How to Create Marketing Strategies That Drive Results

Everyone wants to deliver marketing strategies that succeed, yet to many coming up with marketing strategies is either a daunting prospect, or an irrelevance as they jump straight into execution. Effective strategy development is a precursor to great marketing. Without strategic consideration, marketing activities are ill-guided, ill-conceived, and ill-equipped to bring about the necessary shifts in consumer beliefs and behaviours required to drive growth in today's hyper-dynamic and competitive environments. Strategy, however, isn't an up-front, laboured process done by executives in an ivory tower. It's an ongoing, iterative process that uses insights, experimentation, and feedback loops to guide and hone thinking and deliver strategies that are more relevant and attuned to audiences with ever increasing demands.

In this post I'll cover:

  • How devising marketing strategies has become a lost art and why we need to re-capture our ability for strategic thinking
  • What are strategies and how they differ, yet also relate, to tactics
  • How to create marketing strategies that drive results using two key models
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    What the impediments are to good strategy, and how to move from strategic thinking into action

A lost art


“In most companies there’s no strategy any more.
There’s just tactics, and mostly Comms. We’ve lost the ability to build a strategy.”
Mark Ritson - Award-Winning Marketing Columnist & Professor

  • According to a study by Smart Insights, 49% of brands don’t have a defined (digital) marketing strategy, and a further 16% do have a strategy but haven’t put it into effect.
  • In a global survey of senior executives by PwC, more than half of the 4,400 respondents said they didn’t think they had a winning strategy, and 2/3 believed that their company’s capabilities didn’t support the way they create value in the market.
  • PwC also spoke to an additional 500 senior executives with nine out of ten feeling that they were missing major opportunities in the market, and 80% considering that overall strategy was not well understood, even within their own companies.
  • A McKinsey survey asked executives to rate their strategies against ten objective tests; it found that 65% of companies passed just three or fewer.

You look at stats like the ones above – and there are many more – and you can’t help but come to the conclusion that devising strategies has become a lost art. Too often we forget strategies altogether and jump straight into the doing, into executing tactics, without due consideration of really what activities we should be focussing on and, fundamentally, why?

We’ve become so busy getting to grips with all the new tactical elements – distribution channels and platforms, content formats, technology, automation, etc – that they’ve become all that matters for marketers. Developing upfront strategy has either been neglected, ignored, or forgotten completely.

The old adage is “I’d rather have a good strategy and great execution than vice versa.” Yet the former begets the latter. Great strategy creates the conditions for successful implementation. People need to know what they have to do differently, understand how and why they should do it, and have the necessary resources in place to make it happen.

Strategy connects today with the future state that we’re looking to achieve, our goals. When we invest the time and effort to develop more thoughtful and thorough strategies, we not only increase the odds of building a winning marketing program, but also a focus, simplicity, and conviction to get things done.

What are strategies?


strategy
[strat-i-jee]
noun; plural: strategies

1. a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim.

A strategy is the approach you take to achieve a goal. It defines the methods that you’ll apply to achieve success, to ‘win’ in the context of your overall aim.

Strategies are long-term. They are the course that you’ll take over the duration to get to where you want to be. They can adjust to accommodate environmental changes, but they always point to how you’ll get to your ultimate goal.

Your strategies are the pillars around which your marketing plan will be created.

Strategies versus tactics


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

Sun Tsu

Many people (and businesses) get confused between strategies and tactics, and how they differ. As I highlight above, many dive straight into tactical execution, and eschew strategy. Yet tactics are the manifestation of your strategy; they are the activities that you implement to deliver your strategies in the pursuit of your marketing goals. Without considering your strategy upfront, your tactics will be ill-guided at best, and irrelevant at worst.

Strategies are the methods chosen to bring about the achievement of your marketing goals, whilst tactics are the means by which those strategies are carried out to move from one milestone to another towards those goals. By definition, strategies are directing and leading, whilst tactics are the organising and implementation of your activities. Strategies are structural versus tactics that are operational.

Strategies explain the what and why; tactics are the who and how. Strategies outline how you’ll marshal your resources for their most efficient and effective use; whilst tactics are the execution of those resources.

How to create strategies that drive results

The starting point for effective strategizing is a thorough evaluation of the pertaining conditions. By taking the time to understand and frame the environment at the outset, you’re better able to identify the choices and constraints facing you to see which factors are likely to matter most given the situation at hand. Unfortunately, many marketers feel that taking the time to frame their strategic choices thoroughly and identify where to focus their efforts is a luxury they don’t have.

Shaping keen insights into good strategies requires a 360 degree perspective. The SCOPE framework is a tool that you can use to give you that rounded perspective:

Situation

What are the present conditions that exist that will impact the delivery of your strategies?

Competencies

What are your unique abilities or assets that provide the basis success?

Obstacles

What are the potential issues or threats that could jeopardise the realisation of your Core Competencies and thereby impinge on your future Prospects?

Prospects

What opportunities exist to succeed by leveraging your Core Competencies and overcoming Obstacles?

Expectations

What future predicted conditions are likely to unfold that will influence the delivery of your identified Prospects?


A comprehensive SCOPE analysis gives you the foundation to subsequently build your strategic choices. By combining insights into your starting position with a perspective of the future you can develop and explore alternative ways to win, and ultimately decide which routes to pursue.

