Last Updated: November 18, 2020

In the course of growth and expansion, large companies typically diversify their products and services to reach a greater number of consumers. Most likely, they have a core market where they are particularly dominant, but aren’t known for exceptional products in every category. While companies may earn some profit in peripheral markets, they do not dominate them, making them ripe targets for flanking attacks.

What is flanking marketing?

Flanking marketing allows one company to displace a competitor in a peripheral market. Those companies that engage such strategies aim to capture a market segment that is not well served by the existing competition.

As the flanking company moves in, other competitors must re-allocate their own resources to keep that targeted market, or end up ceding those customers to the flanking company. (See also Offensive Marketing)

Who implements flanking marketing?

Flanking is typically employed by innovative businesses against larger competitors. It might be employed by a large firm; however, a larger, established firm is less likely to risk inviting a confrontation in its own core market. Smaller, more nimble companies can act more quickly and secretly—both important elements of a flanking maneuver—and don’t suffer the loss of business infrastructure when moving resources to a new market. “Small,” however, can be a relative term, as many of the examples below come from companies that are now quite big:

Fundamentals of Flanking

  • avoid direct confrontation: make your move in an uncontested market segment
  • move quickly and stealthily; the goal is to gain a market presence before the competition is aware of your actions
  • attempt to move such that the competition does not regard you as a threat until it’s too late
  • Mercedes-Benz began a flanking maneuver against General Motors back in the 1950s, targeting the prestige market (dominated by the Cadillac brand). They purposely priced their luxury cars much higher than Cadillac as part of their campaign to represent Mercedes as a superior car (“engineered like no other car in the world”). It was a long-term strategy: after four decades, their yearly sales (about 73,000 cars) were still less than monthly sales for Chevrolet (one of GM’s core brands), so GM never made a move to decisively answer them. By 2004, Mercedes was outselling Cadillac; and Cadillac had long lost its reputation as being the prime example of a luxury car.
  • Absolut performed a similar maneuver in the vodka market. Purposely pricing themselves about 50 percent higher than leading competitor Smirnoff, they flanked them on the nearly established premium vodka market. A few years later, Grey Goose offered a vodka priced 60 percent higher than Absolut, in turn flanking them in the “ultra-premium” vodka market.
  • Budget Rent-a-Car used a low-price strategy to flank dominant competitors Avis and Hertz in the car-rental business.
  • Softsoap used product innovation to flank hand-soap competitors, offering the first liquid soap.
  • Hanes flanked its competitors by selling pantyhose through an alternative distribution system, marketing its L’eggs brand pantyhose in supermarkets while competitors only sold in clothing stores.

Flanking strategies work both ways. A dominant company may defend against potential flank attacks by creating its own flanker brand—a brand to occupy the flank position on a core product. For example, to entice a new market segment, the makers of Tide laundry detergent launched its Cheer brand as a lower-cost alternative to Tide. While sales of Tide fell a little, the combined sales of Tide and Cheer were greater than Tide’s sales before the launch. Sitting on Tide’s low-price flank, any flanking attack made by a future competitor will threaten Cheer before it can threaten Tide, the core product. (See also Marketing Laundry Detergent)

For what kinds of customers is flanking marketing effective?

Flanking strategies win under-served customers. Fundamentally a bid for another competitor’s customers, the success of a flanking attack depends on the competitor’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, one flanking strategy might be targeting price-sensitive customers with a “budget” option, while another flanking strategy may attempt the opposite by offering a “premium” option to the underserved market.

A flanking company may be aiming for a regional target, moving into a market nominally occupied by a big company, but where the company is not focusing. In this case, the customers might be reached through better service, or ease of purchase.

How is a flanking marketing campaign developed?

A flanking attack begins with identifying a consumer segment that’s been underserved by the competition. The goal is not to create a demand, but to locate a market demand that’s not being entirely met. Often, the consumer demand is simply for more options—price, features, access—which are not offered because the businesses currently serving the demand have their focus in other areas. A large business typically focuses on its highest performing brands; after all, no business has infinite funds to invest in marketing everything. Other times, a large business has tapped a new regional market but is focusing its expansion elsewhere—because again, it can’t expand in every region simultaneously.

Responding to a Flank Attack

  • reallocate resources to the threatened market
  • improve product and service quality in the threatened market
  • introduce new products/brands
  • reposition through advertising

Once the demand has been identified, the flanking company moves in to establish its product. Often this is a new product or innovation, but it may be an existing product repositioned for the target market. At this point, the flanking company needs to act quickly and stealthily to establish its market position, because at any point the competition may notice the flank attack and respond. (Customers win either way, as both the attack and any response will present them with more choices.)

The need for stealth affects how a product is launched. To begin with, test-marketing an innovative product can be dangerous, as it can tip off the competition (See also Stealth Marketing).

