Learning the perspectives of principles of guerrilla warfare

Marketing is s very good and exciting career option for any MBA graduate, and FMCG Marketing is even more exciting for several reasons. It is in marketing that guerrilla wars take place. Al Ries and Jack Trout in their book on Marketing Warfare talk about this concept. In this article, an attempt is made to talk about the principles of guerrilla warfare as explained by the experts and anchor the same in the context of Indian examples.


Guerrilla wars are ones where the smaller players take on the mighty players and win to some extent. These cause extensive damage in isolated pockets but damage the reputation, resources and even strategies of major parties. The LTTE, which is now almost as good as finished, waged a guerrilla war against the Sri Lankan Army for several decades. However, when the Sri Lankan Army hit back with brutal force, they were finished.

Be that as it may, in Corporate India, we have had several examples of guerrilla wars in the FMCG sector. In some respects, the wars are still on. In their book Marketing Warfare (paperback edition, published by Tata McGraw Hill, 20th Aniversary Edition, 2012), there are so many interesting stories and the lessons have deeper implications for Indian organizations as well. While explaining the guerrilla warfare, an attempt is made to draw references to the main conceptual ideas from the book and then anchor them in the local Indian context. We will in particular concentrate only on three main principles. a) Guerrilla Principle No.1: Find a Segment of the Market small Enough to defend. b) Guerilla Principle No.2 No matter how successful you become, never act like the leader and c) Guerilla Principle No3 Be prepared to bug out at a moment's notice.

Guerrilla Principle No.1: Find a Segment of the Market small Enough to defend

The authors hit the bull's eye right away. "A guerrilla organization does not change the mathematics of a marketing war ( The big company still beats the small company). Rather a guerrilla tries to reduce the size of the battleground in order to achieve a superiority of force. In other words, tries to become a big fish in a small pond" (page 102)

Cut to the example of Bovonto, a soft drink with a distinct taste of grapes. This was a shrewd strategy in an "either-or" market, particularly in Tamil Nadu. In this market, in summer, for example, at least two in every ten will reach out to Bovonto. The other two would settle for the natural coconut water, and another two might still settle for a cup of tea. Aided by high decibel advertising on local television and a taste that lingers in the mouth, Bovonto is still a small player in the national market. Coca-cola and Pepsico still dominate the market with their wide range of offerings. Their reach is very wide. Yet, Bovonto is a big player and is a big fish in the small pond called Tamil Nadu, in India. The bigger lake is never in question. Bovonto is a 300 crore brand and has shrewdly diversified into a branded version of what is famously called "paneer soda" with its own brand called Vibro. Both the products operate in what is called "Blue Ocean Strategy". In fact, this strategy is not fighting the competitors in the "red ocean" which is the normal universe of the existing players, each of whom fights with each other to capture a piece of the total market. In other words, the product itself is totally different but would attempt to attract a chunk of the existing customers in the same market.

Bovonto is a clear market leader in the soft skills market in most markets of Tamil Nadu. It is the first choice of millions of customers. The guerilla warfare is found in the localized advertising on local Tamil TV channels, sponsorship of some special shows and so on. It aims for the top-of-the-mind recall among the select group of hundreds of thousands of customers in Tamil Nadu.

Guerilla Principle No.2 No matter how successful you become, never act like the leader

The Guerrilla players never aspire to become like the big players. Instead, their niche markets are themselves large and keep expanding to some extent, all the time.

The authors insist that guerilla players should be flexible and nimble-footed. "Guerrillas should resist the temptation to make up formal organization charts, job descriptions, career paths, and the other accouterments of a staff-heavy organization. As far as possible, guerrillas should be all line and no staff". (page 106).

Smaller brands like Arasan soap, the Ponvandu soap, and the Power soap are those that have a pronounced entrepreneurial culture. Their field forces are those that have intimate relationships with the retailers in all parts of Tamil Nadu. In fact, their main markets are in the semi-urban and rural areas of Tamil Nadu. They are typical players. They are all nimble-footed and are reportedly managed by ordinary graduates whose only job is to keep on pushing the product through local distribution chains and the mini supermarkets in the semi-urban areas and the small shops in the rural areas. In the fans category, Havels seems to be having such a dynamic culture. It's ability to match the expectations of customers with a diverse range of products is a typical guerilla strategy and has now overtaken the likes of Usha brand and the Orient brand.

Guerilla Principle No3 Be prepared to bug out at a moment's notice

"Don't hesitate to abandon a position or a product if the battle turns against you. A guerrilla doesn't have the resources to waste on a lost cause. A guerrilla should be quick to give up and move on".

Cavinkare quickly retracted and withdrew from the toilet soap market when its Meera soap did not make an impact. Its positioning was not good. Instead, it has launched a herbal dye called Indica and has waged a guerrilla war against Godrej, the market leader. It is satisfied with its niche that is growing in size.

Similarly, Arun ice cream is a famous name in Tamil Nadu. It has a sizable market and is now present in many markets in South India. Yet, it does not go into territories where it will face the toughest competition from Amul icecream. This principle of guerrilla warfare is well understood by the players and they do indeed do a good job of just getting out of the market if the going is not good. None of the detergent players like Ponvandu have even thought of the national market.

In a way, the strategy of Rajnikant, the superstar of Tamil Cinema, is to wage a guerilla war of some sort. For example, his movies get released in many parts of the world, but not in the Hindi belt. When the movie becomes a super-duper hit, it gets dubbed in Hindi and is released. He still becomes quite famous throughout India. Yet, he does not aspire to become a Shah Rukh Khan. He bowed out of the national market when he knew that he cannot compete with the Hindi film heroes, each of whom has a large following. Another guerilla, Kamal Hassan, managed to bow out at the right time from the Hindi film industry when his films bombed one after the other.


The aforesaid examples from the real world of Corporate India would illustrate the fundamental principles of guerrilla warfare explained by AL Ries and Jack Trout, the Marketing Strategy experts. The last word has never been said. A guerrilla always lives on to fight fresh battles. And a number of new guerrillas come into the scene to fight more severe battles.


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