In their seminal book Playing To Win: How Strategy Really Works, Alan G. Lafley and Roger Martin offer a five step process for the development of effective strategies that they term the Strategy Cascade:

Strategy Choice Cascade

This forms a logical progression that we can use to formulate our marketing strategies:

  • What’s our winning aspiration? This equates to your marketing goal: what do you want to achieve or where do you want to be? It’s important to think of outcomes here rather than outputs. This distinction is key and goes beyond semantics. Outcomes make us envisage the future state that we’re looking for. Outputs, on the other hand, merely imply work to be done. Outcomes are the difference made by outputs, yet achieving outputs in no way guarantee a specific outcome.
  • Where will we play? What’s the playing field that you choose for where you’ll execute your strategy in order to win? This could be a particular group of customers, a market or geography, a channel or platform, etc. Trying to be all things to all people is a recipe for disaster. You have to narrow your aim to where you’re most competitive and can get the best possible results. Your decision of where to play should take into consideration how big and lucrative the space is, how accessible it is to reach, how much competition is present, and how aligned it is to your capabilities (see The 5 As Model).
  • In our chosen place to play, how will we choose to win against the competitors there? This is the crux of our strategy! What’s the broad approach or method that you’re going to apply that you believe, based on your situational analysis, will bring about the successful achievement of your aspirations? This choice is intimately related with the former (the place to win). It’s deciding how to create unique value and deliver it over a long period to deliver a superior return.
  • What capabilities do we have, or can reasonably build, in order to win in our chosen manner? In order for the above decisions to work, they have to be based on and supported by things that you’re best at. It’s not enough to simply have good capabilities; every company has them. To create a successful strategy you have to have capabilities that are truly superior and distinct enough that others cannot copy. When you have several of these, you’ll be able to both differentiate yourself from, and constantly execute better than your competitors.
  • What management systems do we need to operate to support our key capabilities? Strategies have to be measured and executed by people. Therefore, you finally need to determine who you need, how you’re going to enable them, and how will you tell whether your strategy’s succeeding.

The five choices have to link together and reinforce each other, hence the arrows flowing back and forth between the boxes. ‘Where to Play’ and ‘How to Play’ have to link with and reinforce the ‘Winning Aspiration’; whilst the ‘Capabilities’ and ‘Management Systems’ act as a reality check: if you don’t have these, or can’t reasonably build them in order to make the ‘Where to Play’ and ‘How to Win’ choices come to fruition, it’s not a viable strategy.

At the heart of the Strategy Cascade is the ‘Where to Play’ and ‘How to Play’ pairing. These two decisions are the linchpin of successful strategic development, and go hand-in-hand. There will invariably be a considerable number of options for ‘Where to Play’, each having its own merits. Yet, the strengths or weaknesses of these ‘Where to Play’ choices are relative to the context of a particular ‘How to Win’ choice. Without a great ‘Where to Play’ and ‘How to Play’ combination, you can’t possibly have a worthwhile strategy.

For example, Microsoft made a ‘Where to Play’ decision to enter the smartphone hardware market when it acquired Nokia’s handset business in September 2013, seeing this as a huge and growing market adjacent to its own. However, as it transpired, Microsoft had no concept of ‘How to Win’ in this space, ultimately writing off some $7.6 Billion from the acquisition as a result.

Impediments to good strategy

People make strategy much harder than it needs to be.

In today’s always-on, fast-changing environment, the pressure is unrelenting. As a result, two-thirds of 200 executives surveyed by McKinsey reported that they felt rushed to provide outputs from their strategic-planning processes. This was especially the case in scenarios where it wasn’t immediately obvious what factors would determine the success or failure of a strategic change. Too often, what passes for strategy development consists of hurried efforts to deliver results that skip one or more essential building blocks; resulting in flawed strategies from the start.

It’s also easy, though, to go too far in the other direction and make the creation of strategy a rigid, box-checking exercise. A formula-driven approach might be appealing, but the reality is that strategic development is a non-linear, iterative, and often messy process. The cascade structure outlined above should therefore be thought of as a framework where you jump back and forth from one box to another, rather than a rigid progression.

Effective strategy relies on messy thinking. It is born of a curiosity that’s woefully lacking in most strategic-planning processes. McKinsey further found that nearly eight in ten executives said that the processes of their companies were more geared to confirming existing hypotheses than to testing new ones. There is an inherent cultural and hierarchical inertia in organisations that throttles back strategic advancement. Formulating good strategies involves revisiting fundamental and deeply held beliefs. Getting executives to grapple with and break these can become very personal as people tend not to shift their views without a fight. This creates tensions and frictions that are often eschewed by leadership; yet these frictions are essential to make better strategic decisions. Constructive grappling and debate are the cornerstones for creating progressive strategies that move the needle, and to avoid ending up rubber-stamping flawed strategies that become exposed when implemented, or afterwards by your competitors.

These incumbent beliefs also create biases that lead to overconfidence in strategic planning resulting in inadequate diligence in confirming and challenging assumptions. Getting teams to engage, debate, and constructively collaborate on strategic development thereby leads to more rigorous deliberation, less biased decisions, and broader buy-in from stakeholders; which in turn reduces the time spent on politicking and building alliances, whilst increasing the focus on the strategy itself.

Putting strategies into action

Strategy implementation should be an iterative process. Traditional strategic planning processes are ill-equipped to deal with the dynamism and pace of change in today’s consumers, markets, and businesses. Creating strategy in today’s environment of complexity, ever-changing priorities, and conflicting agendas requires constant monitoring and feedback loops to create winning strategies that will beat the market.

While it may seem daunting, iterating actually makes strategy easier. It saves time spent doing excessive analysis, “big thinking”, and visioning, and allows strategy to be crafted in relatively small, manageable chunks that can be tested and honed. By answering the five cascade questions through iteration - going back and forth to test your thinking and assumptions - it will ultimately give you a better strategy with much less pain and wasted time.

Let me know what techniques you're using for devising strategies, and how they're working for you?

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