For example, when Bristol-Meyers aimed to flank Tylenol by introducing Datril, priced 35 percent lower, they made the mistake of test-marketing first—giving Tylenol time to block the flank attack by lowering its own prices before Datril could ever establish a market share. Of course, introducing an innovative product without test marketing is also risky, requiring marketing professionals to make trade-offs between risks.

The need for stealth also eliminates many advertising methods. Major television ads are a no-go. Instead, the flanking company may try to leverage word-of-mouth, face-to-face marketing, and the cultivation of referrals. Communications channels not typically used by the competition are good places to get the word out.

Finally, the flanking company needs to demonstrate follow-through. As they gain customers (and their competitor loses them), they are bound to attract attention—and a response from the competition. Therefore, the flanking company should not try to diversify too quickly, or to develop underperforming products which divert money and energy. Instead, it must be ready to throw the full weight of the company behind the flank attack, so that when the response comes, the company’s local strength is greater than that of its competition—for even if their competition is many times their size, that company has to continue to invest its money in other places as well.

What career titles work with flanking marketing strategies?

Marketing Managers

Marketing Managers direct flanking campaigns, and coordinate the various teams involved.

What do they do?

What type of salary should I expect?

  • Marketing Manager
    Median annual pay: $116,010
    Top earners: $187,199+
  • Market Research Analyst
    Median annual pay: $60,570
    Top earners: $111,440+
  • Public Relations Manager
    Median annual pay: $52,090
    Top earners: $95,200+

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

  • identify market opportunities for a flanking strategy
  • work with product development teams to create a product fit for the target market
  • establish pricing, placement, and promotion to flank and displace the competition
  • coordinate advertising to reach the target market without attracting the attention of the competitor(s) being flanked
Education and Skills

Most marketing managers will already have substantial experience in marketing, advertising, special promotions, public relations, and/or sales. They’ll also have at least a bachelor’s degree in marketing, advertising, or business management. Other classes preparing them for this career will include market research, statistics, and consumer behavior; in addition, many marketing students will have done an internship either while still in school or immediately afterward.

Market Research Analysts

Market Research Analysts gather data about theirs and their competitors’ products and strengths.

What do they do?
  • use a variety of data-mining and in-person research methods to identify a consumer segment that is being underserved by the competition
  • analyze data, employing statistical methods and software
  • evaluate a competitor’s strengths and weaknesses, and estimate the strength and speed of possible counterattacks the competitor might deploy against a flanking maneuver
  • distill and communicate findings to their organization, using charts, graphs, and other means
Education and Skills

Market research analysts need at least a bachelor’s degree in market research (or related field, such as statistics or computer science); many jobs also require a master’s degree, particularly for leadership positions or for positions that engage in more technical research. Usually they complete an internship while in school, and may gain additional experience in jobs which require collecting and analyzing data and writing reports.

Public Relations Managers

Public Relations Managers promote a product’s branding and mindshare in a target market.

What do they do?
  • identify customers’ and competitors’ preferred information channels, and focus advertising in those areas that can reach the most customers without drawing the attention of the competitor(s) being flanked
  • write press releases regarding product innovations
  • monitor and manage the media coverage of the company, keep exposure minimal during the initial moves of a flanking campaign, and then increasing it after enough market share has been seized
  • reinforce company brand from competitors’ counterattacks
Education and Skills

About a quarter of all public relations managers have a master’s degree; and they will need at least a bachelor’s degree, usually in public relations or communications. It will also benefit future managers to minor in advertising, business management, or marketing. Other necessary skills that can be acquired through a college marketing program include excellent writing ability, and an understanding of both public and organizational communications. Managers’ work experience for managers often begins with an internship, then moves on to supporting more experienced staff members, before getting to work on their own account(s).

How can a marketing school help you succeed?

Our Recommended Schools

  1. Grand Canyon University (GCU)

    GCU's Colangelo College of Business offers leading edge degrees that address the demands of contemporary business environments.

  2. Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU)

    Explore the bond between business and consumer behavior with a degree in marketing.

Effective flanking marketing requires the ability to analyze a market, execute a business strategy, manage organizational elements, and communicate persuasively. These skills are not inherent in most professionals, requiring years of study and experience in educational settings to master.

In a marketing program you’ll learn how to acquire and analyze meaningful data, using a variety of research methods and analysis. Economics classes will give you a framework for understanding the levels of supply and demand in the market. With a knowledge of research and economics, marketing students learn to corner vulnerable markets and introduce products to displace competitors.

Additionally, most marketing programs emphasize courses in communication. You’ll learn not only how to communicate persuasively to consumers, but also to other businesses, and to executive decision-makers within a business (See also Persuasion Marketing). Instructors will teach you how to adapt your messages according to the environment—consumer, organizational, interpersonal—and provide you with feedback on how to develop and improve your skills.

To learn more about what a marketing school can do for you, request information from schools with degrees in marketing. With a solid marketing education, you’ll be able to deploy your own flank attack against an unprepared competition.