Creative thinking that delivers results

08 May

The distinction between a marketing strategy, plan and tactics

Category: Marketing strategy
Written by: Ian Turner
marketing strategy, marketing plan, marketing tactics

I make a point to read about marketing topics on almost a daily basis, along with attending many webinars. And if there is one pet peeve I have with the marketing community is their failure to understand the distinctions between the terms marketing strategy, plan and tactics. Too often these terms are used interchangeably, which only serves to confuse those in the profession and others trying to better understand our space.

When prominent business consulting firms like the BDC get it wrong you know there’s a problem! With that in mind, I thought it would be helpful to once and for all spell out the differences and nuances between these three terms in the hopes that we can all better understand how they differ but also how they’re interconnected. By no means are these definitions scientific or the gospel truth so please feel free to add your own thoughts to this discussion.

The definition of a marketing strategy

One of the most famous gurus of marketing, Phillip Kotler, S.C. Johnson Distinguished Professor of International Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University defines marketing strategy as “the way in which the marketing function organizes its activities to achieve a profitable growth in sales at a marketing mix level.” So what does this mean?

Kotler is outlining that marketing strategy is all about employing market research to identify and outline the right mix that will be able to satisfy the needs of your target customer segments (markets) and that in turn will generate the optimal (maximum) profit to sustain your business.

In layperson’s terms, this simply means that marketing strategy is all about developing a comprehensive, research-centric approach that’s focused on maximizing ROI. Here marketing research is a critical component to a well thought out and successful strategy. Some of the key research elements would include branding, positioning, value proposition, unique selling proposition, target market(s) and differentiation.

Marketing strategies differ from marketing plans

Oftentimes the terms marketing strategy and marketing plan are used interchangeably, which again is a no-no as they are distinct and entirely different elements. By contrast, a marketing plan is the outputs (i.e. findings) of the strategy that are put into a detailed, overarching plan that outlines at a high level the marketing tactics that will be used to bring this strategy to life in a tangible way.

So in essence a marketing plan is a bridge between your strategy and the actual marketing tactics you will design, create and distribute. A good marketing plan outlines what tactics you will be employing, how they will leverage and build upon your strategy, whom they will target, in what media or channel and when (i.e. timing).

Much more can be said about the importance and role of a sound marketing plan, one that builds upon a solid marketing strategy to deliver tangible results for a business. Suffice it to say that marketing plans, much the marketing strategy are neglected or glossed over in the case of many companies as they rush to jump onto the marketing tactic train and create something they can deliver ‘to market’.

So what is a marketing tactic then?

As we indicated earlier, a marketing tactic is the actual output we often see, read or hear about. It’s that email campaign targeted to millennials, the social media contest that asks readers to comment on their favourite summer cocktail in order to win a summer getaway or that print ad campaign that provides a provocative and unique story that conveys the very essence of your new product in a way that very differentiates it from what your competitor’s offerings.

The marketing tactics are the ultimate output of a well thought out marketing strategy and plan. It delivers the right message to the right client in the right place/medium and at the right time in the purchase process. It taps into the insights gathered, vetted and agreed upon by management that are an integral part of the marketing strategy and plan.

What marketers should do now

I encourage marketers to do their part to separate these three components and treat them as distinct but interconnected items. Spend the time and employ the necessary resources to research and identify your marketing strategy and marketing plan, get buy-in and agreement on them and move forward to identify the tactics you can use to bring the strategy and plan to life.

Once you’ve done this you will have created a formalized methodology to effectively tackle your marketing on an ongoing basis. This will then reduce the likelihood of spending your marketing budget where it won’t deliver the necessary results, thus also saving you time and effort along the way. So get out there with your teams and make this happen!

P.S. It’s interesting to note that it was difficult to even find accurate images for this article. In searching a very reputable stock image site, many of their images got this wrong!