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So what? The difference between strategy and tactics in marketing

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Two thousand years ago, somewhere around the 500 BC mark, a Chinese philosopher named Sun Tzu was spreading his teachings and writing The Art of War: a military text that has gone on to shape everything from weight loss to relationship advice to business growth.

Throughout his life, Tzu recognised that there is no use making a journey without considering the destination, that although tactics are important, without any form of strategy, they are pretty much useless.

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” - Sun Tzu

The world of modern marketing is filled with enough acronyms and jargon to probably write another version of The Art of War, but tactics and strategy should be two terms that take a front seat in your brand’s set of definitions. Put simply, strategy explains what you are trying to achieve, tactics are how you are going to get there.

The problem in today’s business world is that we have lost patience with setting a strategy and are choosing instead to jump on every new tool and tactic that comes our way. At the 2019 MarTech Conference, there were 7040 solutions on the marketing technology landscape supergraphic; a figure that has evolved from 150 in 2011. That’s 7000+ sets of data and 7000+ reasons on which to blame the failure of your campaign. But at the end of the day, bad data is not why a business or campaign doesn’t work. Lack of direction, personality, culture, focus and feeling is what does the trick; all of which take time to figure out and cannot be told to you by our good friend, Google.

Without a clear strategy, people working for your brand will not know why they are doing what they are doing. Above all, being empathetic to a number of different people will make you a better strategist. It’s about joining dots that wouldn’t normally be joined and understanding the motivations of people in their everyday lives. That comes from reading differently, thinking differently, learning differently and surrounding yourself with others who want to do the same.

Take the UK-bred drinks brand, Innocent Smoothies. At the turn of the new millennium, three friends from Cambridge University decided on a snowboarding holiday that they wanted to start a smoothie business based entirely on natural ingredients and donate 10% of its profits to worthy causes. Turned down by countless investors for having no leader and no experience, the boys sent out emails with a subject headline ‘does anyone know anyone rich?’ and set up a stall at a music festival which was signposted ‘should we quit our jobs to make smoothies?’ They had two bins in front of the stalls for people’s waste labelled ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ Undoubtedly the ‘yes’ bin won.

The tongue-in-cheek-ness of these struggling beginnings is something that has never left the business 20 years down the line. The brand takes ‘does what it says on the tin’ to new realms and uses simple words, ideas and ingredients to benchmark every campaign and product they release. The strategy? Make people feel good from drinking something that has been given to them by nature. The tactics? Make people feel good through clever wordplay, childlike packaging and friendly social messaging. Today, the company is generating £350m in annual sales and have donated over £8.9 million to the Innocent Foundation. Indeed, Innocent Smoothies hopped on the all-natural, sustainable train a lot earlier than others and have kept a lot of people smiling (not to mention healthy) along the way.

In marketing, strategy sets the tone for your business and defines the space where it engages. It’s not all about the victories. Tactics, of course, are essential, since they execute your ideas in the most appropriate way possible but it’s important to not get too caught up in the short term and the shiniest new data sets. Keep asking yourself what you’re trying to achieve and who you’re doing it for: without a what, there isn’t a way.

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