Sun Tzu’s 6 Principles: a 2,500-Year-Old Strategy That Still Works Today

Timeless, spot on and still studied today, Sun Tzu’s strategies in “The Art of War” feel even more applicable during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sun wrote a lot about strategy and leadership, but these six principles are the cornerstone of his teachings: win all without fighting; avoid strength, attack weakness; deception and foreknowledge; speed and preparation; shape your opponent and character-based leadership. Now, let’s look at their application in today’s business world.

Win All Without Fighting

Essentially, this means gain business and/or market share without spending large sums on gaining that share (through advertising) or compromising your product by reducing price and/or quality. Instead, advertise cleverly, and use social media to your advantage. Do not use price as a strategy; fashion merchandising, which makes your offering special, will be your advantage. You should also analyze costs of growth; more business does not necessarily mean more spending.

Avoid Strength, Attack Weakness

First, find your market niche. What separates you from your competition? Don’t try to copy a dominant product. If it’s what you want to produce, improve it or reinvent it. To do that, you need to find a customer who has not been served or served properly or a new geography — somewhere where the other product doesn’t reach. Your product should also fill a need; Untuckit is a good example of a brand that does that.

Remember, incumbent brands have more money than you, so do not compete head on; avoid strength. Those same brands may not have the will to enter a new market segment, and it will cost you less to start up than it will for them.

Deception & Foreknowledge

Thoroughly research your market as well as your customer — what they have, what they need, what their shopping habits and fashion choices are. Never stop research and discovery, even for a day; that information is constantly shifting. Use all available resources provided by technology, including artificial intelligence and social media. Try to always be first; do something new every day.

As companies like Amazon have proven, there is no limit on disruption. It’s best to keep your competition guessing. But you also need to know your capabilities — don’t bite off more than you can chew. Instead, focus on what you do best, and make sure you have the team that can execute your best work.

Speed & Preparation

Speed to market is one of the greatest advantages in business. To accomplish it, you need to gather the best information, the best technology and the best customer service available. Think it through; shorten your design or delivery cycle. Be decisive; even if you fail, you will learn something crucial.

To be fast, you have to keep going. Never give yourself too much credit for what you did yesterday. Keep talking to your customer to find out what they want and how you can improve.

Shape Your Opponent

To win, you have to make your competitors chase you — not the opposite. Make them play in your sandbox. In business, second is last; you must be first. Your fashion and brand image should be an example your competitors want to follow. Your offering must be simple, accessible and easy to understand.

A great company example for this principle is Apple. Like Apple, you should update, change and grow your offering faster than the competition, setting the example for the industry.

Character-Based Leadership

When building your team, hire people rather than résumés. You team should be assembled by personality fit, with an eye for characteristics like courage, the will to succeed, intelligence, loyalty and likability.

A leader will only succeed with a strong team with members whose skills complement each other. Within that team, you must also support great captains, whose character and skills will help you as you grow. This will help you change and react while fostering original thinking. The fashion industry is build on change, which means you need open-minded management, humility and strong examples of leadership to succeed.

Sounds simple, right? But how many business leaders can state with perfect honesty that the above is exactly their management philosophy, style and execution? When we attend the funerals of those brands and institutions that have passed on, we can look at the above and always find the causes.

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