Your B2B marketing plan is NOT marketing strategy

9th September 2018

Before I went off on my August holidays I explored in greater depth the first of my 3 enduring fallacies of B2B marketing – that over the past few years marketing has fundamentally changed. In this post I delve deeper into the 2nd of those 3 fallacies and focus on developing B2B marketing strategy, exploring the difference between marketing strategy and plans.

Difference between marketing strategy and plansPhoto by Dmitri Popov on Unsplash

We B2B marketers love words and phrases that sound important and weighty. So we create our marketing plans and call them strategy. We constantly use the words strategy and plans interchangeably, incorrectly, and (even better) blended together – as in our ‘strategic marketing plans’. Because, of course, we all want to ‘do’ strategy and appear ‘strategic’.

But a B2B marketing plan is NOT marketing strategy. And a marketing plan cannot be ‘strategic’ if there is no marketing strategy in the first place!

 

The marketing pyramid

I call this pyramid my hierarchy of marketing.

Difference between marketing strategy and plans

Strategy sits at the top of the pyramid because strategy should inform everything we do as marketers. It articulates the approach we take towards our markets and the choices we make, providing both clarity and purpose around what we do – and more importantly, what we don’t do. A marketing strategy organises our thinking and thus our actions around what is most important for our business as well as our customers. And having a strategy that we can point to and articulate enables us to say No to activities that may seem pretty cool, but don’t actually help achieve what we’re trying to achieve.

The top half of this pyramid is about achieving outcomes.

Yet many of us – perhaps even the majority of us – operate solely in lower half of this pyramid, which is focused on outputs. And let me be very clear here: these outputs are not strategy. They are the tactics we implement that support and deliver the strategy, but they are not strategy.

 

Difference between marketing strategy and plans

So, what’s the difference between strategy and plans?

  • strategyis the approach we take and the choices we make 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 align to, support and sustain the delivery of the strategy

There are 6 basic questions we need to ask and answer when we’re developing our strategy and plans.

If you’ll bear with me for a moment, when I was little I loved Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories. Even though these stories are now clearly of a different time and place, many of the core messages remain relevant. One of my favourites has always been The Elephant’s Child, because it’s 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.

 

How to develop B2B marketing strategy

Putting this into practice, developing Strategy is asking and answering the Why, Where and How:

  • Why are we doing this and why does it matter? For both our customers and our business. This is the primary outcome we want to achieve with our marketing activity over time. Answering the Why means we simply must have on-going conversations with our business and a deep understanding of our relevance to our customers, so that customer need is aligned to business need. This question gets to the heart and soul of what we are trying to achieve and how we’re going to realise that outcome. Further, it frames the overall marketing environment where we can become distinctive and where creativity can flourish.
  • Where are our Priorities? Where will we invest our time and resources? Where will we grow? These are the strategic choices we make about our markets and industries, and the segmentation of those markets. The most effective marketing is ultimately about the choices we make, enabling us to focus our time, effort and resources on where we can make the most impact. And crucially, we shouldn’t be making these choices in a vacuum – marketing is not an activity that we do to the business but with the business. These choices are made in agreement with our stakeholders so that it’s very clear to everyone what marketing will do and not do, and thus becomes the foundation for our accountability to the business. Too often I see marketers try to do too much, trying to please every stakeholder, and becoming spread so thin that we end up being awfully busy all the time, inevitably simply performing random acts of marketing that don’t make much of an impact.
  • How will we go to market? The How is often the most difficult and the most neglected part of strategy – and the reason why so many strategies are too far removed from the execution and thus fail. The How isn’t about tactics, it’s essentially about our brand story and value proposition. It encompasses thinking about and making such choices as: the core themes and issues we will address/be known for in the marketplace and our core message(s) – essentially the story or inter-linking stories we’ll be telling that are the ‘umbrella’ for our plan. Further, it’s about how we will align, integrate and embed this throughout our business, and the high-level resources, capabilities and support systems that we’ll need to execute the strategy.

Strategy must come first and only once we have clarity on the Why, Where and How, should we start to develop the tactical plans. Because strategy isn’t just words on a page; strategy is the touchstone that every marketer in the organisation needs to understand, and against which every single marketing activity must be aligned and measured.

Developing marketing strategy is certainly not easy but it doesn’t have to be complicated. These 3 questions form the foundation upon which a clear strategy can be built.  But it takes more than tactical marketing expertise – it takes a deep understanding of our customers and our business, and a deep grounding in the marketing fundamentals. Because it’s the one effort that will make the most difference in both how our businesses perceive the marketing function and the impact we make in our markets.

 

Outcomes v outputs

Understanding the difference between strategy and plans – and the difference in how we develop them – 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.

In my next post I’ll explore the marketing plan and share my 8-step framework that acts as a catalyst for having different kinds of conversations with our businesses.

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I hold ½ and full day workshops for you and your teams to develop marketing strategy and integrate subsequent plans that create impact and differentiation. Please contact me if you’d like to talk!

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If you don’t have yours yet, check out my book B2B Marketing Strategy: differentiate, develop and deliver lasting customer engagement on my book page, and then buy it from Kogan Page publishers or Amazon everywhere.

B2B Marketing Strategy


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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