Is That a Strategy or Just a Plan?

David Lazarenko

Over the last 15 years, I’ve had the opportunity to facilitate, create and execute numerous marketing communications strategies. Yet I recently came to the realization that the majority of our effort has been spent on the plan and not the strategy. What's the difference?

A plan is a roadmap or instruction guide that outlines a series of actions, initiatives and tactics that, when followed, will take a company to a predetermined end state. A strategy, on the other hand, is the determination of the desired end state and the decisions regarding focus (i.e. what you will and will not do). There’s a simple test for strategic decision-making that sheds additional light on how many clients and agencies think they are being strategic but really aren’t. The test is made up of three questions.

1. Is the decision readily apparent?

When you are being truly strategic, the answers shouldn’t come easy. If they are no-brainers, you run the risk of being labeled a strategic procrastinator. Was McDonald’s decision to offer healthy foods strategic or a no-brainer? Did they really have any other choice? How about your decision to build a website and have an online presence? Many saw that as a strategic decision, but could you really afford not to be online in today’s communication climate? Hadn’t the market already made the decision for you? Or consider the shift to responsive web design. Google's announcement earlier this year about its mobile-friendly algorithm changes left many companies wishing they'd moved to a responsive site much sooner. Real strategic decisions come from capturing opportunities that others have yet to capture. Take Monsanto’s decision to bring corn and soy to the West. Did the market demand it? Is success a given? Will the return cover the investment? It’s hard to say, and that’s a good sign of being strategic.

2. Is the decision controversial?

When I say “controversial” I don’t mean shock and awe. A controversial decision is one where the “for” and “against” positions can both easily be argued. Was Apple’s decision to not support Flash controversial? You bet. Conversely, could anyone have legitimately argued against your decision to go online? What about creating an online agronomic tool: should it be an app or a mobile optimized web tool? If it’s an app, should it be free or paid for? Should you offer it to customers and non-customers? These are all examples of decisions that could be argued either way – and are therefore strategic.

3. Is the decision easily reversible?

It's tempting to want to give yourself a safety net, to find a way to keep both doors open just in case. But once you have chosen a strategic path, it is generally very difficult to reverse the decision. For Apple to reverse engineer all of their products to support Flash would have cost them millions. If Monsanto chose to get out of corn and soy in the West, how would that affect their plant breeding infrastructure and investment?

From a marketing communications standpoint, common strategic decisions can include:

  • Inclusive vs. Exclusive Content: Do you share your knowledge with customers and non-customers? Is the content free or paid for?
  • Mass vs. Grassroots: Do you communicate from the top-down or bottom-up? Do you invest in paid promotions or direct touch points?
  • Digital vs. Traditional: Do you invest more in digital or traditional media channels? Do you go after tech-savvy farmers or conservative farmers? Can you really target both?
  • Income Statement vs. Balance Sheet: Do you commit your marketing dollars towards paid media (advertising) or owned media (customer tools)? Do you risk decreased awareness for increased engagement? Do you have the budget to do it all?

Truly strategic decisions should be irreversible and controversial, and if the choice seems obvious and everyone feels comfortable with it, you've probably waited too long. Part of seizing new opportunities in today's agri-marketing landscape means taking a strategic jump forward while the rest of the crowd is feeling out its first step.

If you agree, give us a call and maybe we can help ;)

In his Working Wisdom series, David Lazarenko shares insights and inspiration gathered throughout his 15-year agency career. Through real-life examples and an analysis of industry trends, he offers up practical advice and actionable strategies for marketers.

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