Marketing inside the Loop
O.O.D.A. loops, energy and maneuverability (E&M) are concepts developed by and for
fighter pilots. They also represent the “right stuff” of effective food ingredient marketing in
By Daniel Best, BEST VANTAGE Inc.
If you think “marketing” means “advertising and communications”, this isn’t for you. If you
define “marketing” as competitive business strategy, read on…
It’s about business flexibility and the ability to maneuver over and around competitors and
other obstacles. This article is about a new way of looking at business strategy…about how
the lessons of aerial combat strategy apply to business competition in the food ingredients
marketplace. Given today’s new economic realities, this is essential to survival.
It’s about O.O.D.A. (Observe, Orient, Decide and Act) decision-making loops and using
energy and maneuverability (E&M) to advantage.
Marketing as Strategy
Ingredient suppliers employ a wide variety of tactics to market and sell their wares. Some
lay their ingredients on tradeshow exhibits, much like a farmer’s market. Others doggedly
knock on company doors at an average cost of $350 per sales call – the more, the better.
Others flood the market with advertising (but what’s the message?) while others take pride
in “marketing” their ingredients on shoe-string budgets (and what does that say about the
supplier?). Some sell through websites, most don’t. Whatever the mode, these are tactics,
“Marketing”, in its fullest meaning, is strategic (not tactical) and proactive (not reactive).
It’s about being prepared. It’s about being able to integrate tactics into a comprehensive
strategy to achieve defined sales and earnings goals. It’s comprehensive because it should
integrate every aspect of your company – production, R&D, quality, sales, manufacturing
costs, brand equity, communication, regulatory compliance, and finance. It is also about
increasing the “energy” state of your company and ensuring maneuverability around
the obstacles and pitfalls of the competitive terrain.
Recent news commentaries have been introducing the concept of O.O.D.A. (for “Observe,
Orient, Decide, and Act”) decision loops into the public forum. O.O.D.A. is a concept
developed by the late USAF fighter pilot and military strategist, Col. John Boyd. It’s a
model that describes how fighter pilots compete to survive. Its lessons for aerial warfare
also apply to ingredient suppliers. Here’s how it works:
Observe: For pilots and food ingredient companies, “observation” must be multi-
dimensional. The first step is to observe the terrain (marketplace, customer) and
your opponents’ moves (i.e., competitive suppliers) therein. The goal is to understand
the conditions under which the sale will be closed. You also need to observe how your
organization responds to challenges.
You “observe” the food industry terrain by polling your sales force, meeting your
customers, attending trade shows, reading publications and conducting market research,
and otherwise drawing on third party sources for market intelligence. Such intelligence
needs to be organized. Unfortunately, few companies today enjoy the time or resources
to either collect or organize market intelligence properly. Time compression makes
companies reactive, rather than proactive: margin- and workforce-reduced companies
tend to be far too time-compressed to observe the competitive terrain, leaving them highly
vulnerable to being outmaneuvered. Chances are, today’s economic circumstances will
make companies even more time-compressed.
Question: Are you satisfied that you enjoy a clear, unobstructed view of your market,
your customers, and yourself?
Orient: Most information is distraction. Once you’ve winnowed the core information from
the clutter, you need to orient yourself (i.e., prioritize your attention and activities) toward
where the action is going to happen (or, as the famous Gretzky put it, “…to go where the
hockey puck will be, not where it is!”). This means knowing how to pull resources away from
lesser priorities and other distractions to focus them onto where they will do the most good.
Ask yourself: how much money and time does your organization lose developing the
wrong products, providing the wrong services, pursuing the wrong customers, executing
mediocre marketing campaigns, or pushing ideas upriver through unwieldy
Orienting means prioritizing and quickly taking stock of the tools you have available at a
moment’s notice. Is it technical service, advertising presence, company’s “goodwill”, ability
to innovate and to intervene personally to close a sale? Usually, there is very little time to
prepare, so your competitive tools should be primed for action at all times. Does your
company have the internal capabilities to forge rapid decisions when necessary? This is
easier for companies managed by assertive leaders with a good ear to sound advice. It’s
not so easy for companies where decisions must be rendered by committee.
Question: Is your company pro-active or reactive to changing circumstances?
Decide: The third step is to decide the best course of action in light of prevailing conditions
(the “marketing plan”). Executives are constantly faced with options. How to decide?
Sometimes one must act quickly, other times one must await the right moment. Slowness
or Indecisiveness can be fatal, but so can a rush to action.
