A flank attack is targeting an enemy’s weak links. In the business world, a flank attack entails a new firm or startup targeting the weak business category of an established company. The new company may not be as financially sound as the bigger company, but could have an innovative, more unique approach towards the business that may give it an advantage. Also, the smaller company is likely to be light and flexible enough to act quickly and secretively, which the bigger brand may be unable to.
No company can be the market leader in all its business divisions. Even the largest and most successful conglomerates cannot boast of high profits or market leadership in all their business categories. There are certain categories, which if invaded by new players, could further push down the established player’s already weak positioning. These are categories the reputed firm is not serving to its full potential or giving step-child-like treatment. The company that’s flanking need not create demand, but serve the underserved or not-served.
Flank attacks can be categorized as segmental and geographical. To implement a geographical attack, the company must locate regions where the opponent has a weaker market presence. With segmental attacks, the targeting company determines the opponent’s less dominant product divisions and then further weakens that foothold strategically. For instance, if a dairy firm is struggling with its milk powder business, a competitor could hop in and worsen that state by launching a newer line of milk powder flavors or offering current milk powder products at lower price points.
Generally, a flank attack is not obvious. It’s subtle and incremental, so that by the time the target firm realizes it has been attacked, it becomes too late for retaliation. However, a response attack by the target firm is still on the cards and the attacking company should be ready and able to follow-through and not make the initial flank attack look like a one-time gig.
Strategies and Risks
As aforementioned, to launch a flank attack, a company need not come up with something new or unheard of. It just has to add a unique element and make the market take notice. This could be done by offering products at a lower or higher price than that of the bigger competitor, altering product designs (such as making them larger or bigger, whichever is better), or enhancing an existing product and offering it as new.
A flank attack can be risky since there are chances of the market not taking notice of a new, unknown product that the maker has invested resources and money into. Also, the chances of the market leader sensing a flank attack (courtesy product leaks) and getting proactive is likely, which can eliminate the element of surprise and render the whole exercise pointless.
It’s important not to get carried away by any initial success or profits and turn attention towards other businesses or markets that can be flanked. The flank attack should be long-term and must be carried out until a company has enough resources to launch another flank attack without losing focus from the first attack.