Do you even “marketing strategy,” bro? And 5 ways to get started.

Everyone is looking for a marketing strategy. Nearly every job posting, RFP, and request I’ve seen in the past few years have put a huge emphasis on this ambiguous term. Although it’s thrown around a lot, the request for it never seems any less vague. Now, I’m not faulting those asking for it with fuzziness, because there are so many variables when it comes to determining the marketing strategy for an organization. And, if you’ve never done it before, you don’t know what you don’t know.

Story time: I was on a contract for a huge nutrition company several years back as an account manager in their internal marketing agency. I was mostly tasked with helping the brand managers for nationally recognized brands complete packaging projects, POP displays, print pieces, email layouts, etc. So, when a brand manager for a huge national brand approached me and asked for a marketing strategy to save a floundering brand, I was pumped to be working on a strategic initiative again instead of tactical execution.

I did what I do best: I built a sexy marketing strategy. I also included a specific marketing plan to help boost her tactical goals. I set up a big presentation, enthusiastically walked her through the deck, and waited for her response. She said: “That’s not a strategy. I meant, is it, like, couponing or something?”

I was literally stunned. “Coupons are tactics,” I said. I explained that tactics support a strategy, but that a strategy was much bigger than “couponing.” She wouldn’t buy it. She thought coupons were the strategy that would save a floundering brand. It’s not just her, though.

So many other people confuse a marketing strategy with a marketing tactic or a marketing plan. Maybe it’s our human nature to try to jump to the answer before we have defined the question, but people love to talk about tactics and plans so much that they often forget about strategy (or they try to blend the two). From my years working in marketing agencies, most of the initial requests that I get are for tactics. It’s not until I ask why they want a particular tactic that we start to get the meat of what they really need.

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” —Sun Tsu

Anyone can crank out a brochure, but if it doesn’t solve the client’s real issue, it’s a waste of money – no matter how good it looks. And if it doesn’t have a sound strategy behind it, you can bet it’s not going to work.

What does “marketing strategy” even mean?

In its simplest form, a marketing strategy defines the competitive edge of a business. In a more complex form, a marketing strategy outlines your competitive edge, your organizational goals, your messaging strategy, your channel mix, and many other components. Basically, it’s the guide to how your company talks about itself and what it wants to achieve.

“Strategy is a pattern in a stream of decisions.” —Henry Mintzberg

You need to be careful when developing your marketing strategy. Just like the brand manager from my story, some people have trouble differentiating a marketing strategy from a marketing plan. Don’t get too tactical too soon. A lot of things that people want to include in a marketing strategy (budget, timeline, quantifiable objectives) are things that should go in a marketing plan. A marketing plan is specific to a product launch or a campaign or the like. It’s going to work to achieve an objective like: increase social engagement by 10% over the next 30 days. Keep the marketing strategy more high-level with goals like “be the top retailer in our category” or “be considered a thought-leader in X industry.” These are vague and general, but you get the idea.

When I write a marketing strategy for a customer, I start with a template of key components that every business needs within their strategy. That being said, every business is different and, so, your business may need to consider some additional things outside of this list. But, here are the components on which I put the most focus (in no particular order):

1. The Competitive Edge / Positioning

Why are you so special? Why should people buy from you instead of brand X? You should be able to answer that in a few words. If not, it’s time to get cracking on your marketing strategy, because this is where you start, baby.

When you think about the benefits your business offers, remember that all benefits can be boiled down into 3 key categories:

  • Save / make customers money
  • Save customers time
  • Make customers happy

That’s it. No matter how you shake it out: money, time, or happiness. In what ways does your business provide these benefits to your customers? Before you can answer this question, you may need to do some competitive landscape analysis first. Who are your competitors? Who do your customers see as your competitors? Define who they are first. Then, I like to make a grid and compare things like perceived value props, unique features, overviews of competing products / services, customer service, marketing channels, etc. This will help you determine where you have overlap with your competitors and where there is a potential gap in the marketplace, which you can exploit.

Don’t be afraid to look at unorthodox possibilities of who your competitors might be. A competitor might not be a company that makes a similar product, but it could be a company that solves a similar problem. Also, remember that no matter who you are competing against, you are always competing for your customers’ mindshare. So, if you’re a gas utility, you’re still competing with Nike or Coca-Cola for the attention of your customer. So, you better make it good!

2. Your Audience / Personas

Speaking of your customer, do you fully understand who they are? If not, you need to read an article I wrote about developing Audience Personas a few weeks ago. I won’t go into too much detail here about that, but understanding who your customers are and their motivators to buy is super critical to your marketing strategy. Definitely the most critical.

 3. A Company Overview

This isn’t necessarily the history of your company, but really it’s the mission, vision, and values of a company. You need to understand who your company is, what they want to become, and what they hold to be undeniable truths. Not everyone includes this in their official marketing strategy documentation, but to me, this is the heart and soul of the company and should be influencing all arms – especially the way the company is portraying themselves to the public (or “marketing” themselves).

4. Goals

You need to define the goals of your marketing. Remember, the goals of your marketing should reflect and support the overall goals of the company. So, if your company goal is to “become a household name in the oatmeal category,” then your marketing goals should be to generate awareness and maximize impressions.

When it comes to goals and objectives, people are always mixing these up. That’s not okay, because they should be very different things. A goal is a long-term aim of your company, and an objective is a concrete indicator of your progress towards that goal. You will typically have more than one objective for each goal (sometimes you’ll have dozens).

So, if your goal is to be a better baseball player, your objective will be to achieve a .300 batting average. A high batting average is indicative of progress towards that goal. So since objectives are so specific, save them for specific marketing plans and focus on your goals for the overall marketing organization in your marketing strategy.

5. Challenges

What is going to stand in your way of achieving these goals? This should be agreed to at a high-level across the organization so that everyone is aware that they are facing the same obstacles. If we’re all fighting different fights, it will be more difficult for us to make progress on the most important fronts.

Summary: Reminder about the difference

Anything beyond this is getting into a marketing plan. Marketing plans are super important, but they should be developed in alignment with the marketing strategy and support more specific initiatives. You should have multiple marketing plans (dozens, hundreds, etc.), but only one marketing strategy. When you start getting into budgets, timelines, channel / tactic plans, then you are into marketing plans. Keep your marketing strategy specific to the overall organization and goals – doing this will keep it relevant for longer, but also keep it more relatable to the other departments within your organization. If you can align sales, customer service, and others with your marketing strategy, you can help to enable them to support the organization as a unified unit all working towards the same goals – at least in terms of how they position the company to your customers.

And now I’ve typed the word “strategy” so many times that it doesn’t even seem like a real word anymore. We’re done here.

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