What does ‘Strategy’ even mean?

Strategy would be simpler…if only we spoke the same language

Strategy is a meaningless word. Actually, it’s worse than that – strategy is a word with too much meaning. 

“Too many definitions, too many interpretations, by too many people. It’s out of control” – Alex M H Smith, ‘No Bullsh*t Strategy’

I really like Alex Smith, and this quote in particular, because we use the word ‘strategy’ all the time, almost unthinkingly, and we’ve probably all got slightly different ideas about what it means. I’ve had many a rant on the subject of what strategy is (and what it isn’t) but I doubt I’ve actually shifted anyone’s views on it for one major reason: it’s a really emotive word. Strategy’s often perceived as somehow ‘superior’ or ‘above’ the day-to-day, operational stuff, and – let’s be honest – most people like to feel important, so it’s hardly surprising ‘strategy’ miraculously appears in almost everything.

Ironically, given I am a Strategist, I actually think that’s wrong. You can certainly get further with absolutely brilliant tactics and no strategy than you can without doing anything, no matter how amazing your strategy might be, so strategy can’t possibly “outrank” delivery. But, what I do think is that a clear strategy makes everything just click.

We therefore need to find a way of getting everyone to speak the same language, and that means stripping everything back to basics, starting with as simple a definition of ‘strategy’ as possible: what value do we provide which cannot be found elsewhere? This might sound ridiculously simplistic, but if everyone within an organisation knows the answer to that question, then it guides everything they do – and that, for me, is the essence of strategy.

Strategy nesting

Peter Compo talks about nested frameworks, where different business units and functions play different roles but they’re all unified by the overarching strategy. In that instance, you can’t begin to sub-divide it into business, brand and marketing strategies because they’re one and the same thing – it’s actually the execution, the day-to-day doing, which is being mislabelled as “strategy”.

But I reckon less than 5% of businesses truly have this overarching strategy in place and that’s why these terms have emerged. For the at-least-95% other businesses who don’t have that clear guiding strategy at the business-level, various teams have had to come up with their own guidance for their part of the whole.

That’s why you’ve got people like Marty Neumeier talking about brand strategy as being “the reason you exist beyond making money” and Mark Ritson defining marketing strategy as “where we play and how we win in the market” – they’re trying to scope out the specific parts of that top-level question that their function can at least try to answer. If you think about it, that’s only necessary if you can’t say with certainty what value your business provides that can’t be found elsewhere.

That being the case for the vast majority of businesses, you can probably think of each of these terms as existing to answer a specific question:

For the business, what value do we provide which can’t be found elsewhere?

For brand, what do we stand for beyond making money?

And for marketing, who can we sell to, and why?

A marketing strategy as your guiding star

First and foremost, you need to reflect honestly about whether you have a strategy in the first place. The simplest way to do this is to ask a number of colleagues the straightforward question, “What value do we add that our customers can’t find anywhere else?” If they can’t all consistently answer that without too much thought then you don’t have one.

If that’s the case, then it’s probably time to think about building your ‘nest’, i.e. a marketing strategy, and that means building a solid understanding of who you can sell to, and why they might buy from you. Where this is truly strategic, and not just plain tactical, is where you begin to look beyond your existing customers and consider new segments outside your traditional competitive market. This brings challenges of its own, particularly when there isn’t that shared language and understanding between departments, because you’ll inevitably get pushback from Finance when you put together a plan where the returns might not be felt for another 12-18 months (other teams can be blockers too, but it’s generally the people holding the pursestrings who require a hyperfocus on short-term sales and revenue figures).

Once you have a clear idea of who presents the greatest opportunity, you can start to think about where you can find them at scale (your channel mix) and what you need to say to them (your messaging) at each touchpoint on the buying journey. When this all comes together, it provides actionable direction to whoever is going to execute your strategy and therefore means your approach is more effective.

Article by Phil Eaves

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