For those who are still a bit confused by the terms, Roger Martin and A.G Lafley in their book Playing to Win offer a useful way to think of ‘strategy’. In summary, they state that devising a ‘strategy’ means deciding ‘where to play’ and ‘how to win’.

So, a strategy is the plan and tactics are the things you do every day to execute your strategy.

Most marketing advice is about tactics, and this perhaps makes sense as, currently, most of the time people spend on marketing tends to be on tactics.

But without knowing ‘where to play’ and ‘how to win’, marketers spend too much time on tasks without an overall plan, and time and resources are being wasted on things which aren’t aligned with marketing objectives or business goals. For this reason, a strategy is still a must-have for effective marketing.

Strategy vs. tactics

At a recent Digital Intelligence Briefing in Singapore, I covered Econsultancy’s Digital Trends report. At first glance, it seemed that marketing strategy still was quite important to many of the thousands of marketers surveyed.

Here we see that, when asked to anticipate the single most exciting opportunity of 2017, the most likely response was a marketing strategy, namely ‘optimizing the customer experience.’ Admittedly, it was still fewer than one in four of respondents, but it was a nice win for strategic marketing.

In late 2017, however, Econsultancy asked a follow-up question, ‘What was the actual most exciting opportunity of 2017?’

The responses changed significantly. The strategy, ‘optimizing the customer experience’, dropped from 22% of respondents to 16% and ‘social marketing’ (a tactic) jumped from 7% to 15%.

Now, we should not jump to too many conclusions here. First off, the question asked what the ‘exciting’ opportunities were, and perhaps ‘exciting’ was not interpreted as what marketing teams are focusing on (though most likely it was). And while the survey methodology was the same, the respondents were different and so some of that variability may be noise.

Yet, with a survey sample size of thousands, it is quite possible that this chart reveals a shift in marketers’ focus from strategic thinking (optimizing the customer experience) to tactics (social marketing) which occurred in 2017. And, interestingly, the only other item on the list which could be considered a strategy, ‘data-driven marketing that focuses on the individual’, lost a couple of percentage points as well.

Is this a problem?

Looking at the data as a whole, it may not seem like a big deal. Most marketers (61%, as we don’t know what ‘other’ is) chose tactics as the most exciting in 2016 and most (69%) affirmed this view in 2017.

But when we consider the state of marketing in 2018, the over-emphasis on tactics by marketers may be undermining its credibility to its sole sponsor, the business.

In the 2017 IPA report, Media in Focus, data derived from nearly 500 case studies of marketing effectiveness was combined to show the effect of sales activation activities (arguably tactical) and brand building (arguably strategic) on a business metric, sales uplift.

The results of the chart are striking, if unsurprising.  According to the data, sales activations result in sharp, strong sales uplifts accompanies by predictable declines. Brand building activities have less impact on sales uplift initially but seem to move brands to a ‘new normal’ of sales levels. ‘In the long run, brand effects’, says the IPA report, ‘are the main driver of growth’.

The effect of tactical marketing

If we combine the results of the Econsultancy survey with the IPA report, then we might conclude that marketers are, over the course of the year, drifting away from long-term growth strategies in order to deliver short-term tactical sales boosts. There are surely anecdotes both supporting and refuting that hypothesis.

But, if it is the case, it could explain the constant ‘state of emergency’ in which many marketing departments and, to a greater extent, advertising agencies find themselves. With budget and headcount cuts happening on a routine basis, it feels like they are always looking to reduce what they spend on marketing.

The problem may not be, as many claim, that the business ‘just doesn’t understand marketing’, but rather that marketing is delivering the wrong results. Specifically, marketing is sacrificing strategic long-term growth in order to boost sales temporarily using tactics. The lack of long-term effects on core business metrics is then leading the business to look at marketing as an expense rather than as a driver of growth, and they are simply moving their investment elsewhere.

With the data available, admittedly, it’s not possible to make that conclusion. But perhaps marketers should ask themselves these questions in 2018:

  • Is what we are doing tied to a strategy which aims to provide long-term growth to our brand?
  • Or are we executing a tactic which, as shown in the IPA graph, will achieve nothing and get our brand nowhere once the activation wears off?

In any case, marketers have once again chosen ‘optimizing the customer experience’ as the most exciting opportunity of 2018, so it will be interesting to see whether, in 2019, this apparent change in approach to marketing is repeated to the same extent.

Interested in marketing strategy? Why not download Econsultancy’s Modern Marketing Model?