The difference between an objective and a strategy should be fairly clear, but there is frequently a lot of confusion – usually where what are, in fact, strategies are being written as though they were objectives. It is usually understood that an objective defines a desired end-point and that a strategy is a means to achieve that objective, but identifying the end-point sometimes proves difficult.
The error often comes about as a result of the insertion of the preposition ‘to’ at the beginning of the sentence, seemingly turning it into an objective. However, take a look at the following ‘marketing objectives’:
- To increase the advertising spend to £1million next year
- To launch a new product variant in the 3rd quarter
- To implement a social media campaign on Facebook and Twitter throughout the year
- To secure a 2% price increase in February.
These may all ostensibly read like objectives – and, what’s more look, reasonably SMART (specific, measurable, achievable/agreed, realistic, time-banded). What is needed, however, is the little child at your side asking ‘why?’. When looked at more closely it should become apparent that they are (or should be) in each case a means to an end – that end being whatever the marketing objective is. They are not ends in themselves, but could in all probability be replaced by other strategies to achieve whatever the overall marketing objective is (i.e. achieving a specified market share or revenue, volume or margin target). Good marketing objectives read more like this:
- To achieve a 5% share of the (specified) product category by the end of the first year.
- To earn £2.3 million in revenue from product x over the next 12 months at a gross margin of no less than 32%.
A further confusion creeps in when we begin talking about an individual element of the marketing mix. A marketing plan should clearly state the overall marketing objectives (for the relevant organization, brand, product or service), with supporting marketing strategies which set out which elements of the marketing mix will be used, and how, to achieve the objectives. The plan then needs to drill down into each of the selected elements of the marketing mix (i.e. the 4/7 Ps), with relevant objectives and supporting strategies in each case. Note that these exist at a lower level than the overall marketing objectives, however, and should not be confused with them.
The greatest confusion between an overall marketing objective, and that for a marketing mix element, is most commonly found in relation to marketing communications. Good marcoms objectives relate to customer/consumer behaviour, attitudes and beliefs; conversely, ‘likes’, retweets, etc. constitute weak objectives that will be very difficult to use in order to justify expenditure on the proposed activities. An example of a good marcoms objective would be something like:
- To convince 38% of our (defined) target audience, by the next iteration of the tracking study, that our product is the best tasting in the category.
- To achieve a 45% level of ‘agree/agree strongly’, in the customer sample, with the statement ‘Company XYZ offers the best customer service in the industry’ by the end of next year.
The lack of appropriate metrics to measure the achievement of these kinds of objectives is a clear sign that you are flying blind, unable to connect back the expenditure and activity with results. Even simple surveys (such as a question or two on an omnibus survey) can provide a vital check on objective achievement.
The evaluation phase of the marketing planning process is primarily concerned with understanding the extent to which all these objectives – but most importantly, the overall marketing objectives – have been achieved. Be aware though that they are all concerned with outcomes, not the process or activity itself: too many plans contain an evaluation methodology that is concerned with checking that the activities were implemented, which is simply a circular argument that achieves nothing (even though effective management of the process is, of course, vital).