Play the Product Marketing Game Like a Chess Grandmaster

By Mike Urbonas June 07, 2011

In an earlier life, I was a fairly good chess player. I still occasionally play. Numerous business trips have involved memorable chess games: speed chess on Denver’s 16th Avenue Mall; a game with a chess shark overlooking Newport Beach, California; and chess over a pint with London locals at the legendary Churchill Arms pub in Kensington. Unfortunately I did not represent "The States" very well over the chessboard that evening (UK 3 - USA 0, I'm afraid).

For those interested in becoming a very good chess player, one of the best books is Play Like a Grandmaster by Alexander Kotov. Unlike many overly technical chess books, the timeless insights and friendly advice in Kotov's book remain as valuable today for aspiring chess masters as when first published in 1973.

Recently, I considered the book from a product marketing perspective and realized that many thought processes essential for playing good chess bear striking similarities to effective product marketing. And I found several analogies between Kotov's chess advice and the results-oriented training offered by Pragmatic Institute.

In fact, Kotov's insight for the aspiring chess master could quite easily be advice for the aspiring product marketing leader:

The player who wishes to improve, who wants to win in competitive play, must develop his ability to assess positions, and on that basis work out plans for what comes next.... [Specifically, after the player] has worked out the relationship of the [position's] elements to each other, the player moves on to general assessment [and then] proceeds to the next step, when (s)he draws up a plan for what follows.

Chess Analysis and Market Analysis
There are clear analogies between Kotov's advice for success at the chess board and for product marketers to improve their game:

  • Assessing Key Elements. Effective chess play begins with correctly assessing the key elements of a position. Kotov lists 17 possible key elements of a chess position, categorizing them in a way product marketers can appreciate: permanent advantages and temporary advantages. Winning chess requires identifying your advantages, understanding how those advantages relate to one another, and recognizing which advantages are the most important. 

    Pragmatic Institute's Marketecture process for product positioning is similar: Identify the most important challenges your target market/target buyer faces, then prioritize the features in your product that solve those challenges.
  • General Assessment. After a review of the key elements, a chess player summarizes the findings. For example: "My opponent has three weak pawns, all defended by a bishop." This general assessment is similar to a marketing positioning document—the written findings of the Marketecture process.
  • Planning. With the general assessment in mind, a chess player is ready to formulate a concrete plan (i.e., "I will force my opponent to trade his bishop for mine, leaving all three of his weak pawns undefended, which I will attack with my queen.").

    The road to a marketing plan has further steps, of course: The positioning document is used to develop collateral and other marketing assets, which are used to help develop a go-to market strategy, which in turn leads to the selection of specific marketing tools and programs. Clearly, the selection of effective marketing tactical activities must come only after the positioning process.

Following these steps enables both chess players and product marketers to focus. Chess beginners struggle to choose between what feels like a limitless number of possible moves. A plan drawn from an assessment, however, helps eliminate moves that do not pertain to that plan. Similarly, product marketers struggle with "the list”—our seemingly endless checklist of marketing tasks. With a well-written positioning document, however, you can easily delete things off "the list" that do not support your plan.

Planning in a Bubble

In his book, Kotov analyzes one grandmaster game where a player formulated what appeared to be a winning plan based on his opponent's weaknesses. Unfortunately, he ignored his own weakness and found himself under attack.
How do product marketers avoid planning in a bubble? How do we know our marketing plan is viable and fully aware of market realities? Let's look at another relevant observation by Kotov:

How does the idea of a plan arise in the mind of a grandmaster? The process is a creative one, but it is inextricably linked with the assessment. One of the tasks of the assessment is to establish where the weak points lie in each camp, and the plan must be linked with these weaknesses.

To help chess players make an accurate and pragmatic general assessment that will help lead to a successful plan, Kotov systematically lays out basic guidelines of positional chess, which also ring true for product marketing:

  • In level positions, the two sides will maneuver, trying to tilt the balance of the position, each in their own favor.
  • The defender must be prepared to defend and to make concessions. 
  • The advantage may consist of a large advantage or a number of small advantages.
  • The right to attack belongs to the side which has a positional advantage. This is not just a right, it is a duty; otherwise he runs the risk of losing his advantage. 


King of a New Castle
Let’s look at an example of strategic product marketing by Kalido, a Boston area data management software company. For years, the company focused on solutions for Master Data Management (MDM) and data modeling. Company executives recognized it as an advantage—a key element—in ensuring high data quality.

Looking deeper into an evolving market—a general assessment—Kalido executives identified the accelerating proliferation of business data that organizations must manage and share across the enterprise, requiring more highly accurate data than ever before. The time and costs to correct and cleanse "bad data" from burgeoning data volumes could easily become a runaway train.

The plan Kalido devised, drawn from its assessment, was to focus their Marketecture on preventing bad data from being entered into company systems in the first place—rather than finding and cleaning up bad data much later.

It should be noted the company ultimately developed new Enterprise Data Governance technology focused on proper definition, monitoring and enforcement of data rules and policies.  Had the company failed to act upon its assessment—to act on its duty to utilize its advantage—another company may well have captured that market opportunity by now.

A Final Word: Kotov's Syndrome

In another book, Alexander Kotov described a situation in which a chess player thinks very hard for a very long time in a complicated position, but still fails to find a viable move.  Running low on time, he makes an impulsive blunder—a poor move that loses immediately and has since been dubbed Kotov's Syndrome.

Kotov explains that the blunder occurs because of an incomplete understanding of the key elements of a position, without which an assessment and plan cannot be found. Similarly, an effective marketing plan cannot be developed without understanding and actively applying the basics of product marketing. Don’t get caught filling out planning document templates with your internal opinions, just because you are in a rush. Be patient. Spend time with real “personas,” in their native habitat, learning their market problems then use that data in the application of the Pragmatic Institute positioning process to create a winning Marketecture

Categories: Market Analysis Go-to-Market
Mike Urbonas

Mike Urbonas

Mike Urbonas is director of product marketing for Attivio, Inc. Mike has more than 14 years of software product marketing experience, primarily in the business intelligence and data warehousing space, including effective product positioning, messaging and content marketing.  He writes about product marketing, BI/DW technology and more in his personal blog,

Looking for the latest in product and data science? Get our articles, webinars and podcasts.