A Marketing Plan is not Marketing Strategy

13th March 2016

Do we really understand the difference between strategy and plans in B2B? I ask the question because lately I’ve been listening to a lot of marketers use the two interchangeably and incorrectly.


Part of the problem may, in fact, be in the definition of the words themselves. Much to my surprise, strategy and plan are synonyms in the Oxford English Dictionary.

No wonder most of us don’t have a clue about Marketing Strategy!

We create our marketing plans and call them strategy. We start with what we do – the tactics – without the hard work upfront about why we’re doing these things in the first place.

Because strategy and planning are fundamentally different, with distinct purposes: strategy is about outcomes (what we want to achieve and how we succeed), while plans are about outputs (what we do):

  • A strategy is the approach you take to achieve a long-term primary goal – an outcome.
  • A plan is the detailed set of short-term activities – outputs – that encompass specific objectives and tactics that support the strategy:
    • An objective is a measurable step you take to achieve a strategy.
    • tactic is a tool you use in pursuing an objective associated with a strategy.

Marketing strategy must always precede planning and must support the business strategy. Because if we don’t know where we’re going, how will we know if and when we get there? We’ll end up just doing a lot of ‘stuff’ that may or may not have an impact for the business.


6 questions that separate strategy and plans

Bear with me for a moment.

When I was little I loved Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories. One of my favourites was The Elephant’s Child, which is basically about curiosity as essential for acquiring new knowledge, having new ideas and developing new abilities. There’s a poem in the story that goes:

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

What, Why, When, How, Where and Who. These are the basic questions we ask as we explore the world, gather information, invent stories and learn new things, whether as children or adults.

And these are the essential questions that separate our marketing Strategy and Plans.

Simply put, but definitely not simple, Strategy is the Where, the How and the Why – where do we want to go, how are we going to get there and why does it matter? The Plan is then the What, the When and the Who – what are we going to do, when are we going to do it and who will we engage with?

Strategy is for the long-term, no matter how the business environment may change, and should form the touchstone against which every marketing decision is made. The Plan is for the short-term, agile and flexible, responsive to changing market conditions, but always in complete alignment to the Strategy.

And this is a critical distinction, because if we don’t know where we’re going, how can we even begin to think about what needs to be done to get there?

Heidi Taylor is an award-winning senior marketing strategist with 25 years' experience of helping organisations engage with their customers, creating impact and differentiation. She is a sought-after speaker at marketing conferences in the UK and internationally, and regularly contributes articles to marketing journals in print and online. You can follow her on Twitter @TaylorMadeInKew.

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