versus Tesla’s 300). In fact, Edison’s approach to innovation — disciplined, systematic, collaborative — provides a helpful lesson to marketers looking to multiply their ideation efforts.

Of course, Tesla can teach us just as much. Though his name isn’t as recognizable as Edison’s, his contributions to our modern way of living are enormous. He is best known for the alternating-current system of electric power transmission, as well as the core concepts of wireless communication — ideas born from a wildly eccentric imagination. While there’s a place for Edison’s factory-like approach to innovation in modern marketing, there’s also a place for Tesla’s flights of fancy and wildly imaginative thinking.

Want to see some other historic matchups?

Check out this PDF of our recent mailer.

As a strategic communications agency serving science- and R&D-driven organizations, we specialize in highly technical markets where complex ideas and information must be conveyed with clarity. Our team includes writers, designers, strategists and content architects, all working together to help you reach — and engage — your internal and external audiences.

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