What Goes into a Great Marketing Strategy?

Unresolved issues that are buried come back later in bigger and uglier ways.

To come up with a great marketing strategy, you need to be willing to ask hard questions, give straight answers, bruise egos, lose face, break hearts, and kill all your darling ideas. At the core of the marketing strategy is honesty. If you can’t get at the truth of what your company is about, who you are, and how you are actually received by customers, you can never create a marketing strategy that lives up to its full potential. Allowing anyone to sugar coat the facts or assert and overly-optimistic view of the market will lead to a shortfall of projections and earn the distrust of shareholders. This is the time to be brutally honest.

If being brutally honest disturbs you, then you’re not alone. Brutally honest executives are not popular in our politically-correct corporate environment. They either change jobs often or become entrepreneurs. Most people in corporate America are in the business of sugar coating the facts to upper management. They want to look like team players and cover their butts by cheerleading the CEO’s latest bad idea. This is a great way to keep you job . . . until the last round of layoffs. Don’t fear honesty, embrace it.

Being brutally honest does not mean you demean coworkers or go out of your way to offend other people. It means you are brutally honest about your company, your products, and the performance of your team. You focus on changing behaviors not personalities. You focus on what’s wrong with things not people. Marketing can change products, messages, and behaviors. It cannot change personalities. Those, you’re stuck with.

The only way this brutal honesty will work is if you create an environment where conflict is encouraged, egos and titles are checked at the door, and everyone feels safe. If any participant in your strategy meetings feels that opening their mouth would shorten their career, you haven’t created the right environment. This needs to be a commitment from the top. For the good of the company open dialogue and conflict need to be free-flowing. If you have a leader who likes to settle arguments and move on, pull him aside and tell him this is no time for quick resolution. Disagreements need to be hammered out to the bitter end.

For instance, a marketing director makes the claim that the company’s Powerhouse 550 is the market leader because the company controls 53% of the market (it’s a small market). A salesperson says that’s bull (fair play, he’s attacking the facts, not the person). Should the marketing director show the industry data that proves they hold 53% of the market? Heaven’s no. Not only would that kill good, healthy conflict, but we would never find out why the salesperson disagreed. The correct response is, “Pray tell” (which is, of course, Shakespearean for “Tell me more”). Low and behold, we find out from the salesperson that although the Powerhouse 550 is the leader, business to business buyers are favoring a competitor’s Microhouse 690 which is growing twice as fast as the Powerhouse 550 ever did. So in the salesperson’s mind, the Microhouse 690 is the new market leader because he sees his upcoming commission checks evaporating if something isn’t done. Playing out the conflict is a healthy step toward getting something done.

Maintain Unity Through Involvement
The best way to hold these groups together and keep them engaged is to have each of them bring something to the table that relates to their field and is vital to the planning process. There are different aspects of your sales and marketing group that all bring different types of information and different perspectives to your conversation. For instance, you will often find that sales people place price high on the list of things the customer cares about. While from their perspective as the price negotiator, this may appear to be the case, your marketers will find price low on the list from their market research, because customers don’t want to appear to be overly concerned about money ahead of other values. These need to be discussed and balanced. The marketing people handling the company PR should bring the media perspective and a genuine concern that the company be seen as involved in philanthropic endeavors. All these perspectives are valid as long as they relate back to real statements or observed behaviors from the customer.

Keep the customer as your source in every phase and step of planning. If you find you have a big void in your understanding of the customer stop and fill that void. Get out and talk to customers. Better yet develop or commission a set of individual surveys to truly map the mind of the customer. Bring this data back and work through in light of your organizations aspirations and culture. Then continue to gather more of this information as you conduct business day to day. Everyone in both sales an marketing should be responsible for gathering some form of customer data.

Follow a Structure
So once you have this brutally honest environment and everyone has brought some knowledge of the customer, what do you focus on? What do you discuss? What structure do you give to your plan? How do you keep on task? Marketing can get complex, and if you try to nail down every little detail at this point, you will never reach agreement or alignment between sales and marketing. Ethereal discussions about branding need to be replaced by down to earth discussions and decisions in areas that drive sales and grow your company.

The three areas that will be of most worth to you are:

  1. Position
  2. Message
  3. Delivery

Keeping this simple structure in mind will allow you to create a simple marketing plan that can be carried forward in both your ads, brochures, and sales communications. The next several chapters will be devoted to defining, elaborating on, and unabashedly selling these three areas that are the core of successful marketing.