There are inevitable challenges in putting a marketing plan together. Some may be peculiar to the particular organization, but others are fairly generic to the task. The solution is usually to take a pragmatic view: marketing planning is always work in progress and you will never produce the perfect plan. However, you can aim to constantly improve and ensure that the next iteration of the plan is closer to your ideal than the last.
Some of the commonly encountered challenges are as follows:
1. There are other priorities
There will always be other priorities (particularly the ongoing demands of customers), but planning is critical to ensuring that there is a viable business in the future. Finding time to develop a broader, longer-term understanding of the market, the customer, the competition and the wider environment, and thus to plot an appropriate path for the company or brand, is a vital skill for a manager and a necessity for running an effective and profitable business.
2. Colleagues/bosses don’t see the value of a marketing plan
Commitment to the marketing plan process from others in the organization, and most importantly the line manager/director, is ultimately vital to its success. Sometimes this commitment has to be earned, however. Perhaps surprisingly, support can often best be found in the finance department, as it is there that the need to plan (from a budgeting perspective) is clearly understood. The marketing manager must demonstrate commitment to the overall financial objectives for the organization, then begin to show how engaging in a range of marketing activities helps to achieve them and produce a demonstrable payback. A logical system of objective setting, strategic planning and evaluation can convince financial colleagues that much of marketing’s ‘costs’ are indeed an investment.
In less sophisticated organizations there may be an attitude of “all that counts is results”, but by implementing a simple but robust planning system it becomes possible to prove that results can be better predicted and improved upon.
3. The environment changes all the time
In other words, if the environment is changing as quickly as it is, why bother planning? This way leads potential disaster, however. If an organization, including its marketing function, is focused entirely on the short-term it is likely to be blown hither and thither by events, constantly in reactive mode and never taking time out to see the bigger picture. Not surprisingly, such a company will be overtaken by competitors who are looking at the future, not just in terms of how they predict events unfolding, but also how their own plans will have an impact on that future.
A lack of planning will likely result in misallocating resources against initiatives of lesser importance, missing opportunities, risking competitive incursions into your business (or worse) and creating a demoralising ‘headless chicken’ environment. The future may be uncertain, but we must use our skills and experience to predict it as best we can in order to maximise the opportunities, and minimize the risks, for our business.
4. Defining the market
It may seem obvious what ‘the market’ is. It will most obviously be however the organization has always defined it – probably consisting of all the main brands/companies making or selling similar products or services. But is that the optimum way of defining the market for strategic and planning purposes? In reality we can define the market in which we compete in any way we choose, and in so doing may unlock new perceptions about how we can compete more successfully.
A market is actually a group (in consumer markets often consisting of millions) of human beings, no more no less. This applies equally in BTB (business-to-business) markets, where marketers too readily forget that companies never buy anything: it is managers in particular roles that make the decisions. As marketers we can determine which segment or segments of a bigger market will be our target market, with particular characteristics that suit our capabilities and offerings.
The process of defining appropriately the target market (and thus our ‘market’) is a key element in developing the brand strategy and is a core skill for marketers. In the early days of Duracell’s successful rise it defined the market in which it competed as the ‘long-life battery market’, in which it had a dominant share. As it grew, however, and long-life batteries began to become the market norm, its aspiration (which it eventually achieved) became brand leadership of the total battery market. Similarly, Green & Black’s initially concentrated on the organic chocolate market, but as it achieved dominance of that sector it changed its perspective to securing a significant share of the total chocolate bar market.
5. The information doesn’t exist
It is almost inevitable that some of the questions thrown up during the audit/situation analysis phase result in the discovery that little or no data seems to exist to answer them satisfactorily. It is rare to find that there is no data at all: previous generations of marketers had no internet to trawl, yet these days a great deal of intelligence can be gleaned from the web.
One of the important outcomes from each annual iteration of the planning process should be the identification of information gaps and thus the creation of an action point to ensure that appropriate sources of data will be available in a year’s time (e.g. by commissioning market research). In some industries the provision of basic market data, hitherto unavailable, may best be tackled by working with key competitors to agree on the collection and – selective – provision of key statistics by a third-party.
6. Understanding why objectives haven’t been met
There are many reasons as to why there may be failure to achieve an objective:
- A failure of execution: the problem may lie with missing opportunities, misspending budgets, measuring the wrong things, etc.
- A faulty plan: there may have been a failure to identify the most appropriate activities, a misalignment between functions and teams, insufficient resources or a lack of appropriate measurement.
- An inappropriate strategy: a faulty analysis of the marketplace and the scale of the opportunity, a poorly defined target market, a weak brand positioning, the wrong choice of marketing tools, and insufficient resources can all result in failure.
- Or an unrealistic objective: if the analysis was faulty or internal pressure (ignoring the best available evidence and past experience) results in over-ambitious targets, objective failure is almost certain.
The biggest trap is to assume that because objectives have not been met the fault lies at the strategic level (although it may well do). Do not junk appropriate strategies or objectives just because of bad planning or poor execution!