Information Operations: Marketing for War

The closer you look at Information Operations (IO), the harder it becomes to define. Indeed, so too does the broader information instrument of national power; a component of the ‘DIME’[1] model, as well as many other models used to understand national power. The perceived complexity of IO is often the cause of needless friction in operational and strategic level military planning. But this needn’t be so. IO is not a black art. IO can be simple. IO is marketing.

I want to unpack a few issues regarding IO and marketing, and explore the relationship between them. First, I want to discuss the reasons why both IO and marketing are considered to be so complicated. Next, I want to use a popular marketing tool called the ‘Seven P Formula’ to demonstrate the relationship that IO has with marketing. Finally, I want to discuss how the military might benefit from the business world and enhance the way we understand and apply IO as part of operational and strategic planning.

John Bokel, in a paper on national power, posits that “[Information] is an instrument…used to shape events, strategies, national will, and international perceptions… it achieves a comparative advantage that enables national leaders to shape, or react to, national and world events”.[2] Shaping events, strategies, will, and perceptions… achieving a comparative advantage; these terms are the bread and butter for marketing experts worldwide. It would come as no surprise if Coca Cola, McDonalds, or Apple used these terms as part of their very successful international marketing strategies.

Marketing, like ‘IO’ and ‘strategy’, has many definitions—none of which are universally recognised or accepted. According to the Australian Government’s business.gov.au website, marketing is defined as “a strategic mix of business activities that work towards a bigger goal of building a brand and business…understanding customers and developing products and services that meet their needs”.[3] Furthermore, it is defined by the American Marketing Association as “the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large”.[4] Regardless of which context it is used—be it business or the military, in peace or in conflict; marketing is about shaping and influencing. And so too is IO.

First let me explain how and why we overcomplicate IO. Because it is the same reason for why the business world overcomplicates marketing. Both IO and marketing have become their own niche industries. So-called ‘experts’ claim to possess trade secrets and specialist skills in their craft. People have made careers out of it, written books on it, even become professors in it. Take these quotes for example, from a recent RAND Corporation report on IO and hostile social manipulation:

“…The United States needs an updated framework for organizing its thinking about the manipulation of infospheres by foreign powers determined to gain competitive advantage”.

“Leading autocratic states have begun to employ information channels for competitive advantage—plans that remain in their initial stages and that could unfold in several ways”.

“Efforts at social manipulation are effective to the degree that vulnerabilities in a society allow them to be effective”.[5]

What. Does. That. Even. Mean?

Or what about these little gems from a marketing perspective:

“a marketing plan gives you a systematic approach to developing your marketing strategies. A successful marketing plan will factor in many areas of the business. This means that the strategies work together to complement each other”.[6]

“the connected and empowered individual of today seeks to understand the values, behaviours and vision of the brands they allow into their lives”.[7]

…c’mon, give me a break.

Overcomplicating IO and marketing issues confuses and scares generalists and secures vital ground in which specialists can flourish. These ‘generalists’ I am referring to are, in a military sense—commanders; and in a business sense—managers. But the specialists are not to blame for overcomplicating their industries, the generalists are.

For too long, commanders and managers ignored the requirement to maintain a compelling narrative to support their central plan. Shaping and influencing a target population (the market) was considered an afterthought. The focus for planning was on the operation (military) or product (business) rather than shaping events, strategies, will, and perceptions and achieving a comparative advantage.

Naturally, when IO and marketing specialists, who understood the power of shaping and influencing began to emerge, both commanders and managers were stunned. Target populations and markets were being manipulated in a way that bought about more bottom-line success for operations and businesses alike. Generalists didn’t give a damn about how it was happening, they simply wanted the success to continue. As the IO and marketing specialists grew, so too did their own self-belief and confidence. When generalists eventually tried to grasp the concepts of IO and marketing, it was too late. The specialist horse had bolted. Now the time has come for the generalists to rein in the horse and work harder than ever to understand the specialists. IO is commanders’ business and marketing is managers’ business.

In the military, the mysteries of IO have been further amplified by over-classification and a fixation on the sensitive (often justifiably classified) methods used to achieve desired effects. Effects must belong to the commander, not the IO planner. Effects must be clearly articulated and defined in a way that describes what resultant change the commander seeks in the environment. First, second, and third order effects must be considered in detail and from the outset. After this, and only after this, should the manoeuvre plan, fires plan, or logistics plan be considered.

Marketing: The Seven P Formula

I want to use a popular business marketing model called the ‘Seven P Formula’ to demonstrate the relationship between IO and marketing. I acknowledge myriad contemporary marketing models and IO approaches in both industries, but I don’t have the time, word-count, or inclination to cover them all. The seven elements of this formula are: product, price, promotion, place, packaging, positioning, and people. I will split each element by first providing the marketing perspective, then translating it into IO-related themes for consideration.

Product

Marketing: Develop the habit of looking at your product as though you were an outside marketing consultant brought in to help your company decide whether or not it’s in the right business at the time. Ask critical questions such as, “Is your current product or service appropriate and suitable for the market and the customers of today?”

Information Operations: Consider the political objective, commanders’ intent, limitations, and constraints of the task. Understand why the task is required.

Price

Marketing: Continually examine and re-examine the prices of the products and services you sell to make sure they’re still appropriate to the realities of the current market. Sometimes you need to lower your prices. At other times, it may be appropriate to raise your prices. Many companies have found that the profitability of certain products or services doesn’t justify the amount of effort and resources that go into producing them.

