How to Play and Win the Product Marketing Game Like a Chess Grandmaster

I have played chess since I was 9 or 10 years old and to this day still play in chess tournaments, live and online. Anyone interested in learning how to play chess should check out The Game of Chess by Tarrasch. Written over 75 years ago, it is still one of the best books of all time for chess beginners.


Me playing (and winning 😄) speed chess at Central Park, NYC

One of the best chess books of all time for experienced players looking to become chess masters is Play Like a Grandmaster by Alexander Kotov. Unlike many chess books which often become obsolete over just a few years, Kotov’s book is just as valuable today as when it was first published in 1978.

Kotov’s advice for winning chess bears many similarities to the best practices for winning the product marketing game.

From Kotov’s book:

Players who wishes to improve, who want to win in competitive play, must develop their ability to evaluate the current position… Then the player moves on to general assessment [and then] draws up a plan.

Evaluate the current position. Just as a player must accurately review the current status of a given chess position, so too marketers begin with an awareness where their products stand in the current marketplace.

Evaluating a chess position, Kotov wrote, requires breaking down the position into its key elements, each of which he assigned one of two categories that product marketers can appreciate: permanent advantages and temporary advantages. So, winning chess first requires identifying your advantages, understanding how the advantages relate to one another and which advantages are most important.

This chess evaluation process is similar to the product positioning process: Identifying and documenting the features of your product that relate to the most important problems your target market/target buyer must solve, and how your product solves those problems in ways your competitors do not or can not offer.

General Assessment. After a chess player has completed a review of the key elements, she summaries her findings in her mind in the form of an internal monologue; e.g., “My opponent has two weak pawns, both defended by his bishop…,” and so on.  This is what Kotov calls the “general assessment.”

This general assessment is similar to writing a customer value proposition statement, which is derived from the product positioning process. The value proposition statement is your proclamation to the world what your product does, what benefits it provides for which customers and how you do it uniquely well and better than alternative products. There are many good templates for crafting effective value propositions; here’s my favorite.

Planning. Now a chess player is ready to formulate a concrete plan, linked organically from his general assessment; e.g., “I will force my opponent to trade his bishop for mine, leaving those two weak pawns undefended, which I will attack with my rooks…” and so on).

The road to a product marketing plan has further steps, of course, including the creation of:

  • Buyer personas (composite portraits of your target customers and their wants and needs your product fulfills)
  • Product collateral and other marketing assets, that are targeted to buyer personas and reinforce your customer value proposition
  • Go-to market strategy; which leads to the selection of specific marketing tools and programs

Still, the point remains that the selection of marketing tactical activities comes only after a strategic assessment process.

A Final Word: Avoid “Kotov’s Syndrome”!

It happens to the best of us… even Magnus Carlsen, the current World Chess Champion, World Rapid Chess Champion, and World Blitz Chess Champion.

Alexander Kotov also described a bad situation (now referred to as Kotov’s Syndrome) that even the best grandmasters have experienced: A player thinks very hard for a very long time in a complicated position, but just can’t find a viable move. Running low on time, (s)he finally and impulsively makes a poor move that loses the game immediately.

Kotov explains that this kind of blunder occurs from feeling cognitively overwhelmed by the complexities of the position. Players experiencing such a feeling should calmly recognize it is due simply to a misunderstanding of the key elements of the position and, therefore, an incomplete, useless general assessment. The solution is to simply step back and perform these steps again from the beginning.

Similarly, an effective marketing plan cannot be developed without genuine understanding and application of product marketing basics. Don’t just go through the motions of filling out product planning and customer value proposition templates with your personal assumptions just because you’re in a rush. Be patient. Go through those processes with care, using input from colleagues and existing customers to develop a well-informed, winning product marketing plan.

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