Sales and other market-opportunity windows tend to open and shut rapidly. Today’s
competitive terrain is ever shifting and a decision made today may be obsolete tomorrow.
In order to make a good decision, one needs a level of comfort with the available
information. Many times, executives fail to act because they cannot perceive the
consequences of their decisions. How often do we consider the consequences
Question: does your organization’s command structure permit you to sift and prioritize
available options to arrive at the best possible decision…quickly?
Act: There are hard and decisive actions, there are tepid and vacillating actions, and
there is inaction. Sometimes the right decision is not to act but to let the competitive terrain
shift into a new set of realities.
One of Boyd’s unique insights into successful competition is that success depends upon
not so much on how thoroughly the O.O.D.A. loop is executed, but on how fast it is executed.
Fighter pilots (i.e., companies) that win their engagements are those that can execute the
O.O.D.A. loop faster than their competitors. This is referred to as “getting inside your
competitors’ O.O.D.A. loop”. It is at this point that energy states and maneuverability come
into play as key deciding factors.
Question: How does your company’s management structure empower you to get inside your competitors’ O.O.D.A. loops?
Energy and Maneuverability (E&M)
Speed of execution hinges upon overcoming the energy and maneuverability of your
competitor. For fighter pilots, “energy” translates into altitude (potential energy), thrust,
gravity and speed (kinetic energy) and flexibility or maneuverability (pilot experience,
What are the business equivalents of potential (stored) and kinetic (unleashed) energy?
A company’s potential energy can be construed as follows:
- An effective and rapid decision-making capability to confront competitive threats.
- High-quality and motivated personnel.
- New, not-yet-introduced technologies and short product develop cycles.
- Strong customer relationships (stored goodwill or karma).
- Strong brand identity, a quality image and high visibility.
- A low debt /asset ratio and ready access to capital.
- Cash on hand.
A company’s kinetic energy might include:
- Hard-hitting, highly visible and effective marketing campaigns.
- New technology introductions of demonstrated value that capture the imagination
of the marketplace.
- An enthusiastic, aggressive sales force, armed with effective marketing tools,
compelling sales propositions, and T&E budgets.
Companies should strive to overcome their competitors’ energy levels. A company with
poor marketing energy risks being plucked out of the air by higher-energy competitors.
Question: What would a self-audit of your company’s energy states reveal?
In the air, maneuverability is defined by turning radius, vector thrusting, wing loads, pilot
training and other factors.
In the food ingredient industry, maneuverability means being able to prioritize and make
decisions quickly, to commit resources to selling, advertising, customer service, innovation
and delivery as needed, and to change directions quickly. That last point is important: how
many times have we heard executives say, “We need to continue on this course because
we’ve already expended so many resources behind it”. In finance, expended costs are
referred to as “sunk” costs with good reason.
For pilots and ingredient executives, a bad turn can turn into a fatal turn, unless quickly
rectified. Does your company give leeway to executives to admit taking a bad turn when
new directions are needed? Ego can be a killer.
Companies that lack capital, internal resources, innovation, and profit margins are low
on energy and maneuverability. Slow, burdensome internal decision-making structures
can tank a company. Companies that lack maneuverability eventually lose market share
to higher-energy competitors…or changing market circumstances.
Question: In an environment squeezed by reduced profit margins and overworked
personnel, is your company becoming more, or less maneuverable?
Maximize your strengths, minimize your weaknesses
No company competes solely on the basis of strength. No company can be strong in
every category and all companies come burdened with their own unique portfolio of
vulnerabilities. The challenge is to develop strategies that minimize your weaknesses
while at the same time maximizing your strengths.
You don’t have to be the biggest or strongest to excel. American pilots began WWII with
inferior aircraft and technology. In the face of the higher energy and maneuverability of
their competitors’ more-advanced airplanes and pilot experience, they responded by
developing unique tactics and strategies to overcome their weaknesses.
So it is with companies. If you recognize your own weaknesses, they can be overcome.
If you understand your competitors’ strengths, you can develop strategies to blunt or
deflect those strengths as you apply your own competitive strengths to the competitive
terrain. To accomplish this requires comprehensive and integrated marketing strategies,
executed “inside the loop”.
Although the author is not a combat fighter pilot, he has had the privilege of flying
combat aircraft competitively under the instruction of U.S. Air Force pilots, to whom
he remains eternally grateful for the life lessons learned.
© 2008 to BEST VANTAGE Inc.