Information Operations: What cost is the commander, or the government willing to pay to achieve the ends? Consider resources such as time, blood, and treasure. What is the most economical way to shape and influence the target population? What risks are involved?

Promotion

Marketing: Promotion includes all the ways to tell customers about the products or services and how to then market and sell to them. Small changes in the way you promote and sell products can lead to dramatic changes in results. Even small changes in advertising can lead higher sales. Experienced copywriters can often increase the response rate from advertising by 500 percent by simply changing the headline on an advertisement.

Information Operations: What is the narrative? What change does the commander wish to see in the environment? What methods are available to achieve these changes?

Place

Marketing: The place where your product or service is actually sold. Develop the habit of reviewing and reflecting upon the exact location where the customer meets the salesperson. Sometimes a change in place can lead to a rapid increase in sales.

Information Operations: What geographical, physical, cultural, and sociological issues affect the target audience? How can these be manipulated in a way to seek advantage? Consider shaping and influencing both at home and abroad.

Packaging

Marketing: Stand back and look at every visual element in the packaging of your product or service through the eyes of a critical prospect. What is the first impression? Packaging also refers to your people and how they dress and groom. It refers to your offices, your waiting rooms, your brochures, your correspondence and every single visual element about your company. Everything counts. Everything helps or hurts. Everything affects your customer’s confidence about dealing with you.

Information Operations: How is the operation (and the narrative) likely to be perceived by the target audience, allies, and adversaries? How will the message be delivered? How will this affect our own reputation?

Positioning

Marketing: How you are positioned in the hearts and minds of your customers. How do people think and talk about you when you’re not present? How do people think and talk about your company? What positioning do you have in your market, in terms of the specific words people use when they describe you and your offerings to others? Attribution theory says that most customers think of you in terms of a single attribute, either positive or negative. Sometimes it’s “service.” Sometimes it’s “excellence.”

Information Operations: Consider perceptions of legitimacy. Third-order effects: long term consequences, changes in the environment, and reputational perceptions.

People

Marketing: Think in terms of the people inside and outside of your business who are responsible for every element of your sales, marketing strategies, and activities. Your ability to select, recruit, hire and retain the proper people, with the skills and abilities to do the job you need to have done, is more important than everything else put together.

Information Operations: People. Your ability to select, train, harness and retain the proper people, with the skills and abilities to do the job you need to have done, is more important than everything else put together.

How best can the military benefit from the business world and enhance the way it understands and applies IO as part of operational and strategic planning? If the military considers IO to be marketing in the context of warfare, then perhaps it ought to engage the marketing industry to help better shape and influence the environment to achieve operational and strategic effects. McDonalds doesn’t use former burger-flippers to plan and implement their international marketing campaigns, so why does the military use former tacticians with little or no IO training to implement theirs? I jest, but the point remains that there may be opportunities for the military to reach out to the marketing industry for valuable tools and experience. Economists and marketing experts may be able to provide a different perspective to those of traditional military planners.

De-mystifying IO and ensuring that it becomes commanders’ business is the responsibility of both commanders and IO specialists. Electronic warfare, cyber, psychological operations, human intelligence, and other sensitive capabilities are, quite rightly, left to the experts. But that doesn’t mean that generalist planners and manoeuvre commanders can ignore the effects. First commanders need to take responsibility for effects and build them into the planning process from the beginning. They need only rely on IO planners to advise them and coordinate the different ways to achieve the desired effects. Second, IO specialists have a responsibility to translate technical information for commanders so it is simple to understand. The days of nice industries are gone, and hiding behind verbose, confusing terminology à la RAND Corporation reports is of little use to anyone.  

Marketing is about transforming the behaviours and attitudes of a particular group of people and changing the environment in a way that benefits the business. Marketing measures effectiveness, performance, and the degree to which information can be used to gain an advantage. IO shares these attributes, albeit in a military context. Shaping and influencing forms a vital component of operational and strategic planning. But unlike marketing, IO contributes to winning and losing on the battlefield; where lives and the national interest are at stake. A failed marketing campaign might damage company profits, whereas a failed IO campaign could have catastrophic consequences for a nation.

Military professionals have a responsibility to seek every possible advantage for future warfare. If nothing else, developing an understanding of marketing offers us a new lens in which to view IO. We should think deeply about these issues and seriously consider the relationship between marketing and IO. Gaining even a small advantage in the information domain may very well be the difference between victory and defeat.


[1] Diplomatic, Information, Military, Economic

[2] Bokel, John. Information as an Instrument and a Source of National Power. Industrial College of the Armed Forces, Washington DC, 2003.

[3] https://www.business.gov.au/planning/marketing-plans

[4] Hunt, Shelby D. The Nature and Scope of Marketing. Journal of Marketing. 40 (3): 17–28. 1976 doi:10.2307/1249990. JSTOR 1249990.

[5] Mazarr, Michael J., Abigail Casey, Alyssa Demus, Scott W. Harold, Luke J. Matthews, Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, and James Sladden. “Hostile Social Manipulation.”, 2019. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2713.html

[6] https://www.business.gov.au/planning/marketing-plans/develop-a-marketing-plan

[7] The Drum magazine: https://www.thedrum.com/opinion/2016/04/11/three-steps-becoming-meaningful-brand

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