You need a target: What makes a marketing plan strategic?

What makes a marketing plan a strategic marketing plan?

Consumers do not buy what you sell. They buy what is of value to them.

Wikipedia points out that “a marketing plan without a sound strategic foundation is of little use.” I must say, anonymous contributor, I absolutely agree.

Is your marketing plan—the one you are using right now—truly strategic? Or is it just a list of tactical experiments written down to look official?

What is a Strategic Marketing Plan?

I recently saw what looked to its owners like a well-reasoned and detailed marketing plan. It had all the right sections and lots of good ideas. Right near the top of this eighteen point plan was a section called “Target Market Description.” This is critical to any marketing plan. This one read as follows:

“The target market of (company name removed) is men and women between the ages of 18-80 who have an interest in maximizing their wellness. They are an educated, discriminating, active, spa/yoga going middle to upper middle class demographic with sufficient disposable income to be able to afford regular (removed)/hr. services. They receive wellness services on a weekly or biweekly basis. They live within a 10 mile radius of (company name removed).”

This sounds detailed right? It’s very specific.

To be impolitic, this is the marketing strategy equivalent of horse excrement, and as such, it renders the entire rest of the plan borderline useless.

Why?

Are you selling to homemakers or perfectionists? The difference is everything.

Without clarity—absolute and specific clarity as to whom you are marketing—you are shooting blind.

But, the recipient of this “marketing plan” might argue, “But, sir, my product is for everyone described. That IS my target market.” In believing this he would be wrong. Dead wrong. Horse poop wrong.

We are lulled into complacency on this matter, perhaps by our exposure to mass advertising that seems to be broadly targeted, and yet still effective. Why would they spend the millions and millions otherwise? I would be willing to bet that not even the broadest mass market product is ever marketing to “men and women between the ages of 18-80 who have an interest in maximizing their wellness.” Marketing should always be targeted far more specifically than that.

In the early 1990’s researchers discovered a chemical compound called hydroxypropyl beta-cyclodextrin (HPβCD). This is the active ingredient in Febreze, a product that now makes Proctor and Gamble more than a billion dollars annually. And though this product is now indeed known to and used by “men and women between the ages of 18-80,” such a segment is not and never was the population toward whom Febreze was marketed. What’s interesting is that it was neither marketed at homemakers age 45 to 65 nor any such demographic segment.

In fact, when P&G first marketed Febreze—this wonder product with the remarkable capacity to eliminate almost any odor—they assumed it would just fly off the shelves. It did not. It was actually a failure when first introduced in 1993.

It failed because “consumers do not buy what you sell, they buy what is of value to them.” When P&G first marketed Febreze in US test markets, they were so caught up in what they were selling—an amazing product that could magically eliminate virtually any odor—that they lost sight of this key marketing principle. They thought falsely that homemakers, their assumed marketing target, cared enough about eliminating odors in their homes that they would seek out a better product with which to do so. It’s a reasonable assumption.

Likewise, it’s just as reasonable to assume that anyone who has “an interest in maximizing their wellness” will patronize a new spa in their area, just because it happens to be a really great spa, far better in fact than any other spas in a 10-mile radius.

They will not. Reread the axiom above.

Marketing, if it is to have strategy, needs to operate from a genuine understanding of what a particular target consumer truly values. It turned out that homemakers across America in 1993 put much less value on an odor-elimination product than the marketers at P&G thought.

Eventually, after a great deal of research including following all different kinds of homemakers around and recording their behavior, the marketers at P&G finally discovered who their target really was. And this discovery is what ultimately led to Febreze entering your consciousness, even though you are probably not and never were its target consumer. They discovered that there was a subset of the original “homemakers” who were NOT women who wanted to eliminate odors, but who were, instead, what might be described as a kind of cleaning ceremonialist. They were women who tidied up a room and then stood for a moment to admire their handiwork. They were a group that had a need to put a kind of finishing touch on a job well done. This has nothing directly to do with odor elimination, but everything to do with something that this subgroup of women valued enough to spend money on. A kind of fresh-scented marker for their cleaning accomplishment, a reward for their effort. This was the preexisting behavioral loop upon which a billion dollar a year business has subsequently been built.

Febreze got to you by appealing to a very highly targeted subgroup of women whose values and needs were tightly aligned with a product offer.

It meant that Febreze was never (until very recently) sold on the basis of its core attributes, as an odorless colorless eliminator of any odor, but instead it was marketed as the natural accompaniment to a specific behavioral routine exhibited by a relatively small subgroup of its current users. Febreze got to you elliptically, not by appealing to you directly, but by appealing to a very highly targeted subgroup of consumers whose values and needs were tightly aligned with a product offer fashioned to fit them like a glove. After this small group had been reached and converted, P&G could rely on them not only to use the product, but also to tell their friends about it. Their rave reviews and recommendations have spread the word until everyone from college students to retirees now know and use Febreze. Once its most natural audience had been found, the rest followed with relative ease.

So, without this kind of detail and insight built into your marketing plan, without knowing who really is your most natural consumer, and without knowing what this group truly values, you are likely just spewing out your marketing message as if at random. The money you spend may have some effect, but much of it is being wasted on those who do not and may never value your offer. This is the fate and consequence of all marketing plans constructed without the benefit of a genuine marketing strategy.

So is your marketing plan strategic?

Strategy is about choices. It’s about choosing to do those things that will have the greatest impact with the least cost. It’s not about doing everything, or even following the best industry practices. It’s about making informed and thoughtful choices as they relate to your particular circumstances, your particular consumer, and the dynamics of your particular marketplace.

“A marketing plan without sound strategic foundation is of little use.” I must say, anonymous contributor, I absolutely agree.

Finding out what you need to know in order to have a strategic marketing plan is not easy, but I can pretty much guarantee that executing a marketing plan without a strategy to guide it will be far more difficult (and costly). Are you selling to homemakers or ceremonialists? The difference is everything.

Please do look at your marketing plan. Ask of it these two fundamental questions: 1. Does this marketing plan specifically identify our most natural consumer? 2. Does this marketing plan make clear what this group truly values, and how this product, as they understand it, satisfies what they value?

If the answers to these questions are not in the marketing plan, then what you have is not a strategic marketing plan. It’s not really a marketing plan at all. It’s a marketing guess. It’s more a list of the tactical experiments that you are planning to carry out. And it will not yield the results you expect. It may even fail outright.

Spend the time and energy to make sure your marketing plan is what it should be—a strategic marketing plan. Your business, your nonprofit, your shareholders, and your boss will be eternally grateful.

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Photo by the author

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