Marketing Without Strategy is the Noise Before Failure

The Art of War

Image: kainet via Flickr

Anyone that’s heard me speak or read my books knows that I believe marketing strategy is far more important to the small business than marketing tactics.

Any yet, the tactical idea of the week gets most of the mind share of the business owner.

Strategy and tactics must go hand in hand in order for a business to achieve a measure of true momentum, but an effective strategy must be in place before any set of tactics make sense.

This Sun Tzu quote, borrowed from the Art of War and adapted for the title of this post, pretty much sums up my feeling on the subject – “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

The reason strategy gets mostly lip service when it comes to marketing planning is because most people misunderstand what a marketing strategy really is.

So, let me start with what it’s not. Strategy is not a wish list, set of goals, mission statement, or litany of objectives.

How not what

A marketing strategy is a clear explanation of how you’re going to get there, not where or what there is. An effective marketing strategy is a concise explanation of your stated plan of execution to reach your objectives

To become the market leader is not a strategy – it’s an objective. To serve our customers with honor and dignity is not a strategy – it’s mission. To double the number of new customers is not a strategy – it’s a goal.

Goals and missions and objectives are nice, but how you plan to achieve them – otherwise known as strategy paired with a logical set of tactics – is the surest route to victory.

To become a market leader you may find that an effective strategy is to carve out one very narrow market niche and dominate it. To serve your customers with honor and dignity you may find that an effective marketing strategy starts somewhere in your hiring process. To double the number of new customers you may find that an effective marketing strategy is to build a formal network of strategic referral partners.

Now each of these strategies will have a corresponding list of tactics and action steps, but the action plans and campaigns will all have your stated strategy as a filter for decision making and planning.

After working with thousands of small business owners I’ve developed a bit of a 3-step process for developing a marketing strategy. I must warn you though that market conditions, competitive environments and trending opportunities all play wild card roles in the process.

A company considering a marketing strategy in a mature market with entrenched players will have a much different view of things than a company trying to bring a new technology to a market with no proven purchase habit.

I wrote a post titled 5 Attributes of a Sure Fire Start-up that might shed more light on the start-up view.

When developing a marketing strategy for your business the following steps come into play.

Who matters

For any strategy and corresponding set of tactics to work they must appeal to someone. The first element, and in some cases the primary element, is who. Develop your marketing strategy around a narrowly defined ideal client above all. This post titled How to Discover and Attract More of Your Ideal Client goes deeply into this process.

As stated before this step alone may actually prove to be your strategy – to get good at serving a niche market.

Using your ideal client profile as the basis of your strategy also allows you to think very personally about how you serve them and how you use your tactics to attract them. Without this concentration on an ideal segment your marketing strategy will often lack focus.

Be different

After developing a profile of an ideal client it’s time to find a way to appeal to this group. In my experience the only sure way to do this is discovering or creating an approach, product, or service that clearly differentiates you from the rest of the market.

The market needs a way to compare and differ and if you don’t give them one they’ll default to price comparison.

You need to dig in and find that way of doing things that your customers truly value, what’s going on your industry that frustrates people or how to turn the way people have always done it into an opportunity for innovation. This post titled 5 Questions You Should Ask Every Customer unveils the best way to discover what your customers really value.

In some cases you may be doing something truly unique, you just aren’t communicating as your core marketing message.

If you don’t take this step seriously everything else you do in terms of marketing will be far less effective. That’s how serious being different is.

Connect the dots

The final step in the marketing strategy game is to take what we’ve done previously – defining an ideal client and creating a core differentiator – and turning it into your stated strategy.

When I created Duct Tape Marketing my stated strategy was to create a recognizable small business marketing brand by turning marketing for small business into a system and product. This strategy contained a narrowly defined ideal client and a clear point of differentiation.

Our mission was to radically change the way small business owners think about marketing and our “marketing as system” strategy became how we would do that.

Like most effective strategy the gap in current offerings and positioning was what offered the clear opportunity. Connecting your strategy will also include careful study of the competitive environment and that of other unrelated industries in order to fill a need with your innovation or differentiation.

Let me return once again to Sun Tzu and The Art of War – “All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.

Now, before you determine whether Facebook is better for your business than LinkedIn or if direct mail is still an effective way to generate leads, start at the point where you will ultimately create the greatest possible impact – strategy!

