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Although the element of surprise is not absent in orthodox warfare, there are fewer opportunities to apply it than there are during guerrilla hostilities.

In guerrilla warfare, select the tactic of seeming to come from the east and attacking from the west; avoid the solid, attack the hollow; attack; withdraw; deliver a lightning blow, seek a lightning decision. When guerrillas engage a stronger enemy, they withdraw when he advances; harass him when he stops; strike him when he is weary; pursue him when he withdraws. In guerrilla strategy, the enemy's rear, flanks, and other vulnerable spots are his vital points, and there he must be harassed, attacked, dispersed, exhausted and annihilated.

- Mao Tse-tung

Chapter 8: The Element of Surprise

Our competition would like to engage us in a fifteen-round title fight that is announced, promoted and thoroughly planned. While we certainly plan, we are not interested in such a formal "engagement." What we want is to hit our enemy from behind with a few, painful jabs and then run away.

Their Rules: Stand up to your competition, ask them to "put up their dukes," and then "fight them like a man."

Our Rules: There are no "official" rules of engagement. This is war. A fight to the death. The name of the game is winning--destroying the competition--and we must do so by any means necessary.

Maxim magazine and Virgin grew from guerrillas into established behemoths through hit-and-run tactics. Now they can simply hit and stay.

 

Maxim's Shocking Formula of Beer, Babes and Butts

"Leave the toilet seat up proudly!" declared Maxim magazine's opening manifesto. That was April 1997 when Maxim was a humble upstart, distributing a mere 175,000 copies per issue. By February of 2001, Maxim had an "unheard of" print run of 3.3 million. "By sheer numbers alone," wrote DNR reporter Jim Edwards, "Maxim is the magazine world's biggest success story."133

But while Maxim's rise to magazine superstardom may appear to be the result of a simple formula of "beer, babes and butts,"134 it actually owes its success largely to an ingenious guerrilla strategy of quickness, speed and surprise.

While Maxim's rise to magazine superstardom may appear to be the result of a simple formula of "beer, babes, and butts," it owes its success largely to an ingenious guerrilla strategy of quickness, speed and surprise.

Neither Pomp nor Porn

Maxim's roots are in England, where the magazine industry had traditionally been divided into two separate and unequal categories: "literary on one side, pure skin on the other." At the same time, "pure skin" publications were rapidly seeing their sales diminish as video and the Internet made porn increasingly more accessible.135

Then, in 1994, a magazine named Loaded planted a stake in the nebulous, demilitarized zone between lit and porn. Maxim followed Loaded's lead with a rag that "found the sweet spot between frat boys and soccer hooligans,"136 and wasn't afraid "to talk to guys like guys talk to each other," as publisher Lance Ford put it. "Guys know they have their inner swine rooting around in there somewhere," added editor Mark Golin, "and they're dying to let it out."137

Maxim unleashed man's inner swine on the United Kingdom and quickly determined it could surprise the U.S. market with an identical formula. When Maxim founder Felix Dennis peered across the Atlantic, he saw a "sleepy American newsstand"138 where he could be "the first into the desert with a beer truck."139

Popular men's magazines in the United States were meanwhile "occupied with picking up National Magazine Awards at clubby luncheons, carrying on a tradition dating back to Esquire in the 1960s, and beefing up 'service' columns in response to Men's Health and other narrowly focused interlopers like Cigar Aficionado." Ford described the competition as "too earnest and serious." So Maxim unleashed a surprise attack.140

 

The British Invasion

The men's magazine establishment in America tried its best to impersonate Paul Revere in its forewarning of the British magazine invasion. Esquire editor David Granger shrugged, "It's not a bad magazine. It's just limited in its aspirations and ideas of what a man is." GQ editor Art Cooper added that Maxim had "lots more in common with MTV than with classical magazines . . . we have no intention of changing."141

In the face of Maxim's surprise attack, the magazine intelligentsia did nothing. The reading audience, however, very much did something. Despite the sociological trend of political correctness in the United States, Maxim generated immediate traction (and sales) with young men, specifically, twenty-six-year-old men with a median household income of $62,000--as high as or higher than the household incomes of subscribers to competitors such as GQ and Esquire.142

"It is as if Adam Sandler left his career as a cinematic knucklehead and decided to make a magazine . . . by mating the bawdy Fleet Street tabloid tradition to the untethered humor of Monty Python," wrote the New York Times' David Carr.143 "Make no mistake," added Maxim essayist Mike Lasswell, "Women are sick and tired of weepy, turtlenecked boys in touch with their feminine sides."144

Maxim's first issue included a feature on "Babe Management," a "six-step guide to getting what you want from the woman you love." The feature included a photo of an attractive young blonde with her pajama shirt unbuttoned, along with the caption: "She just made you waffles."145 Former Maxim editor Dave Itzkoff distilled "the magical recipe that . . . dictated exactly which articles were to run every single month" as follows:

