Strategy Primer

I find that “strategy” is a very misused word.

Marketing strategies are—if you look at how the word is used—any marketing activity that might possibly work. People talk about “strategies” such as “posting to Facebook more.”

Let me quote anonymously an email from a university alumni giving committee. The name of this university, if I gave it, would be familiar. The email is a request addressed to alumni representatives of a range of graduating years asking them to come up with fundraising ideas: “We will be talking about end of year giving. Each of you are a great representative for your individual year, but we acknowledge that what is best for one class might not be the best for another. Please think about the messaging that would work best for your class and come prepared to talk with the other class representatives on what might move our numbers. Things to consider for our communications: campus happenings, (…) events, memories, straightforward ask, incentives, etc.”

Tactics all and untethered to any strategy. And the results in the meeting were highly frustrating to the recipient who wrote me with a description:
Strategy Primer

“A bunch of people with no marketing background trying to come up with ‘strategies’ that will engage other students to give money. They don’t know what they don’t know (not their fault) and are therefore completely missing the point … [while] not investing in actual strategy [the college is] asking us to come up with one on the fly. Strategy is not ‘we should post on Facebook more!’ which I did hear on this call! … And then they expect it to work. They’re talking about ‘giving drop-off rates’ with stats like ‘we’re down 40 gifts from last year at this time’ completely missing the bigger picture.”

Let me put forth my definition of strategy, brand strategy and marketing strategy and see if it helps unpack some of the problems this group is running into.

What is strategy?

It is finding the means to achieve your goals (think big goals) with the least possible expenditure of effort. All strategy is fundamentally a matter of informed choices. A strategy must choose among possible options prioritizing those that are likely to yield the most advantageous outcomes with the least expenditure of effort. In a strategy project our task is to inform and make recommendations for these choices by drawing on a combination of organizational insight, existing research, original research, and the strategic framework and tools that we bring to bear in service of achieving the goal.

Strategy is finding the means to achieve your big goals with the least possible expenditure of effort.

In our process we break this out into brand strategy, marketing strategy, and organizational alignment.

What is brand strategy?

Brand strategy is having everyone in your organization and all your offers that touch the world effectively express your ideal truth.

(Go here for an article on general brand strategy and here as it relates to college brands. The main tools we use to structure and maintain a brand strategy are Brand Pyramids and Brand Maps.)

What is marketing strategy?

It is understanding who your most natural consumers are and how you can communicate your value to them, such that they will take voluntary action to your benefit.

(Go here for a more extensive article on marketing strategy and also targeting. The main tools we use for this are Competitive Advantage Diagrams and Marketing Targets Diagrams.)

What is organizational alignment?

Converting your core values into day-to-day behaviors across all departments to empower and unleash the tremendous autonomous potential of your employees.

(Go here for a fuller definition of organizational alignment.)


Tactics or operational activity unguided by any strategy results in waste and inefficiency.

Now what is the stuff this group was talking about on that call? Tactical experiments. Tactics unguided by a strategy, uninformed by hard choices having already been made, unaided by research or insight into audience need. Tactics or operational activity of this kind results in waste and inefficiency. It costs you money, and can result in the destruction of goodwill and the loss of loyalty. Such consequences are dire.

Recently, I was pitching the value of marketing strategy in the form of careful and highly focused targeting to the chairmen of the board for one of our nonprofit clients. I painted a picture of how targeting actually gets you a bigger share of the audience because it is often the only way to activate people through marketing, which, unlike sales, has to be messaged with surgical precision regarding the needs of the audience. He then asked me this question: “What if you are wrong? What if you choose the wrong target?”

The answer of course is there is also usually a hedge, but the real answer is that if the strategic hypothesis is wrong, totally wrong, then you get essentially the same results you are getting now without strategy. If it’s right though, the upside is tremendous.

Strategy guides decisions so that they cease to be random and driven by the whim of those on the inside of an organization. Marketing strategy must be driven by an understanding of the needs of the intended target.

You must choose what NOT to do. You must then focus your efforts on the path you have chosen. This is the discipline of strategy. It should be founded on solid insight and valid research, but the natural tendency is to spread your tactical activity too thin. It is easy to become lazy and not check each of your tactical activities against a strategy rubric to see if it is actually supporting your strategic goals or if it is not. “Posting to Facebook more” might be absolutely right, but posting to Facebook with what content? To what end and in address of the needs of what audience? And why that expenditure of time, energy and money as opposed to some other one? Strategy guides such decisions so that they cease to be random and driven by the whim of those on the inside of an organization. Marketing strategy must be driven by an understanding of the needs of the intended target. The strategic framework, once in place, guides this process.

The strategy test

There should be two strategic tests of any tactical activity.

1. Does this activity further and support our brand strategy? Is it in or out of sync with the overall brand story that we want to be understood out in the world?

2. Does it serve to meet an understood need or set of needs for its intended target audience? Does it initiate the conversation with a known driver of behavior for that target?

Once you have the tools to assess these two things the selection of what to do and what not to do gets a whole lot easier. That is the power of strategy.

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