Is marketing strategy dying? The default analogy for strategy used to be chess. Now it increasingly seems more like Pick a Box or Join the Dots. Here’s a quick look at this shift and why marketers need to brush up on their chess games.
The Pick a Box Option
Consultants and academics love matrices and models. ‘Proprietary’ tools that provide a company or a brand with a default set of strategies or actions based on an assessment of their market position.
In terms of business strategy, the BCG Growth-Share Matrix is a classic and simple example of this. Just determine your mix of Stars, Questions Marks, Cash Cows and Dogs, and act accordingly. Four boxes and four sets of default strategies.
Brand strategy has its own suite of models. One that has been around a while is Y&R’s BrandAsset Valuator. It condenses a brand’s standing down to two dimensions – Brand Strength and Brand Stature. Using these it assesses which one of some ten types of market positions a brand is in. Then recommends predetermined actions to improve upon or take advantage of that position. (For example: “Reinforce why buyers love the brand”; “Ensure products stay in tune with trends”; etc.)
Brand archetyping is another tool. Depending on which version of it is used, it presents businesses with some 12 to 30 options to choose from to guide how a brand should communicate and behave.
New models appear regularly, each claiming ‘new’ insight and potency.
When used in combination – and as thought starters rather than prescriptions – these can be highly useful for building a robust brand strategy. Problems arise, however, when marketers rely on just one view and adopt a set of generic recommendations without giving the specifics of their brand’s situation further thought.
Some of this can be attributed to the current low growth business environment. This has demanded that marketers become more tactically focused on hitting the next quarter’s numbers. As a result, strategic planning is a less practiced and declining skill. This increases the appeal of off-the-shelf models. On one hand, a model can offer a quick and relatively simple solution to the strategic planning task. One the other hand, it can provide a marketer with the appearance of rigour and professional competence to senior management.
But the shortcomings of this ‘pick a box’ option can be significant. While the advantage of models is to simplify the complex, often they can oversimplify the challenges that need to be met. Similarly, their default directions can blind people to critical nuances; they can cause marketers to miss what they really need to do.
Take for example a commonly reported scenario in the use of brand archetypes. Experienced strategists will often look to combine two archetypes to determine a more distinctive personality for a brand. So there can be literally dozens of options to consider. Despite this many brand owners quickly gravitate to their brand adopting the Hero archetype. (In very simplistic terms, to their brand being the Nike of its category). This occurs because of the inherent appeal of the Hero to a brand’s stakeholders rather than it being the best option for improving the brand’s competitiveness.
Join the Dots Marketing
The other, more significant environmental factor driving the decline of strategy is the shift to digital marketing. As the execution of marketing campaigns has become more complex, marketers are under constant pressure to understand and manage more and more moving pieces; often at a granular level.
Planning the execution of a continually broadening set of initiatives – from social, content creation, SEO, SEM and CRM to mobile, localisation, personalisation and native advertising – is replacing strategic thinking.
Testimony to this is the plethora of “How to”, “7 steps for”, “4 ways to use”, “The Ultimate Guide to” type of advice that circulates amongst the marketing fraternity on a daily basis. These step-by-step prescriptions are making marketing a ‘join the dots’ exercise. In fact many digital campaign plans are literally lines and squares.
Take for example a recent article in a leading media and advertising publication on how to create a “killer marketing strategy”. (Note: Link not provided for reasons that will soon become obvious).
This proposed employing the following elements:
- Company Statement
- Target Audience
- Key Competitors
- Tactics / Channels
- Conversion Funnel
Notice anything missing? Notably absent from the “killer strategy” are actual strategies!
In fact this list isn’t actually about ‘marketing strategy’ but is a ‘marketing communications’ format. More specifically – given the focus on Content – it’s a ‘digital marketing communications’ format. That it is presented as an approach to ‘marketing strategy’ is telling in itself.
Things like this feed the argument that many of the profession’s techno-centric digital natives – and those who follow their lead – don’t know the difference. Here strategy is about staying on top of each component of the digital universe as it changes, including using the ‘next big thing’ before competitors do.
As observed by digital marketing consultant Jeff Sauer, “Call it the ethos of the modern digital marketer, or call it youthful ignorance, but there is very little thought given to the strategies behind most digital marketing efforts. Most efforts employ a spray-and-pray or ready-fire-aim approach. Throw (sh)it on the wall and see if it sticks”.
