Marketing Strategy vs. Tactics

by John Furgurson on November 1, 2009

I’m appalled. A successful marketing guy asked me a question recently — a real no-brainer — which led me to believe he didn’t know the difference between strategy and tactics.

How can that be? He’s held several high-paying marketing positions. He’s college educated in Marketing 101. He’s gotta know this stuff.

So I started doing some research online and I’ve found the problem: The internet!

There’s more misinformation than information out there. More nonsense than common sense. Even some of the biggest gurus in the industry have posted conflicting information on this subject.scratching-head

I ran across one article that listed “search engines” as a marketing strategy and that “long-term strategies such as giving away freebies will continue to pay off years down the road.” No wonder the guy’s confused.

This isn’t just a matter of semantics, it’s negligence. Advice like that would never get past the editors of a trade publication for worm farmers, much less a brand-name business magazine.  But you can find it on-line!

In any case, the easiest way to clarify the difference between strategy and tactics is to go to the source. I’m sorry if the war analogy doesn’t appeal to you, but that’s where these terms came from, some 3,000 years ago.

Here’s how it breaks down: Goals first. Then strategy. Then tactics.

Goal: Win the war.

Strategy: “Divide and conquer.”


CIA spies gather intelligence.

Navy Seals knock out enemy communications.

Paratroopers secure the airports.

Armored Divisions race in and divide the opposing army’s forces.

Drone attacks take out the enemy leadership.

An overwhelming force of infantry invade.

Hand-to-hand combat.

A strategy is an idea… A conceptualization of how the goal could be achieved. Like “Divide and Conquer.” Another possible war strategy would be “Nuke ‘Em.” (They call them Strategic Nuclear Weapons because they pretty much eliminate the need for any further tactics.)

A tactic is an action you take to execute the strategy.

But let’s get off the battlefield and look at a successful brand. In business, great strategies are built on BIG ideas. And BIG ideas usually stem from some little nugget of consumer insight.

imagesBack in the 70’s, executives at Church & Dwight Inc. noticed that sales of their popular Arm & Hammer baking soda were slipping. The loyal moms and grandmas who had been buying the same baking soda all their lives weren’t baking as much as they used to.

Business Goal:  Turn the tide and increase Baking Soda sales.

Strategy: Devise new reasons for their current customers to pick up that yellow box at the supermarket and use more baking soda. Specifically, sell Arm & Hammer as a deodorizer for the fridge. That’s a big, strategic idea that led Arm & Hammer in a completely different direction. They’re now marketing a whole line of environmentally friendly cleaning products. Every current Arm & Hammer product, from toothpaste to cat litter, originated with that strategy of finding new ways to use baking soda. And in the process, an old-fashioned brand has managed to stay relevant.

bakingsodafridgeTactics: TV advertising. Magazine ads. Digital advertising. Search engine marketing. Infomercials. Retail promotions. Website dedicated to all the various uses of Arm & Hammer Baking Soda. All the traditional marketing tactics were employed.

All good marketing strategies share some common components:

• Thorough understanding of the brand’s status and story. Arm & Hammer has a strong heritage that dates back to the 1860’s. That yellow box with the red Arm & Hammer logo is instantly recognizable, and stands for much more than just generic sodium bicarbonate.

• A realistic assessment of the product’s strengths & weaknesses. Market research proved what Arm & Hammer executives suspected… that people don’t bake as much as they used to. But it also showed that people use their baking soda for all kinds of things besides baking. That was the insight that drove the strategy.

• A clear picture of the competition. Arm & Hammer has always been the undisputed market leader in the category. However, when they decided to introduce toothpaste and laundry detergent, the competition became fierce. Arm & Hammer’s long-standing leadership position in one vertical market gave them a fighting chance against Procter & Gamble.

• Intimate knowledge of the consumer and the market. The shift away from the traditional American homemaker directly affected baking soda sales. Church & Dwight kept up with the trends, and even led the charge on environmental issues.

• A grasp of the big-picture business implications. Good strategies reach way beyond the marketing department. When you have a big idea, execution of the strategy will inevitably involve operations, R&D, HR, finance and every other business discipline.

A great strategy does not depend on brilliant tactics for success. If the idea is strong enough, you can get by with mediocre tactical execution. However, even the best tactics can’t compensate for a lousy strategy.

Some people confuse marketing strategy with goals.  They are not synonymous. Here are a few examples of “strategies” from seemingly credible on-line sources:

“Create awareness.” “Overcome objections.” “Boost consumer confidence.” “Refresh the brand.” “Turnkey a multiplatform communications program.” That’s just marketing industry jargon!

These are NOT strategies, they’re goals. (And not even very good goals.) Remember, it’s not a strategy unless there’s an idea behind it.

Any number of strategies can be used to achieve a business goal. In fact, it often takes more than one strategy to achieve a lofty goal, and each strategy involves its own unique tactical plan. Unfortunately, a lot of marketing managers simply throw together a list of the tactics they’ve always used, and call it a strategy.

unnamedSometimes you can build a hell of a strategy around a simple, tactical idea. Like Dominoes did with their 30-minute delivery guarantee. If you’re still wondering about the difference between strategy and tactics, try the “what-if” test. Someone said, “Hey, what if we guaranteed 30-minute delivery?” and a strategy was born.  They couldn’t compete on product quality, but they could compete on speedy delivery. After that, their entire operation revolved around the promise of 30-minute delivery.

“What if we came up with a bunch of new uses for baking soda?”  That’s a strategy. On the other hand, “What if we do search engines?” doesn’t make sense. Must be a tactic. “What if we increase market share?”  There’s no idea in that, so it must be a goal.

What if we could screen all web content for factual errors and eliminate some of this confusion? Wouldn’t that be nice.

For more on the basics of marketing and branding, try this post.

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