You’ve heard the saying, “Which came first — the chicken or the egg?”
Applied to business planning, it becomes, “Which comes first, the strategy or the tactic?”
Most would say “strategy.” After all, this is the way we’ve been taught to think (remember Marketing 101?) and it’s an approach that has been popularized in sayings like: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there,” or “Failure to plan is planning to fail.”
There’s no question, planning is vital to the success of a business. But it’s the approach to planning that needs scrutiny. So, we’re back to the question: “In drafting my marketing plan, which comes first — the strategy or the tactics?”
Focus on tactics first, then the strategy, a contrarian view expressed by noted business authors Al Ries and Jack Trout. Ries and Trout are responsible for a number of “must read” business classics, including “Positioning” (in which they introduced the revolutionary concept that “companies don’t position products, people do”), and “22 Immutable Laws of Marketing.”
In their book “Bottom-Up Marketing,” Ries and Trout argue that tactics should dictate strategies in marketing planning, citing interesting historical examples of success, and failure:
- Christopher Columbus failed in his strategy to discover a shortcut to India. In the process (and historical references confirm that he did consider himself a failure), he discovered America — no insignificant feat! Had Columbus used a “tactic first” approach… “I’ll sail west instead of east and see what I discover,” instead of a “strategy first” approach… “By hook or crook, I’m going to discover a shorcut to India,” he’d have died a fulfilled man.
- Years ago, the research team at Vicks discovered a new liquid cold remedy that successfully cleared up scratchy throats and runny eyes, with one “negative” side effect — it put people to sleep. Rather than abandoning the project as a failure, Vicks adapted their strategy and created a new “nighttime cold remedy” category, launching NyQuil, “The Nighttime, Sniffling, Sneezing, Coughing, Aching, Stuffyhead, Fever, So-You-Can-Rest Medicine.” The rest is history (and millions of dollars in revenue for Vicks).
According to Ries and Trout, a tactic must have a competitive mental angle to be successful — first, smaller, bigger, faster, cheaper, more colorful, etc. NyQuil was the first over-the-counter medicine that helps cold and flu sufferers get relief and rest. A tactic must be competitive in the marketplace in general, not just a segment. It also must have a mental angle, meaning it has “stickiness” in a customer’s mind.
A strategy, according to Ries and Trout, is a coherent marketing direction which must be focused on the tactic selected. After discovering the beneficial nighttime effects of Nyquil, Vicks may have developed a strategy such as “Provide nighttime relief to cold and flu sufferers cost-effectively, and without a prescription.” A strategy must also work within the realities of the marketplace dynamics — pricing, competition, advertising, etc. And, finally, a strategy is a coherent marketing direction that shouldn’t be changed once it’s established.
So, the next time you’re scratching your head while trying to figure out how to change the world with your new product or service, take a look at the competitive marketplace (what’s everyone else doing?), determine what you can do to be different from your competitors (ie. sail west instead of east), get your resources in place (tools, people), set sail, and create your strategy around what you discover on the way.