That this ‘do first’ rather than ‘think first’ mindset has permeated marketing communications in general is supported by the recent lament of Mumbrella editor Tim Burrowes at Naked Communications’ “transition from being ‘thinkers’ to ‘makers’”. As seen by Burrowes, the once revolutionary strategy-only agency has been forced to abandon what made it great because marketers no longer want to pay for strategy. This despite his view “I can’t remember the last time I saw a piece of strategy work from a media agency that was really inspiring”.
Getting back to the above “killer strategy” checklist, like most marketing by numbers processes it doesn’t actually represent strategy. It’s the illusion of strategy. It is most likely to produce an activity plan that will be heavy on particulars but thin on big picture consideration. How many marketing ‘strategies’ are now simply the bottom up accumulation of activity plans for the use of Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, programmatic buying, tactical advertising, eDM and so on?
These don’t pass the ‘Why’ test. For instance: Why is the brand in the position it is? Why do customers relate to us in the way they do? Why do competitors attract people we don’t? Why do we think what we plan to do will make a difference? Why is each planned set of activities important?
The outcome of Pick a Box and Join the Dots approaches to strategy is often second-rate, inefficient and less effective marketing. The chances of arriving at an ‘optimal’ strategy with them are akin to those of the infinite monkey theorem. (For those not familiar with it, this states that an unlimited number of monkeys hitting keys at random on typewriter keyboards for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of Shakespeare).
Chess players wanted
Because the landscape for every brand is different in some way, the real game of marketing is far closer to chess than it is to join the dots.
Chess has traditionally been regarded as the ultimate strategy game. It requires thinking about every move and its consequences. It demands a core skill of strategic thinking – the ability to “look ahead and reason backwards”; where one move can win or lose the game for a player down the track.
Though there are only six types of chess pieces, it has been calculated that after each player has made three moves there are over 9 million possible combinations of positions that the pieces can be in. (Even more astounding is the calculation that there are more possible games of chess than there are atoms in the universe!)
The movement of just one piece can change the entire dynamic of a game by recalibrating the relationship of all the other pieces to each other.
Like chess, every detail relating to the brands in any given market has the potential to impact their relative positions.
Prescriptive approaches to strategy easily miss these details and the up and down sides they present.
They don’t invite interrogating the specifics of a brand and its situation to find the right combination of moves to win the game; instead leading to playing it one move at a time.
They don’t deconstruct each element – be it tangible or intangible, rational or emotional, brand out or consumer in – and then reconstruct, combine, innovative with and focus on those most likely to lead to success.
One topical example of ‘strategy’ without due diligence is the foray into social media. How many brands have invested in Facebook pages and content creation without a clear idea of where this fits into an overall strategy and what they’re actually trying to achieve?
Playing the game like an international Grand Master
Perhaps more marketers should take a leaf out of the international marketing playbook. The best international marketers take literally nothing for granted. When taking a successful brand from one country to another, they look deeply into the key factors for success in the original market and whether they are present in the new market. If need be they then adjust selected elements of their strategy to meet the specific conditions of the new market; typically localising the offer and their go to market approach. In some cases this due diligence leads to the decision not to enter a country at all.
In contrast, examples of international marketing mistakes made by the less experienced abound. Such as brands who are market leaders in their home countries over-confidently attempting to enter another market with marginal discernible product differences and/or positionings already taken by strong incumbent players. Then there are brands that have run ad campaigns that have worked well in one country in another, without considering that their effectiveness is based on the cumulative effect of years of past advertising that new audiences haven’t been exposed to.
As noted, similar ‘doing’ before ‘thinking’ errors are likely rife in domestic marketing. But an advantage that international marketers have is that the expectation of ignorance is more central to their work. When developing strategy for a new country, experienced practitioners know that they don’t know all the facts. Their default mindset is that there will be “unknown unknowns” to deal with.
Domestic marketers could benefit from rediscovering their ignorance. For instance, by first pushing themselves to take a zero-based view of their markets. Then robustly questioning which components of both their legacy marketing-mix and shiny new digital options will really help them win the game moving forward.
Will chess and marketing strategy go the same way?
While there isn’t hard evidence of it, the general consensus is that chess is declining in popularity. Why? One widely touted reason is that computer games and other technology-led entertainment have taken over the interest and time previously given to it.
Similarly, it may just be that as the number of digital marketing options expands, and the more complex and smarter they become, the less real strategic thinking will be done.
Not being able to see the woods because of the trees could become the norm.
Should this turn out to be the case, true, big picture marketing strategies will be rare and valued assets.
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