What “The Biggest Bluff” Can Teach You About Strategy

(Reading Time: 3 minutes)

“The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win” will be on my list of the best books I read in 2020.  It’s a layered story, compelling and well-told.

Written by Maria Konnikova, a Ph. D. in psychology and a contributing writer to the New Yorker, “The Biggest Bluff” details the year she spent learning to play poker, starting as a complete novice.  I won’t spoil the ending, but it goes pretty well for her.

It doesn’t hurt that her coach is Erik Seidel.  Seidel – aka “Seiborg” – is one of the all-time poker greats, with nearly $35 million in tournament winnings (that doesn’t include cash games) and eight World Series of Poker bracelets (only five players have more).

(One Area) Where Poker Meets Brand Strategy

The Biggest Bluff book cover

Though I haven’t played poker seriously in about a decade, I remain fascinated by the game.  Poker is an analog for many aspects of business and life; while I’ll spare you that full tangent, one quote in “The Biggest Bluff” jumps out as particularly true in the realm of brand strategy.

Konnikova writes:

“When I inevitably ask [Seidel] the question he gets asked most frequently—what his single piece of advice would be to aspiring poker players—his answer is two words long: pay attention. Two simple words that we simply ignore more often than not. Presence is far more difficult than the path of least resistance.” (emphasis mine)

How does this relate to brand strategy?  Simple:

The most overlooked and underrated aspect of strategy is diagnosis.  We have a tendency to jump to solutions without first defining the problem.  We want to start moving immediately, but often fail to define our starting point.

In a culture that encourages overstuffed calendars and non-stop activity, we rarely take the time to reflect on whether the things that keep us busy are the things that work.

Better Diagnosis = Better Strategy

There are a bunch of hawkers on LinkedIn (and in my spam folder) promising hundreds of “qualified” sales leads.  “More leads” proposes a solution to a near-universal concern: “We’d like to have more revenue.” 

But if your revenue isn’t where you’d like it to be, is the problem the number of leads?  Or is it possible that:

  • You have enough leads, but you’re bad at closing them? 
  • Your customer retention rate is poor?
  • Your offer is a bad match for the market?
  • Your competitors simply do a better job?

The diagnosis has everything to do with the solution we choose.

If we don’t pay attention, we’re liable to grab the first tactic that comes along.  When that fails, we’ll grab the next.

But if we do pay attention – if we replace certainty with inquiry (another Seidel mantra), if we analyze before acting – we greatly increase our chances of taking the best next step.

In brand strategy, as in poker: Strategy is situational.  The best move depends on the context.  And we can only grasp the context if we pay attention.

Some questions to consider:

  • Early in the strategic process, do we identify the biggest obstacles between where we are and where we want to be?  Is our plan designed to overcome these obstacles?
  • Do we frequently assess our situation and consider our next steps accordingly?  Or is strategy a painful, once-a-year sprint?
  • Do we deliberately build feedback loops into our marketing and operations?
  • Before adopting any tactic, do we tie it directly to a problem or outcome?
  • Before adopting any tactic, do we compare several options?  Or do we grab the first thing that comes along?
  • Does our organization reward activity or results?
  • Is our strategic plan a list of tasks or a cohesive set of actions designed to win?
  • When building strategy, do we sometimes find ourselves saying, “That’s a good tactic, but not for us”?

If you enjoyed this post, please:

1. Share with at least one person (or use the share buttons)
2. Sign up for our newsletter, That Branding Thing
3. Find me on Twitter or LinkedIn

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew is a former CMO who helps brands to focus, stand out and grow.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He’s based in Chicago.

Copyright 2020 – Matthew Fenton. All Rights Reserved. You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.

Brand Differentiation: Ten Traps to Avoid

(Reading Time: 7 minutes)

In my last post, I proposed five principles of brand differentiation:

  1. The goal is not “difference.”  The goal is value and meaning.
  2. Differentiation is not something you find.  It’s something you create.
  3. In branding, as in life, what we do matters more than what we say.
  4. “Best” is relative.
  5. Be precise with your Who.  Be creative with your How.

These are the starting points.  But if you’ve ever attempted to cut your own hair during a pandemic – speaking hypothetically, of course! – you know there can be a huge gap between “best intentions” and “end result.”  Things go wrong along the way.

The same goes for brand differentiation.  There’s the moment of inspiration, and then there’s all the hard work that comes after it.

Continue reading “Brand Differentiation: Ten Traps to Avoid”

Five Principles for Creating Brand Difference

(Reading Time: 3 minutes)

Harvard’s Michael Porter famously said that there are exactly two ways to compete: Cost leadership and differentiation.

Are you Walmart or Amazon?  No?  Then differentiation seems like the way to go.

Practical example: If you own an independent flooring store, and a Home Depot opens up half a mile away, do you really think you’re going to beat them on price?  Time to start thinking about playing a game you can win.

The trouble is, many products, services and brands have no real point of difference.  Which means they’re in trouble.  If you’re not different, you’re dying.

So here are five “first principles” – mindset, not tactics – to help you stand out: 

Continue reading “Five Principles for Creating Brand Difference”

Act With Purpose: Four Factors for Making a Difference

Act With Purpose
(Reading Time: 3 minutes)

Last week, I shared five reasons why I’m at odds with the “Change or die!” fear-mongers.  Today I offer an alternate (and calmer) approach: “Act with purpose.”

I’ll begin with another rebuttal to “Change or die”: We’re already changing, without anyone shouting at us to do so.  As people, as teams, as organizations, we’re changing all the time.

Any time we adopt a new habit, launch a new product, or add even one new team member, we’re changing.  But change can be intentional or unintentional.  So the operative question is this:

Continue reading “Act With Purpose: Four Factors for Making a Difference”

Don’t Waste This Crisis: How Strong Values Improve Strategy

(Reading Time: 6 minutes)

There’s a question that’s asked far too rarely as we develop brand and business strategies.  It’s simple but extremely powerful, since it shapes everything that you’ll do as a team or organization.

The question:

Who do we want to be?

It’s challenging to lead an organization in the best of times.  In a time of scarcity – like the one we recently, abruptly entered – it can feel impossible.

But navigating difficulty is one of the roles of a leader.  As FDR said, “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” 

Continue reading “Don’t Waste This Crisis: How Strong Values Improve Strategy”

The Super Bowl Ads: A Guide for the Rest of Us

(Reading Time: 10 minutes)

Friends, the Super Bowl is just a few days away.  That means the Super Bowl ads are just a few days away.  And that means the advertising media, and a few pundits, are working themselves into a lather right about now.

Take Gary Vaynerchuk.  He’s on record as saying:

“Super Bowl ads are underpriced.  Yeah, I said it.”

Medium.com, Jan. 29, 2015


“When I buy my first brand, the first thing I’m gonna do is run multiple Super Bowl ads.”

ANA Masters of Marketing Conference, 2016

See that?  Gary Vee doesn’t even know what his product or service will be, let alone anything about its market or competitive situation, and he’s already committed to a tactical decision on its behalf.  This is obviously a problem, and we’ll come back to it.

Continue reading “The Super Bowl Ads: A Guide for the Rest of Us”

Of Sparkling Water and Hockey Pucks

(Reading Time: 2 minutes)

Sparkling water costs pennies per can to produce.

If you knew this fact only, and you were in the sparkling water business, you might reasonably conclude:

  • Others are going to want a piece of this profitable market.
  • Some of them have been canning fizzy water for decades, and they’re damn good at it.
  • Some of them have very deep pockets.
  • Some of them are going to innovate.

What happens?

Continue reading “Of Sparkling Water and Hockey Pucks”