Think you have a marketing strategy? Think again

By: Jason Ball

Date: 15 May 2019

A team of colleagues discussing strategy, with the help of printed-out graphs showing business data.

'Strategy' is one of the most used and abused terms in marketing today. We're told we need to have a digital strategy or a social media strategy or an AI strategy if we're to succeed. But, in reality, none of these are strategies - they're tactics. And when tactics are mistaken for strategy, everyone loses.

Marketing strategy is a roadmap

At its core, strategy is the concentration of resources towards an agreed goal. It is about overcoming the hurdles preventing the business from realising its long-term ambitions. Translating business strategy into a marketing strategy means having a grown-up conversation with the CEO and the rest of the C-suite to properly understand their objectives, and make sure everyone is aligned.

If nothing stands in the business's way, you don't need a strategy - or marketing for that matter. Strategy sits between goals and tactics. If goals are where we want to end up, and tactics help us to get there, then strategy tells us how we're going to do it. It's a roadmap.

As with any roadmap, there will be multiple possible routes to the final destination.

Not every part of the business strategy can be helped by marketing. But many parts can. Sometimes too many. So it's important to identify a small number of critical objectives (ideally no more than three) to focus your time, money and effort on.

Let's get real

The problem with so much talk about strategy is that it tends to be either vague or conflicting. There is lots of talk about needing a strategy, but far less on what that actually means in the real world. So I want to be as clear as possible about how business strategy compares to marketing strategy, and how marketing strategy compares to marketing tactics.

Let's explore a hypothetical B2B example in the professional services industry. It should go without saying the actual strategies and tactics would be developed into far more depth than you see here, though the ability to keep to one side of a sheet of paper is a good measure of a focused strategy.

Context: A small premium-level consultancy focused on the manufacturing sector wants to replicate its success across Europe by expanding to the US.

Business strategy: Grow our manufacturing consulting practice by establishing a presence in the North American market, displacing traditional big-name generalist consultancies.

Marketing strategy: Demonstrate we understand how to overcome the real-world issues faced by target customers in the North American market in a way that no generalist can.

Marketing tactics: Commission primary research to uncover the largest business-critical threats to day-to-day manufacturing success. De-position competitors by running an integrated programme with a theme of 'Cut the Crap' - this will contrast client frustration with traditional consultancies (all-theory, all PowerPoint, no effective action) with our Pathways to Profit™ methodology. Focus our efforts on key foothold clients with a highly targeted account-based marketing push.

Given that strategy is fundamentally about focus and trade-offs, what trade-offs are being made here?

At a business strategy level, it has been recognised that not only will we be entering a mature market with entrenched competitors, but that these competitors will be generalist management consultancies. In this, it will be critical to steal share rather than grow the market.

The marketing strategy is to focus on a key pain point for customers, which is that generalist consultancies apply generalist thinking to highly specific industry problems.

Now, in the real world, specific frustrations should have been identified with a significant amount of research (in-depth interviews, market mapping, competitor analysis, etc). This would provide the foundation for a marketing strategy focused on 'real-world issues' versus the epidemic of theoretical slideware that traditional consultancies vomit onto the market.

When it comes to tactics, the focus is to get closer to the customer, running research that shows we're listening and which will provide them with valuable insights - because, as buyers, we are always interested in what others just like us are doing and thinking.

This then leads to a clear de-positioning campaign at the broader brand level, making bold statements that will help achieve cut-through. At the same time, there is a focus on specific named target accounts in a push to get referenceable clients that will resonate with a North American audience.

Again, there would have been multiple options at every level. Marketing could have pursued a range of strategies. And the tactical combinations are almost endless. But they didn't - they made specific choices based on the overarching business strategy which plotted a clear roadmap towards achieving their ultimate goals.

All manner of things could have swayed their decisions in other directions - the timescale for success, the definition of the target market, the positioning of key competitors, broader economic factors or their available budget.

The brutal truth is that strategy is inherently a process of saying no. It's about taking a rational decision to choose one approach over another.

Ultimately, it's a judgement call, and so it is critical to build marketing's reputation with senior management to a level at which they trust your judgement.

Copyright 2019. Article made possible by Jason Ball, founder of B2B marketing specialist Considered Content.

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