What do ancient military tactics and social media marketing have in common?

Apparently a lot, according to anime Ya Boy Kongming. You might be surprised to know how much, in fact, as both have been refined and honed over years (or millennia) for maximum effectiveness.

Ya Boy Kongming is a bizarre and brilliant anime about the famous real-life Chinese Tactician, known as Zhuge Liang or Kongming, who wishes with his dying breath to be reborn in a time of peace. And sure enough, he is – in modern-day Japan. He stumbles across a struggling EDM singer called Eiko, and decides to apply his tactical military prowess to modern-day music management, helping Eiko become famous in the process.

War and business have more similarities than you might think. There is a reason business executives like The Art of War so much. But if you’re curious how the two can have anything in common at all, read on.

Now, of course, to condense and translate the entirety of ancient warfare tactics onto this blog would be an impossible task. So I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to pull a few specific examples from Ya Boy Kongming showing how Kongming’s business tactics, inspired by a vast knowledge of ancient warfare norms from the era of the Three Kingdoms, are surprisingly appropriate for our own time.

Your market position is your kingdom. It is up to you to grow, expand, and defend.

Hear me out. Your product or, more precisely, the specific way you position it as a solution for someone’s problems, is your territory. Once you secure product-market fit, you must use tactics to ensure your kingdom continues to thrive. You may expand your kingdom’s population by earning new fans, and therefore, cash. You may conquer other kingdoms by pushing new products into new positions. Or you may be content to maintain your own kingdom, without eyes for conquest or growth.

Take Eiko, the EDM singer. Her product is her voice, her songs, and her music. Her product-market fit is the ability to create great songs and deliver great performances. But not a lot of people have heard of her, so she must conquer the market and earn new listeners. To fail to do so would mean working in a small club forever and continuing to dream, all while being ridiculously talented.

Enter Kongming. The ancient Chinese tactician stumbled into her club and heard her sing. He thought her voice was whatever the 250 AD equivalent of sliced bread happened to be.

They formed an inseparable bond. Eiko was energized and ready to conquer the EDM market. Kongming was ready to take on myriad battles of music management, all to propel her career into the stratosphere.

But this is all strategy for now. Let’s talk about the ancient tactics Kongming employs to take over TikTok and Instagram over the current seven episodes available to watch.

Kongming prioritizes the literal capture of attention for Eiko.

Eiko doesn’t lack talent. She’s a diamond waiting to be discovered. Kongming correctly reads the situation and immediately prioritizes the generation of attention. After all, attention is the gateway to interest, desire, and action (streaming music and purchasing concert tickets).

He does this by psychologically trapping the guests in the venue and forcing them to listen to Eiko.

OK, so this is an anime. Take lessons with a pinch of salt. Try not to violate OSHA like Kongming, whose Stone Sentinel Maze made it hard to navigate the club. The decor was arranged so that people would mindlessly walk from the entrance to the restroom to the staff-only area at irregular intervals.

Because people were getting lost in the venue, Kongming knew that Eiko would have the precious seconds and minutes needed to win them over with her voice. Which she did, declaring that this was the true reason why guests were not leaving the nightclub.

This exact same tactic is used by companies as big as IKEA and Costco – albeit not to this extent! – to keep you shopping for longer. Make the layout confusing, expose people to more products, and they will eventually buy more. But such a trick only works if you have something worth selling in the first place.

Kongming uses attention-gathering stunts to create something out of nothing.

More compelling evidence of Kongming’s tactical marketing skills begins in episode 3 where Kongming has scheduled Eiko to perform at a local arts festival for up-and-coming talent. It’s a rite of passage for every rising artist.

When you are up and coming, you have to try and turn every bad situation you get into a good one. Everything from production delays to bad PR needs to be spun in your favor. The example here is that Eiko has been given a crappy stage in a crappy location, leaving her to perform to seemingly no one.

In business, there is a concept called “red ocean and blue ocean.” Coined by Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, these terms demonstrate the fundamental difference between two different market strategies. In the bloody, shark-infested red ocean, you fight in an existing marketplace, beat the competition, and exploit existing demand. In the open blue ocean, you make demand, seek out a low-competition space, and propose an entirely new kind of value.

Eiko has to compete in red waters. She has no choice. So what does Kongming do?

He finds out that the well-known band, Jet Jacket, is performing on the main stage later that night and that their singer has a sore throat. This intel means they will not be able to perform their big hit – a perfect opportunity for Eiko to shine.

Due to this, Kongming enlists the strategy Create Something Out Of Nothing from chapter 2 of The Thirty-Six Strategems. This strategy, simplified, is to create a lie out of thin air to feint your enemy into believing that you are not going to attack or are weaker/stronger than expected.

“Creating something out of nothing” might sound like some kind of anime power move, but the term in fact comes from the Book of Qi, in its seventh biographical volume, Biography of Wáng Jìngzé (王敬則傳/王敬则传).

