Make Marketing History

The views of a marketing deviant.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Why Marketing Isn't Strategic (Strategy And Tactics 101).

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 with.

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.


Anonymous Rob said...

It's amazing how many people get this wrong ... I saw a post last week that basically said the opposite of what you've written and it had loads of comments saying 'how good and valuable it all was'.

This post might not get as many comments, but it should because this is right. And valuable.

5:12 PM, May 21, 2013  
Anonymous Graham Booth said...

So relieved that, as I was reading the list, I was thinking to myself 'that's not a strategy, that's an objective'! You are 100% right about the commonplace misuse if the term, even if I don't fully agree with your narrowing of the definition of strategy to 'business strategy'

3:43 AM, June 05, 2013  
Blogger Paulo Yanaguizawa said...

Within the innocence of my short experience, I once had a huge discussion with a recruiter (agency side) about why in this whole world I was considering going to the client side since my education and previous experiences were leading me to an account planner position.

I said that understanding this tactical approach - that you´ve mentioned - inside a company could make a difference since I was bringing new points of view to obsolete marketing strategies. She almost said that I was a complete idiot.

I totally agree with what you just said. And I also think that most of the time the word strategy is so misunderstood that we are basically setting our activities around something that doesn´t even make any sense.

Thanks for the post.

4:56 AM, June 05, 2013  
Anonymous northern said...

Excellent, just excellent

6:59 AM, June 05, 2013  
Blogger john dodds said...

@graham I had the same argument with someone from McKinsey, but he would say that because he was a strategy consultant - whatever that is.

I just think the spread of its misuse needs to be stopped and making the definition overly strict is a good way to do that. Design strategy for example seems to be more a reaction against the woeful underestimation of the craft than a statement of truth.

Not calling something strategy doesn't demean it in anyway, but give me some counter examples and I'll see what I'd call them.

12:51 PM, June 05, 2013  
Blogger john dodds said...

@paulo Serves you right for talking to a frecruiter.

@northern I am not worthy.

12:52 PM, June 05, 2013  
Blogger Eaon Pritchard said...

great stuff.
Can I also suggest that in the block of examples the 'strategies' the first three are neither strategies nor objectives but are outcomes.

9:34 PM, June 05, 2013  
Blogger john dodds said...

@eaon Could well be - all this twrminology is very confusing.

1:27 AM, June 06, 2013  
Anonymous northern said...


6:00 AM, June 10, 2013  
Blogger Unknown said...

Very nice article. Straight-forward. However, it would be hard to agree your thought about limiting the term strategy to only corporate-level. It is applicable to individualized projects within a corporate that doesn't have the control of the management board or does not come under the higher level corporate structure.

12:48 AM, June 12, 2013  
Blogger john dodds said...

@invouch Only because we've become accustomed to the inflated terminology. Calling lower level approaches plans rather than strategy works for me.

2:52 AM, June 12, 2013  
Anonymous Anjali Ramachandran said...

Only just found this post and may I say it's so bloody simple and therefore so good. Nice one.

2:59 AM, September 12, 2013  
Blogger john dodds said...

Thanks Anjali. I am very simple.

1:06 PM, September 14, 2013  

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