I’ll be the first to admit, the first 6-7 years or so of my “marketing” career, I was a tactic-driven guy. While I had a notion of what strategies were, it was more of a, “just make sure you tie it all together somehow,” checks and balances, rather than actually thinking strategically. When I took the job of Assistant Athletic Director for Communications at Birmingham-Southern College, however, I had the idea that we should start with something bigger than a bunch of ideas.
Research and reading reinforced that and my work as a PR guy in college athletics started to look like something smart. No longer was I just checking off lists of things to do and keeping each individual stakeholder (read: coach) I dealt with happy. Now I was developing platforms of messaging for our athletic programs. We would look a certain way, speak a certain way, sound a certain way and all that laddered up to an overall platform that helped us accomplish one of a handful of organizational goals.
Fast-forward several years and I’m leading a brainstorming session with a consumer product good client. We’re trying to develop strategic platforms for the upcoming year — an exercise many of you are going through right now for 2015, if you haven’t already. And I would ask the questions:
- What do we want to accomplish?
- What’s most important to us?
- Who are we talking to and what do we want them to do?
And the answers kept coming back:
- “We should send everyone surprise gifts!”
- “We should spend some money on point-of-sale reminders.”
- “What if we did a contest on Facebook?”
If your contribution to a strategic planning session contains the phase “What if we …” or “We should …” there’s a pretty good chance you’re about to contribute a tactic, not a strategy.
Here’s an easy way to think about it:
A strategic platform answers the question: “Who are we?” Or, perhaps more specifically, what is it that we stand for. A tactic answers the question, “What do we do?”
Yes, it’s easy to say, “Well, our strategy is to offer industrial grade machinery at consumer-friendly prices.” That’s expanding an explanation of a strategic platform. Yes, it sounds like a “What we do?” answer. But the platform there is accessibility. You’re giving something of high quality to an audience that can’t normally get it. You are about accessibility.
When I think Ford, I think quality. Quality is who they are. They do lots of things that execute on quality, but one of Ford Motor Company’s strategic platforms is producing quality. Hilton Hotels are focused strategically on offering mid-priced and luxury hotels around the world. Affordable luxury (I’m guessing) is one of many strategic platforms. It’s who Hilton is. How they execute on that encompasses its tactics.
So when you find yourself in a strategic discussion peppered with tactical ideas, stop and ask them, “Who do you want to be?” “What do you want to be to your customers?” That’s a good starting point for a much more productive discussion.