Soviet Union – bastion of communism, communal good, anti-competition? Well it certainly was in 1942 in the midst of WW2. But as I’m learning from a long overdue re-watch of ‘The World at War’ (Thames Television 1970s triumph), some astonishing marketing genius emerged from the heart of the Kremlin that we can learn from even today. So in a break from my usual kind of entry, I’d like to do just that.
Picture the scene. The Battle for Stalingrad (in the south, gateway to the oil fields which the Germans wanted) raged Aug 1942-Feb 1943 and nearly 2 MILLION souls died from both sides in the fight for the city, which involved the Russian army versus the massed Axis forces of Germany’s 6th Army with Romanians, Hungarians and Italians. They circled the city then battled through defense, and the Luftwaffe bombed the hell out of the place – previously a beautiful ‘pride of the state’ modern city named after Stalin himself. It was a tragic, terrible, episode in history, one of the bloodiest land battles ever. And even though I cried watching it, I was still amazed a the fortitude and intelligence that went into the Russian victory.
So, let’s see what we can learn from the Russian’s response…
– Grass roots engagement: They marketed the battle as one of the people, for the people, fighting to protect their own homes. So instead of soldiers having to build all the defenses, every resident took part eagerly in building tank pits, defence walls, etc.
– Clear positioning: At the start, Stalin declared that at Stalingrad there would be ‘Not One Step Back’. This became a rallying call used in every successive speech, read out to the Russian troops and civilians alike.
– Crowd-sponsored investment: They rallied a campaign for youth groups and communities to each invest in part of the army or airforce, sponsoring their own plane or tank, and meeting the crew – an early pre-runner of the WWF ‘sponsor a panda’ (If the panda’s job was the kill the enemy). They raised huge amounts of funding and public support and broke down the barriers between the military and the public, creating personal emotional engagement.
– Powerful sonic messaging: Once the Germans took the city, fighting carried on street by street (you may have seen the movie ‘Enemy at the Gates’). The Russians took over the broadcast system on the streets and on radio, with the message ‘Stalingrad is a mass grave. Every 7 seconds a German soldier dies.’ They repeated this on top of a continuous sound track of a ticking clock. Every second noted. Every death felt.
– Challenger thinking: Instead of sending tanks straight into the city, which the Germans expected, the Russians built their reserves on the flanks, against the weaker Axis forces. They took their time, building up full strength positions and ignoring the city itself, only putting in just enough re-supply to stop it falling completely. When they finally attacked on both flanks, they pushed straight through in a pincer movement and cut off the city completely from it’s supply lines. Leaving the Germans in the city isolated, and eventually powerless cold and starving, and demoralised by the Russian resistance in every house and street corner.
In the end, helped by the onset of -40’C Russian winter, the Russians won, and the Germans (against Hitler’s orders) surrendered. 200 000 were captured and marched off to camps. Tragically, only 6 000 of them ever made it back to Germany. That’s a whole other story.
Even in the midst of war and cruelty, winning the hearts and minds of the people is half the battle. And so we as marketers can still find things to learn…
Though we should never forget that we are very lucky that we are not marketing war, death and misery. For most of us, it’s only yoghurt, mobile phones, or DIY. It’s not life or death.
And as a final more flippant thought, how different would the world be today if that marketing genius had been applied post WW2 to Russia becoming a brand and business leader in the emerging global economy?!!