Strategy is an expensive word and, therefore, one that proliferates on business cards and in presentations. Users of it like it to think it connotes intelligence, high-brow thinking and, most importantly, a distinction from those things called tactics which are grubby, street-level activities and thus far beneath them.
The trouble is that most of them aren't engaging in strategy. That's not to deny the value of what they do, but I don't think it's pedantic to insist that they get their terms right. If we don't understand what strategy really is, we lose sight of what we're doing and can also fall prey to any number of over-blown claims and advice.
The impetus finally to write a post on this subject was provided by a post from a high-profile consultant that featured the following list of examples ostensibly designed to illustrate the difference between strategies and tactics:
To illustrate, here’s some specific examples across different industries
of how strategic goals can be communicated with clear tactical
elements, in a linear and logical order:
- Strategy: Be the market share leader in terms of sales in the mid-market in our industry. Tactics:
Offer lower cost solutions than enterprise competitors without
sacrificing white-glove service for first 3 years of customer contracts.
- Strategy: Maneuver our brand into top two consideration set of household decision makers. Tactics:
Deploy a marketing campaign that leverages existing customer reviews
and spurs them to conduct word of mouth with their peers in online and
real world events.
- Strategy: Improve retention of top 10% of company performers. Tactics:
Offer best in market compensation plan with benefits as well as
sabbaticals to tenured top performers, source ideas from top talent.
- Strategy: Connect with customers while in our store and increase sales. Tactics:
Offer location based mobile apps on top three platforms, and provide
top 5 needed use cases based on customer desire and usage patterns.
- Strategy: Become a social utility that earth uses on an daily basis. Tactics:
Offer a free global communication toolset that enables disparate
personal interactions with your friends to monitor, share, and interact
You see the problem?
That's right, none of those are strategies. They're objectives. Reasonable objectives, objectives that are proxies for and measures of the success of the business's underlying strategy, but definitely objectives and not strategies.
So what is a strategy? It's the declaration of what your business can do better than anybody else, why that's the case and in a way that generates a satisfactory profit. Nothing more, nothing less. Everything else that is done in pursuit of that strategy is tactical and while the co-ordination of all that might be termed marketing planning, I don't think it can be called strategic.
I'd go further and assert that the term strategy should only be applied to corporate-level activity and should be predicated upon a sustainable competitive advantage, be that a cost advantage or some lasting form of differentiation/distinctiveness.
In doing so, I know I'll be parting company with a number of my advertising planning friends who are prone to talk of strategy when I think their remarkable uncovering of insights and truths is, in fact, not strategic but rather something that facilitates the creation of new tactical approaches in pursuit of existing client strategies.
And that's where marketing should be. Not in some ivory tower, but in the real world, aligning tactics with business strategy and dealing with that grubby street-level issue of connecting with customers. Marketing isn't strategic. It's more important than that.