Zhuge Liang, also known as Kong Ming, was a well-known Chinese military strategist during the Three Kingdoms Period. A hundred thousand strong army led by Sima Yi, an opponent of Zhuge Liang, has come to invade the fort. However, Zhuge Liang has few troops to defend and they had insufficient time to flee. Thus, he devised the ‘Empty Fort’ strategy.
As Sima Yi’s army approaches the fort, the citizens were seen sweeping the front door. The castle gates were wide open and everyone was calm. Zhuge Liang was playing music on his Chinese musical instrument. Upon seeing this, Sima Yi concluded that there must be an ambush set up within the empty fort, given the calmness of his opponent and the citizens. An army general requested permissions to charge the fort but Sima Yi knows that Zhuge Liang never takes risks and has probably set a trap for them. Sima Yi and his army soon retreated back home. However, Zhuge Liang, indeed, has few troops to defend. Had Sima Yi and his army attacked, they would have overrun the castle. The fort was empty and no ambush had been plan. The illusion of a plan completely threw Sima Yi and his men off. Luckily, Sima Yi did not and the fort was safe for the time being.
In the context of business, this relates to building brand perception and utilizing it in order to achieve a particular outcome. Some might say it is also reverse psychology. You may have heard of the quote “fake it till you make it” as well. Companies with significant investments in R&D are perceived to be innovative. However, there is only so much time until your competitors figure out that you’re just an empty fort with nothing within. The amount of investment does not tell the story of a company’s capability to create new products and market them successfully. While this is a great strategy to throw off your competitors, it is unsustainable in the long-term. However, it is a useful strategy to have when you know the company truly has nothing left to offer and you need to buy it some time. Groupon anyone?
Empty Fort Strategy