Mind The Gap: Aligning Strategic and Tactical Marketing

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory.
Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat….
–Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”

We marketers are an ambitious lot. We often aspire to corporate leadership, so we spend a great deal of time and energy establishing and developing a reputation for strategic marketing competence. This may often happen to the detriment of tactical skill development. However, marketers who master strategic marketing, tactical marketing and the critical integration of the two are more likely to build successful brands in the long run, and they are more likely to be prepared for senior leadership.

What do we mean by strategy and tactics?

The word “strategy” conjures up visions of masterminds creating new and amazing directions for businesses to pursue. Contrast this with “tactics,” which conjures up visions of managing day-to-day tasks.

These terms have their roots in military history, dating from the time of the ancient Greeks. Indeed, the definition of strategy from the Oxford English Dictionary shows the traditional demarcation: Strategy is “the art of a commander-in-chief; the art of projecting and directing the larger military movements and operations of a campaign. Usually distinguished from tactics, which is the art of handling forces in battle or in the immediate presence of the enemy.”

Broadly speaking, then, strategy is typically about answering “what,” and tactics about answering “how.”

Organizations often view strategy as the more appealing area, given its cross-functional scope and impact, whereas “merely” tactical roles can seem mundane and limited in scope and impact.

For many in marketing, especially those with aspirations to senior leadership, there is a natural attraction to being the commander-in-chief, directing the larger movements. But there are two key organizational risks to this: a marketer’s perceived or actual skill set may not fit this precise role, and staff see strategy and tactics as mutually exclusive, whereas an integrated approach is how brands succeed.

BREAKING DOWN ORGANIZATIONAL BARRIERS

Specialization runs the risk of creating silos, where strategy no longer takes into account how something is executed, or tactics are used in pursuit of short-term goals that are unrelated to, and possibly contrary to, an organization’s strategic marketing objectives.

For example, brands often seek to expand from one market to the rest of the globe, attempting to develop a global brand positioning and to leverage scale. However, they often fail to account for key differences between their homeland and the markets they seek to grow in. Competitive sets and positioning maps may differ. There may be different buying influences or regulatory requirements. Customers may play much larger roles. Perhaps most importantly, consumer segmentation and buying behaviors may be very, very different. As a result, it can be very challenging for a brand to build and implement global strategy when a brand fails to account for different tactics required in different markets in order to achieve the global strategy.

Similarly, tactical decisions in pursuit of short-term goals can work against strategic objectives. A clear example of this is when a brand seeks to develop equity as a premium brand. Often brands will take a strategic decision on price and promotion strategies with a view toward long-term equity building, such as setting MSRP at a premium to the category and limiting frequency and depth of promotions. However, if volumes fall short of sales targets, one of the first tactics used to drive momentum is deeper, more frequent price promotion. While this moves the needle in the short-run, it impedes the ability of the brand to establish itself as a premium player in its category.

An interesting contrast to these examples is where a brand strikes a good balance between strategic planning and tactical execution. For example, strong global brands leverage a global insight with near universal relevance. They develop a globally consistent look and feel with clearly defined mandatory elements. They allow for relevant locally developed touchpoints that reinforce the core brand message without it becoming the “lowest common denominator.” In short, they account up-front for not only a truly global strategy but also important differences in tactical approaches to achieve it.

THE HUMAN FACTOR

In addition to creating that strong strategic and tactical coordination and integration on individual campaigns, it’s critical to have the right staff doing the right things on a day-in, day out basis.

Here are some concrete ways to bring such integration to life in your marketing organization:

• Manage the Organization: Hiring and cultivating staff who have mastered both the tactical and strategic arts, and can apply them appropriately, should be a key objective for marketing staff development.

Additionally, recognize the value of having roles whose main responsibility is “integration marketing”: bridging potential organizational gaps, for example those between global and local marketing, design and delivery, brand and customer marketing, etc.

For example, in some effective global marketing organizations, there are global brand/product marketing managers who develop the global strategies, local marketing implementers responsible for bringing to life the strategies at market and customer level, and a team of regional sector/channel marketing managers whose responsibility it is to ensure that each informs the other appropriately in planning and execution.

• Plan Your Marketing Work: Modify marketing planning processes to force integrated discussion of strategy and implementation. Ensure that strategic and tactical marketing staffs, as well as other implementers such as sales and product supply, inform each other to ensure harmony up-front. Acknowledge and leverage the different points of view, enabling each to serve as a check-and-balance on the other in a way that creates constructive tension, open communication, and clear accountabilities.

• Work Your Marketing Plan: Do not let the “plan” be the end of the integration of strategic and tactical marketing. Rather, it must be the starting point. Throughout the year, hold regular, robust engagement sessions between those with strategic, integration and tactical marketing roles to evaluate work to date, realign on objectives and activities, and plan out appropriate next steps.

• Seek Lessons Learned : It is absolutely essential to spend the time needed to conduct post-mortems on key projects and identify where the linkages were strong, and perhaps more importantly where they fell short of what the business needed. Take the time to determine what you will DO differently next time.

By doing these things, marketers do not fall into the trap of creating, in Sun Tzu’s words, “the slowest route to victory.” Instead, we do many vital, beneficial things: We keep in mind the critical question of whether the organization we are supporting can execute with excellence the strategic vision, architecture, segmentation, positioning, etc., that we develop. We ensure that those who will ultimately execute the strategy buy into it, feel a sense of ownership of it, and commit to doing their part to fulfill it. We ensure that the tactical activities are aligned with the strategy, so as to avoid the “noise before defeat.” And we align organizational goals, right down to KPIs and individual performance reviews, with the broader strategy to ensure that we execute with excellence and ensure that the strategy takes into proper account the “lay of the land.”

In the end, whether on a battlefield or in a boardroom, strategy, tactics and the integration of them are means to an end: victory. Marketers must ensure all three are present, mutually supporting and well designed. If we do this, we win.