Kongming lies to Eiko by telling her equipment is malfunctioning. This causes her to go on stage right when Jet Jacket is supposed to be performing. The result is that Eiko delivers a powerful performance that drowns Jet Jacket right out. The crowd couldn’t help but go check out the singer who was making so much beautiful noise.

The feint also works as it made Jet Jacket believe they would have no competition and thus would win by default. But Eiko hops on stage in an explosively loud way, making something out of nothing, and drawing a huge crowd to her once crappy stage.  

Brands do this all the time. Coca-Cola is just sugar water with good branding. Rappers pretend to have beef with other rappers to get attention online. Even governments do this with wartime propaganda, inciting patriotic fervor (for good and for evil) in otherwise apolitical people.

The best modern example is online clickbait. Articles and videos are often titled in such attractive ways that you have to click. The best writers and videographers deliver on the promise of their headlines. Most don’t.

Now we all know it’s better not to lie. But even the most ethical copywriter knows one thing for sure: the headline has to be attractive enough to incite a click out of nowhere.

Kongming chooses an important marketing metric and optimizes tactics to achieve it.

A goal we can all relate to is to get more likes, followers, and views. Basically anytime the numbers “go brrr”, we approve of it. It is the ultimate goal for so many content creators as a sufficient amount of attention opens the door for endless possibilities.

Starting off with episode 4, Eiko and Kongming are presented with the opportunity of a lifetime by Tsuyoshi Kondo. Eiko has a chance to perform at the major festival Summer Sonia as long as she gets 10,000 likes (followers).

Ask anyone how to do this today and they will tell you a multitude of ways to hit that number. Tactics include scheduling your content so it goes out at peak time, using both trending and targeted hashtags, and much more. But what does the great tactician Kongming do?

Kongming reaches out to influencers and collaboration to increase social media followers.

Kongming starts by seeking and stoking the fire of a retired #1 rapper, Kabetaijin. The stress and pressure got to be too much for him and he quit. Over the course of episodes 5 & 6, he challenges him and helps him work through his anxiety, which – in addition to being a heartwarming storyline – is also a very smart strategy. People have been waiting for new music from Kabetaijin forever.

Afterward, he convinces him to join up with Eiko. This top-tier rapper provides a brilliant way for Eiko to broaden her reach.

This tactic is all over pop music, because it’s such a good marketing tactic. But if you want a good example, I’ll give you just one.

Take the megastar and savvy businesswoman, Taylor Swift. She teamed up with none other than Kendrick Lamar to release Bad Blood.

The reason for this was twofold. First thing is that, in the music business especially, collaborations are marketing 101. Both fan bases became introduced to new artists and the press visibility was phenomenal. This song topped ou the charts and racked up 20.1 million views.

Kendrick Lamar told the UK magazine Shortlist about collaborating with Taylor Swift on this song. “She reached out and expressed how much of a fan she was,” he recalled. “She knew all my raps so I knew it was true. We got in the studio, vibed out and she produced a record.”

Rap also cuts through pop music’s flow adding that bite to it which sometimes is really welcomed. Personally, having listened to both version of Bad Blood – the one with the rap verse and the one without – I am definitely feeling the rap adds to the song in all the right ways.

As an aside, this also gives me the perfect opportunity to post the absolute bop that is this show’s opening theme song.

Kongming is a master of timing in warfare and on social media.

The topic of when to upload your content has been deeply analyzed by many. The goal, of course, is to get maximum exposure and depending on the platform, you will find different results by posting at different times. What’s best for you is to view when your content is best received by looking at your analytics on the sites you post as well as your competitors by using sites such as Social Blade.

In episode 7, Kongming thinks the best time to upload the video to get 10,000 likes is 3 days before the deadline. Now the next episode isn’t out as I write this, but I suspect he’s doing this for good reason. Waiting until 3 days before is risky, but he likely knows that this is the best way to keep a massive amount of attention on Eiko all at once, when it counts the most.

In other words, he wants Eiko to go viral (in the non-coronavirus sense of the word), because that results in a massive spike of followers and likes.

Virality makes and breaks music artists these days. It’s not even a new trend. Take Justin Bieber. He uploaded a cover of Justin Timberlake back in 2008. He was later found by Scooter Braun, who worked for So So Def Recordings. He was so impressed that he tracked him down, and gave him a record deal at just 13 years of age. He was singing with Usher later that year.

So I think this is exactly what’s going to happen with Eiko in the show. She’s going to make such a big splash so close to the deadline of the competition that it gets everyone’s attention in a snap moment. I hope it pays off for them.

Final Thoughts on Ya Boy Kongming

Ya Boy Kongming came out flying out the door with this bizarre narrative. An ancient Chinese war tactician getting into music management. It’s such a wacky premise! But so far, it has delivered in terms of story, music, and subtle marketing education.

It’s clever to juxtapose modern-day marketing and ancient Chinese tactics. I never thought I would see the two compared side-by-side, but somehow it works.

I’m writing this mid-season, and there’s a few more episodes to go. I’m really curious to see what Kongming does to get Eiko to 10,000 likes, and what other ancient tactics he’ll employ to help her rocket to superstardom.