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John Jantsch

John Jantsch is a marketing consultant, speaker and author of Duct Tape Marketing, Duct Tape Selling, The Commitment Engine and The Referral Engine and the founder of the Duct Tape Marketing Consultant Network.
  • SocialSteve

    John – couldn’t agree more. In fact, I just posted a “sibling” article last night – “Marketing Leadership (with a hint of Social Media)” at …thanks for putting some light on the issue!

    Social Steve

  • Andy @ FirstFound

    Fantastic work, and a very pertinent Sun Tzu quote.

    Too often, you see companies trying a variety of tactics, hoping they’ll magically coalesce into a working strategy. That never works.

    • ducttape

      Happy accidents are rare – idea of the week syndrome is rampant, but strategy talk sounds so boring

  • clavoie

    I think every marketer (myself included) knows this truism about the importance of strategy before tactics. And yet, despite knowing it, I still often need the reminder – it’s so easy to get lost in the myriad tactics we have available. So, thanks for the reminder to reset back to strategy — not just once, at the beginning of a marketing campaign, but repeatedly, to remind yourself of why you’re doing the tactics you choose and to direct your choices along the way.

    • ducttape

      I guess my experience that it’s commonly accepted yet rarely understood – that’s why I started with what marketing strategy is not. I find few marketing folks even really get this and not enough of them are insisting upon it when they work with businesses.

  • walter johnson

    This is the Gospel ,MY FRIEND

  • Elizabeth Thomas, MS

    Good article. I wonder if the word vision is applicable here? Or is vision above strategy? As a former HR person, I’m putting together my thoughts for my clients (therapists) on informational interviews. It seems this is a poorly understood strategy to learning the marketplace, culling the wisdom from people inside the world you wish to be part of, and potentially getting some gems on how to differentiate oneself…which is all part of creating a strategy. Would you agree? I think mostly of newbies who really don’t know enough to differentiate themselves because they don’t quite know the marketplace yet.

  • JBestler

    This can also be applied to people who are trying to make a living writing blogs. So many people think that if you write, they will come, and that is not the case anymore. If you haven’t figured out “who matters”, or who you are writing for, you might as well be writing for no one, since no one will read your blog.

  • Slucas

    John: This blog is SO sorely needed! I’ve encountered the “tactics”-“strategy” confusion in many environments (corporate, small business, and nonprofit) over the years. Thank you for explaining—so simply and astutely—the distinction between the two terms. Certainly, strategy today is far more complex than it was 10 years ago. Marketers have more ways to “get there” (reach objectives) than ever before. Media are richer and more fragmented, and technologies are more diverse. Buying cycles—and marketing “touch points”—are less definitive…The Internet and social media have blurred the familiar landmarks in our marketing landscape. In many cases, prospects move from awareness to interest to action or purchase without leaving their computers. This calls for a radical rethinking of which marketing channels we use in our mix to impact each stage of engagement and achieve the desired outcome. Note: The views expressed in this posting are my own; they do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of Hoover’s.

  • BReedB Reed

    You are right on, John. So many companies jump right into executing marketing tactics without having a strategy to achieve their marketing objectives — or their business objectives. Most also ignore the highly useful data they have on hand to help them understand customer and buying behavior to help them build an effective strategy. I recently wrote an article that readers may find helpful on a few simple steps that businesses can use to develop a more strategic marketing plan

  • Candysandrew
  • Ajeva

    I love this part on your post: ” To become the market leader is not a strategy – it’s an objective. To serve our customers with honor and dignity is not a strategy – it’s mission. To double the number of new customers is not a strategy – it’s a goal. ” This is like a wake up call to many who still think on countless tactics, tricks and secrets to make their business a success… when all they need is simply give value to their customers, old or new. Superb!!!

  • Jim Goodwin

    Thanks for another very valuable post. In the rush to create a “plan,” many people seem to ignore the first step of defining their customer. Without that essential first step, any strategy is built on a foundation of sand.

    I’d suggest not only defining your customer but actually taking the time to do a “character sketch” of your potential customer. Define the goals, aspirations, and ideals of that individual. When you’re writing to one individual that you know well, your future writing will become more natural and more effective.

  • The Art Of War

    Very good post. It’s amazing to me how many people set out to do something without having a good strategic plan or an idea of HOW they’re going to do what they think they want to do!

  • Brett@UndergroundElephant

    Couldn’t agree more! So many people are researching mediums or tactics instead of thinking about how they want their company to be perceived. Great Stuff!