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Is your brand battle ready?

History has shown that forming a clear strategy with finely-tuned tactics will usually win the day. Obvious, you might say but why haven’t we all learnt lessons from the past?

Back in the early nineteenth century, the French and Spanish navies joined forces to help carry out Napoleon Bonaparte's plan to invade Britain. Their mission was to take control of The Channel – an arm of the Atlantic Ocean that separates southern England from northern France, thus providing safe passage to the French Army.

This allied fleet, under the command of the French Admiral, Pierre-Charles Villeneuve, began its voyage in single file heading north from southern Spain on 18 October 1805. It soon encountered the British fleet under the leadership of Lord Nelson. In anticipation of the threat, Nelson had assembled his fleet along the southwest coast of Spain, off Cape Trafalgar and was lying in wait.

Warships of the time were designed for the naval tactic known as the line of battle - two parallel columns of opposing warships manoeuvring to exchange fire along their broadsides. Typically, in conflicts such as this, the opponent with more firing cannons had the advantage. The alliance fleet included the 136-gun Santissima Trinidad, the largest ship in the world.

Recognising that he was outnumbered, with 27 British ships to 33 allied ships, Nelson sailed his fleet in two squadrons sailing perpendicular to the enemy's line, hoping to break it into pieces to address this imbalance.

The plan proved to overwhelm the centre and rear sections of the enemy's fleet. Soon after dawn, Nelson's two-column attack split the French/Spanish fleet into three parts, successfully piercing the enemy line and firing cannons into the bow and stern of enemy ships as they passed between them.

Anyone that has sailed knows you can’t easily turn a ship around without setting sail, so as some of the allied vanguard sailed off while attempting to manoeuvre, the British gained temporary superiority over the remainder of their fleet. The ensuing fierce battle resulted in 22 allied ships being lost, while the British lost none.

While the fighting was severe and much of it was at close quarters, Nelson's faith in the skills and determination of the British crews was represented in the capture of 18 enemy ships including the Santissima Trinidad. Villeneuve had surrendered at 13.45 and despite some renewed resistance by some Spanish ships, the battle was over by 16.30.

Can parallels be drawn between this historic event and a modern day brand? One observation would be that if Admiral Nelson were to have considered himself as a brand and pondered over his core values back in the day, then one could imagine they would be along the lines of: courageous, reliable, leading, strategic, entrepreneurial, honest, faithful, dutiful, experienced, opportunistic etc.

Was Nelson a brand? – yes, of course. He may not have sat down and written out his core values but, without doubt, he knew instinctively what they were and used them to great effect in defining his image. Just as importantly, he made sure he lived up to that image.

Nelson’s image would have been backed up by his inspirational leadership qualities, grasp of strategy, and opportunistic tactics which brought about a number of decisive British naval victories. His officers and crew had great faith in his decisions and were literally ‘on board’ with the direction that he gave and the values that he portrayed.

His unconventional approach to battles would not allow fellow officers to signal between ships effectively because they were not in one line, so they were empowered to make their own decisions in the heat of battle and use their own initiative. It is inevitable that a culture with a sense of ownership, united ambition and direction that ‘the whole would become greater than the sum of its parts. Like with all good brands, Nelson engaged with his followers and they felt loyal, rewarded and proud of their association with him.

In comparison, even though Villeneuve knew of Nelson’s likely tactics, his officers were not trusted to break the conventional line of battle for fear they could not make rational decisions on their own and needed to be signalled with instructions. He was personally uncertain how the battle would unfold and nervous about what the eventual consequences might be. As with all organisations and businesses, unless the whole group buys into an agreed strategy and culture, team individuals will form conflicting views and personal objectives. It would appear that these issues formed part of the problem with the allied fleet.

Nelson’s strategy was clear and focused. He wanted to dominate The Channel and conquer the impending invaders once and for all. He knew that the conventional single line of engagement approach often led to fleets engaging in a mixed mêlée of chaotic inconclusive battles without a clear winner or allowing the losing side to minimise its losses so this wasn’t an option. He needed to somehow develop tactics that would allow the fleet to lock ships together and capture the enemy by boarding and fighting hand-to-hand to the end. He saw this as the only way to an outright win.

Establishing tactics for a brand can only be achieved if the strategy is in place. Nelson demonstrated how focused tactics can be once the strategy, goals and objectives have real clarity.

Forming the clarity

A goal is a broad primary outcome – Protect Britain from invaders

A strategy is the approach you take to achieve a goal - Dominate The Channel by sea

An objective is a measurable step you take to achieve a strategy – Defeat the French/Spanish navies once and for all

A tactic is a tool you use in pursuing an objective associated with a strategy

1. Let the enemy come to me

2. Take them by surprise

2. Approach the enemy side on in 2 columns

3. Etc etc

Comparing the above to conventional brand tactics, it is clear to see how Nelson’s fields could be substituted. For instance, the tactics for a military hardware manufacturer would typically be replaced by a number of marketing channels that would formulate an integrated mixture of social media, PR, on-page and online planning.

Winston Churchill once said, “The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” All things considered, it’s difficult to understand why so many companies carry out day-to-day tactical planning without any clear goals, strategy or objectives at all, let alone having generated buy-in with key stakeholders.

To those companies, I ask the question ‘do you have a Nelson-style strategy or do you fall into the Villeneuve camp of thinking?’.

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