When Simple Stories are allowed to trump Marketing Strategy

Lack of a viable marketing strategy is most often the fundamental flaw in a marketing plan.  Sometimes the diagnosis of the market, customers and competitors is poor, with the result that it becomes difficult to develop a viable strategy.  The brand strategy may be poorly developed – are the key target segments clear?  Is there a compelling, consistent and robust positioning?  There is undoubtedly often confusion over objectives, with a lack of clarity over what it is that the business or brand wants to achieve.  Closely related to the objective problem is that of evaluation – are the means to monitor and measure achievement against the objectives in place?

But what of the marketing strategy?  We may be clear about our brand and the opportunities and threats in the marketplace. We have set explicit and challenging, but achievable, objectives for the brand, in order to exploit the opportunities. Too often the next step consists of developing a series of activities that it is hoped will ensure that the objectives are achieved – creating a new communications campaign, offering a promotional discount, initiating an e-commerce site, etc.  These will be presented on a GANTT chart and carefully costed, hopefully with some evaluation methodologies attached.  But this is not a strategy.

The black hole in such a marketing plan is the lack of an argument that connects the proposed activities with the objectives – the hard bit is missing.  Why are the marketing mix initiatives, with their associated budget, the optimum way of achieving the objectives?  Have we looked at alternatives?  What does history, competitive experience, etc. teach us?  Is there sufficient evidence and analysis to support any narrative that has been offered to justify the proposed plan?  If the risk attached to a particular proposed course of action is high, can we implement a pilot to test the assumptions?

What we are really talking about here is the capability of the marketer – both the manager developing the plan, and their boss in assessing it, as well as the culture.  The ability to provide the supporting evidence for a proposed course of action is a fundamental test of skill and expertise in marketing.  Too often, however, no time has been given to understanding the brand history (“the world has moved on”), thus risking repeating predecessors’ mistakes.  Further, there may be a strong influence from external agencies with an axe to grind for their particular specialism.

This can all be compounded by the use of over-simplified narratives, which may appear to explain what is happening, but ignore awkward facts.  In a review of Richard Rumelt’s book ‘Good Strategy/Bad Strategy’ in the Marketing Society’s house journal, Market Leader, Kieran Levis highlights how we too easily invent rationalisations for our intuitions, which we struggle to admit.  As he says:  “We’re much more impressed by coherent stories than statistical evidence, so a compelling narrative will always trump confusing facts.  These intellectual shortcuts make us vulnerable to groupthink, halo effects and, most dangerously for executives, enormous over-confidence.”*

The culture of the business, and particularly the Marketing function, will have a significant impact on the likelihood of these problems occurring; dissent should never be treated as disloyalty.  Early in my own career I was chided as a senior product manager, by my marketing manager, for being prepared to argue with the marketing director (“You should never disagree with the marketing director”).  Such cultures are anathema to good marketing, and – more importantly – profitable outcomes for the business.  I’ve always been a great believer in the emperor’s clothes syndrome and encouraged more junior staff to put forward well-argued alternative viewpoints when I became a marketing director.

Developing successful strategies is much more than pulling together some exciting new activities and putting them in a ‘plan’.  They require careful analysis and the development of a robust argument for the proposed course of action.  Make sure there’s not a black hole in the middle of your marketing plan.

Further discussion of this topic is welcomed.

(* Does this have resonance in the contemporary political sphere as well, I wonder?)


Check out the ‘How to’ resource library for a comprehensive range of documents relating to the preparation of marketing plans, as well as the practical and conceptual issues surrounding their preparation and role within the organization.  The resources include some downloadable templates and guides.

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