  • Three (3) babe features comprising pictures of underdressed starlets of varying degrees of celebrity;

  • One (1) sex feature dispensing bedroom advice, illustrated with more pictures of models;

  • One (1) personal benefit/service feature providing step-by-step guidance for when you find yourself, say, confronted by a terrorist or eager to build a potato cannon from PVC pipe;

  • One (1) true crime/"gritty read" feature that is actually thoroughly researched and reported,
    and often well written;

  • And one (1) humor feature comprising even more pictures of women and punch lines that depend on phrases like "man-paste" and "pierc[ed] taco."146

Men are eating it up. According to a poll of Fortune 1000 CEOs, "investment bankers were five times more likely to read Maxim magazine cover to cover than Business Week."147 It was named "Magazine of the Year 1999" by Advertising Age magazine.148

Maxim has even began to use its reputation to expand into other markets, including men's hair products, with edgy dyes like "Bleach Blond," "Sandstorm," "Black Jack" and "Red Rum."149 And in 2003, Maxim scheduled two television specials to be shown on ESPN and NBC--the first steps toward a new cable channel called Maxim Entertainment Network, or MEN. "The match between Maxim and television is very obvious," said Felix Dennis. "You would have to be an idiot not to see it. Do you think with the number of readers that we have among young men that they wouldn't push a button and see what is on a Maxim channel?"150

According to a poll of Fortune 1000 CEOs, investment bankers were five times more likely to read Maxim magazine cover to cover than Business Week.

Dumb and Dumber?

The magazine establishment, meanwhile, has continued to dismiss Maxim. "It's dumb and dumber," insisted GQ's Cooper.151 Maybe "bedroom tactics that rock their worlds" isn't the most intellectually stimulating material. Who cares if it's a guide to "nookie symbolism"?152 So what if people don't actually read it for the articles? Maxim magazine combined "dumb and dumber" content with "smart and smarter" strategy and surprise to whip the competition in its self-righteous, politically correct behind.

 

Virgin Ambushes the World

Richard Branson understands the element of surprise. In fact, he has been surprising people all his life. The surprises started when he dropped out of high school. They continued with his humble, mail-order record retail business in 1970. By the time Branson started Virgin Records in 1973, surprises were in full swing.153

Branson has taken us all the way from the Sex Pistols to a veritable Virgin empire--with more than two hundred companies worldwide, employing over twenty-five thousand people and annual revenues upward of $5 billion.154 Leveraging the muscle he established in the music industry, Branson has expanded Virgin into finance, soft drinks, telecommunications, planes, trains, cars, wines, publishing and even bridal wear.155

But the glue that binds all of these seemingly disparate industries is Branson's highly refined understanding of the element of surprise and the importance of acting quickly.

 

A Fast and Loose Virgin

When Branson entered the soft-drink industry, instead of conducting a typical, expensive, two-year market-research study that a FMCG ("Fast-Moving" Consumer Goods) company like Procter & Gamble might perform, Branson tested Virgin Cola--a cheaper alternative to Coke or Pepsi--in just one major supermarket in England over a mere six months.156

When he entered the airline industry, Branson started with a single 747. Virgin Atlantic now has 26 wide-body jets--each offering such "Virgin touches" as massages and manicures. Branson's test-marketing? "I remember I called up [no-frills airline of the '80s] People Express, and I couldn't get through to them. And I thought, well, they must be doing really well or they're really inefficient. If either was true, I figured, there was room for competition."157

In 1998, Branson shocked everyone yet again when "Virgin Direct" stormed into the world of investment funds with a simple premise: "Charge far lower commissions than other investment funds." Will Whitehorn, Virgin's corporate affairs director, said, "Everybody laughed at first, because what relevancy did Virgin have in the financial market?" In its first year of operation, Virgin Direct took in $650 million in revenues.158

 

What's Next--Virgin Brothels?

Branson and Virgin have been moving into spaces seemingly overcrowded by the competition with shrewd strategy, lightning agility and unending surprise. "We look at markets where things have been done the same way for a long time," says Branson, "and we ask whether we can do anything differently."159 The company mission statement continues, "We look for opportunities where we can offer something better, fresher and more valuable, and we seize them. We often move into areas where the customer has traditionally received a poor deal, and where the competition is complacent."160

A combination of better, fresher, greater value and no tolerance for complacency has brought us Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Rail, Virgin Megastores, Virgin Cola, Virgin Vodka, Virgin Cinemas, Virgin Cosmetics, Virgin Bride, Virgin Energy (gas and electric) and Virgin Direct--among others. All the while, Branson--when he isn't busy skydiving or floating balloons across the Atlantic--has been unafraid to surprise himself or the rest of the world. "He's a cross between Ted Turner and Evel Knievel," said David Tait, then Virgin's executive vice president.161 Add Alfred Hitchcock to that list, and you have Richard Branson: the modern master of corporate surprise.

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