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What is marketing strategy?

Posted on. 29/01/2021

Google ‘marketing strategy’ and you’ll find a range of different and confusing definitions and opinions.  Also, things like content marketing and social media will be presented as strategies (I’ve nothing against them, but they’re tactics, not strategies) and before you know it you’re more confused than when you started. Let me explain…

The problem..

.. is that ‘strategy’ has become over-used and mis-used. It is regarded as a term to impress. The result is that ‘strategy’ has been used liberally in places where it really doesn’t belong.

The definition…

Courtesy of Mark Ritson (adjunct marketing professor of Harvard fame and my professor on the mini MBA that I studied earlier this year), I’ve pinched this marketing strategy definition he shared with us. It comes from strategist Fred Nikols:

Strategy is one element in a 4 stage process. 

First are the ends to be obtained.

Second are the strategies to obtain them, the ways in which resources should be deployed.

Third are tactics. The way resources which have been deployed are actually used or employed. 

Lastly are the resources themselves, the means at our disposal.

What makes it good?

It’s straightforward. It gives structure and shows the relationship between strategy and tactics. 

Strategy comes first – that’s the thinking, the analysis, the ‘what do we do, and what don’t we do’ decisions. 

Then come tactics – things like the marketing communications, distribution channels and pricing decisions. The 4Ps if you were (product, place, price, promotion).

It also highlights that strategy and tactics are co-dependent. Strategy goes nowhere without tactics, and tactics are rudderless without strategy.

Another way of looking at it is..

Strategy is the thinking. Tactics is the doing.

Why have a marketing strategy?

In reality, very few organisations have a true marketing strategy. And even less have one based on facts.  This gives you a great opportunity!

Create a good marketing strategy and you have the advantage. Deliver against it and customers will come, spend and stay loyal.

Marketing strategy in practice 

If you’re lucky you may find a good marketing strategy definition in your Google search. However, too often you discover it doesn’t shed any light on what to do about it. 

So, what’s next?

The 3 key marketing strategy questions

The fundamentals of marketing strategy are in answering three key questions:

  1. Who are you targeting?
  2. How do you want them to perceive you?
  3. What are your objectives for those targets?

Before you answer any of these, we’ll pause for a moment.

Do you know how to do these well?  

While you’re thinking, we’ll take a quick look at each one:

  1. Who to target?

Who are the most profitable and attractive segments in your target market?  Look at it as mapping out your whole market. 

Don’t make any decisions yet. 

The market you’re mapping could be geographical such as your county or the UK, or it could be behavioural groups like magazine readers, or demographic groups like new parents or an industry like construction. 

Whatever your market is like, this is where you split it into segments. Why? Because targeting everyone creates bland, generic marketing that is much less effective (and can cost you more).

Use criteria based on attributes that are both relevant and you can measure (these can be consumer related such as age and lifestyle or business related such as sector, company size and buying behaviour). Then populate each segment with data – what you know about them, how they buy, the size of the segment, their spend etc. 

Once you’ve filled in all your segments, now is the time to decide which ones you are going to target. Or more importantly, which you will ignore.

  1. How do you want them to perceive you?

Another way to phrase this is “what do you want people to remember you for”? When they hear your name, what do they think? 

At this point, note that you are not your customer. You’re too close to the business for one thing. The only way you can understand what customers think or perceive about you or your product/service is by asking or observing them. 

Yes, that means research. And it means being honest with yourself. You may know less than you think. This is where you start at zero and build your knowledge.

You can do this through research (online surveys, zoom 121s), and free tools like surveymonkey can be a great help in doing this cost-effectively. Make sure you keep surveys short and that the answers will give you useful information that you can use. 

Spend time on this. It’s important.

  1. What are your objectives?

Now we come to SMART objectives – you’ve probably come across these before, but for ease these are Specific, Measurable, Ambitious, Realistic and Timed objectives.  

Having smart objectives means you have something to measure yourself against. Something tangible. 

Imagine conducting an annual review with an employee. You believe they’re doing a pretty good job, but have no way of measuring their success.  How do you decide whether they receive a bonus or not – by subjectively deciding?

A bit about SMART

It’s important that objectives both push you and are feasible. Having a ‘big, hairy audacious goal’ (BHAG) is great, and valuable for setting longer term visions that inspire. This is where you balance shorter term goals of a 1 or 2 year marketing objective that take you on your journey to your audacious goal. 

Set some figures against it. It could be a 10% increase in market share with architectural firms in Cheshire by December 2023 or 5% increase in unprompted awareness of (baby product) by new dads by June 2022.

You might need to make an educated estimate the first time, but with learnings and experience you can really refine this. 

Lastly, have a start and an end figure that you can measure, and also make sure the objective is within marketing’s control.

In summary

Marketing strategy is part of a journey. It works with your business strategy to get you to where you want to be as an organisation. There are a number of stages to go through to create a good marketing strategy: 

  • Gather lots of information – about you, your customers, your competitors. 
  • Use this information to answer the three key marketing strategy questions of:
    1. Who am I targeting? 
    2. How do I want them to perceive me? (or what do I stand for) 
    3. What are my objectives for my target segments? (making them SMART).

This gives you your marketing strategy and direction. Once you have this, only then is it time to move on to your tactics and the doing.