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 the subject.

No wonder the guy’s confused. 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.”

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.”

Tactics:

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…

images-2Back 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.

Tactics: TV advertising. Magazine ads. 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. So why not leverage that?

• 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.

images• 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 from misguided on-line sources:

“Create awareness”

“Overcome objections”

“Boost consumer confidence”

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.

Sometimes you can build a hell of a strategy around a simple, tactical idea. Like Dominoes did with their 30-minute delivery guarantee. 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.

If you’re still wondering about the difference between strategy and tactics, try the “what-if” test. “What if we came up with a bunch of new uses for baking soda?”  That’s a strategy.

“What if we search engine” doesn’t make sense. Must be a tactic. “What if we increase market share?”  No idea, must be a goal.

What if we could screen all web content for factual errors?

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

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{ 68 comments… read them below or add one }

all day long March 9, 2013 at 3:50 am

Yes! Finally something about sales strategies.

silvana March 24, 2013 at 8:57 pm

THANK YOU! im in advertising undergrad and you are so right the internet is FULL OF false and confusing information, now i will never forget the difference between tactics and strategies.

Viola March 31, 2013 at 6:33 pm

Hey! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my previous room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this page to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thanks for sharing!

Raed Bilbessi April 29, 2013 at 6:58 pm

Excellent article and very well written. At times, I feel people use the word “strategy” to sound … well, “strategic”. A goal defines point “B”, as opposed to point “A”, which is where you are now. The goal is what you want to accomplish. A strategy gives you an idea about how to get there, but it’s only an idea. The devil is in the details, which is where the tactics come in. Strategies without a goal will get you somewhere (provided they have supporting tactics), but you have no idea where that might be. Strategies without tactics will always look nice on paper, but nothing will ever happen. Tactics without goals and strategies in turn will not necessarily produce favorable results.

Claire April 30, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Hi John,

Maybe you can help me clarify this. From my perspective there are many cases where the difference between goals, strategy and tactics is not so clear cut. Say you are an Anti-Hunger nonprofit doing your website. In that context, take the statement “Educate the public about the benefits of anti-hunger programs.” Is this a goal, a strategy or a tactic? It seems like it could be all three, depending on the context, what comes before and after in the chain of actions. Take this longer chain of goal-strategy-tactic–can you clearly establish which is which?

Alleviate hunger >
encourage an expansion of anti-hunger programs >
create public support for anti-hunger programs >
educate the public about the benefits of anti-hunger programs >
present program benefit information on our site in an engaging way >
use stories, video, charts, illustrations

You could say the first item on the chain is clearly a goal, and the last one is clearly a tactic. What about everything in the middle?

Thanks in advance

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JaneK November 28, 2013 at 12:20 am

Great article. I am (and have always been) very confused by Goals, Objectives, Strategies and Tactics. I’m still not clear, and as a middle aged marketer, I really need to get this sorted out!

Does every person in the organisation set their own Goals, Objectives, Strategies and Tactics, or is each associated with a certain level in the organisation? For example, as a digital marketing manager, am I setting my own Goals, Objectives, Strategies and Tactics, or am I simply executing Tactics that comply with the Goals, Objectives, Strategies my Marketing Director and General Manager have set?

The answer to the paragraph above may influence the relevance of the following comments. It seems to me that what is a tactic at a senior level of the organisation, can be a goal for a more junior member of the organisation. Is that possible? Or do the more senior members of the organisation not engage in setting tactics? If a Marketing Manager decides on tactics that include the development of a new Facebook page, is it possible that the Marketing Co-ordinator may have “Develop new Facebook page” as a goal, and then has to set Objectives, Strategies and Tactics at his/her level to launch that page? The Marketing Co-ordinator’s Strategies might include “Upgrade web site destination content” and Tactics might drill down to “Write new article on planning a better dinner party for the web site” and “Organise photo shoot for dinner party article” (BTW, I could still have the above examples of Strategies and Tactics incorrect, too.)

Sorry – I have always been seriously confused by the above questions!

TiredAdGal December 12, 2013 at 4:00 pm

Love this article because it reminds me of a client request we received a few years back for a “strategy”. We presented strategic recommendations only to be yelled at “Where are your strategies???!!!” Only then did I realize the SVP Marketing client wanted tactics. Cart. Meet Horse.

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John Furgurson January 14, 2014 at 7:51 pm

Thanks for reading!

John Furgurson January 14, 2014 at 8:11 pm

As a tactical marketer, your goals and to-do list should come from the marketing strategy. That’s the short answer. Thanks for reading!

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