Too Few Marketers Grasp the Difference Between Strategy vs. Tactics; We Need to Fix That

Look, I get it. For (at least) the first decade of my career, I, too, foolishly conflated strategy and tactics. I’d say things like: “we need to be strategic with our paid search spend,” or “let’s get tactical with the pricing tiers.” Did I sound smart? No. Did I *think* I sounded smart? Yeah, probably.

Here’s the short version:

  • Strategy is how your beliefs (about your target audience, customers, strengths and weaknesses, competition, etc.) inform your approach to marketing. When you hypothesize, hopefully with data, about which channels are worthy of testing, which audiences to reach in which order, or why to structure your brand’s positioning and messaging in a particular fashion, that’s strategy.
  • Tactics are specific marketing actions you take to (hopefully) improve your marketing outcomes. When you invest in particular marketing channels, test particular kinds of messages to convey your brand’s position, build links for SEO, tune phrasing for PPC, or turn on and off ads to measure lift, that’s tactics.

Let’s dive into some familiar, real-world examples:

  • Marketing strategy:
    • Our audience cares about lower prices over virtually everything else, and we can offer the best prices because of our low cost of operations, so let’s reposition our primary value proposition around low prices.
    • Our product space is hyper-competitive, but no one’s tackling the market vertical by vertical. That’s how we’ll get a foothold, starting with the financial industry; specifically hedge funds and investment banks, because they get the most value from our product and have the fewest, usable alternatives.
    • The audience for our product is difficult to reach directly, but there are a few dozen influential people, conferences, and publications almost everyone in the field listens-to, so we’ll take a relationship-building approach with these sources of influence to achieve our marketing goals.
  • Marketing tactics:
    • We’re going to test new, lower pricing front and center on all our landing pages.
    • Double the event sponsorship budget this year and have the team focus on big spends at the six most popular conferences in the investment banking field.
    • We need more thought leadership-focused content and a distribution process that gets us in front of the industry’s big creators.

In every case, a strategy is accompanied by core beliefs that inform a broad approach to either marketing as a whole or a key aspect of it (pricing, positioning, audience behavior, etc.). Tactics, meanwhile, stem from an existing, implied strategic choice (or… technically they could also be the result of just throwing spaghetti at the wall, but hopefully not).

In case you need a cheat sheet

Ok, Rand… So, what?! Who cares about the definition of marketing terminology? How does this help me do my job better?

Why Strategy vs. Tactics Matters

Just three reasons:

#1: If you mistake tactical issues for strategic problems (or the reverse), you’ll misplace your efforts.

Below is a photo my friend, Lindsay Wassell of Keyphraseology, snapped of a billboard in Florida advertising a… unique food item from the pizza chain, Hungry Howie’s.

Hungry Howie’s scrapes the toppings off pizza, puts it in a rectangular, plastic container to create their “No-Dough” Bowl

Howie’s strategy: The market for low-cost, chain pizza is relatively saturated, but by offering unique menu items using our existing ingredients and processes, we can appeal to consumers under-served by existing options.

Howie’s tactics:

  • Giving the product a clear, descriptive name
  • Selling for a relatively low price (cheaper than most pizzas) to appeal to mass-market consumers
  • Investing in outdoor advertising and untargeted mailers (see below) to reach a broad demographic swath of a local market
  • Creating multiple versions of the product for those who prefer vegetarian, meat, etc.
Howie with a full-page, mailer ad

Suppose this product’s sales perform poorly. How does Hungry Howie know if the strategy is wrong or if the tactical execution is subpar?

If Howie’s has run other, similar product launches, they can benchmark against past performance. If they get competitive data from a fast-food market research firm, they could benchmark against the competition, too. If they determine this launch is under-performing, they could invest in a variety of tactics—changing the price, improving the product’s taste, using better photography or visual design in their online and offline promotional materials, and dozens more.

But no tactical improvement will work if the underlying strategy is wrong. What if there simply aren’t enough consumers in Howie’s operating region(s) who want pizza-adjacent products at a pizza chain… that aren’t pizza, no matter how effectively it’s marketed to them?

Surveys, interviews, competitive, and historical research could likely validate this theory. If that process comes back suggesting the core belief and underlying strategy is wrong, superb tactical execution will achieve bupkis. This isn’t a product problem or an issue of channels, messaging, pricing; it’s a strategic miscalculation. When brands get marketing strategy wrong, great products fail just as much as mediocre ones.

Lindsay and I spent last Friday night puzzling over Howie’s strategy… Here’s the best we could do:

Let’s give the marketing team over there the benefit of the doubt:

Can we think of a valid strategy that might have led to pizza toppings in a plastic box as a good, mass-advertising-worthy product to pitch to the market?

  • Pizza is not KETO-friendly, gluten-free, or low-carb, but this product is. Is Howie seeking to target dieters?
  • Microwaving shredded cheese to its melting point is FAST – like 30 seconds kind of fast. Are Howie’s customers the busiest people?
  • Supply chain issues abound. A global grain shortage is caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and India’s heat wave. Is Howie seeking a pivot to protect against raising flour prices or outright unavailability?

What’s so perplexing about Hungry Howie’s new product advertising is that it offers no clue at all about their strategic why. If the No-Dough Bowl is for dieters, they’d reveal calories, pitch health-benefits, or at least play up the “low-carb” feature. If the strategy were about reaching time-starved folks, they’d excitedly proclaim a 30-second cook time or focus on the process’ ease. And if they’re worried about the grain supply chain and prices/availability… chicken wings and salads seem more likely candidates.

If we, as decently savvy marketers, cannot reverse engineer a tactical ad campaign to identify the strategy, does that mean there isn’t one? It is 9:00 PM on a Friday. I’ve been thinking about this all week, so allow me to confirm there is no discernable strategy-to-tactics connection here.

#2: Conflating strategy and tactics is a recipe for ignoring one (usually strategy)

Why are we investing in this tactic?” is a question every marketer should be able to answer with clarity. If you struggle to explain why your PPC efforts focus on a particular set of keywords or why your branding conveys a bright, vibrant color palette, or why your PR efforts target small creators and publications over big, legacy media, you’re in trouble. Your company probably is, too.

Here’s an example of this problem in the wild:

If you start a new energy drink business, and follow Bizfluent’s advice, you’re gonna have a bad time. Not because all of it is terrible, but because you’ll be pursuing tactics untethered to a cohesive, thoughtful strategy.

What the creator of a new beverage should be doing is:

  • First: Market and audience research
    • What is the competitive landscape? Where might gaps exist in the market?
    • What are our team’s unique strengths and weaknesses? What can we do that others cannot?
    • What product is the best match for the market opportunities and our team’s unique skillset?
    • Who are the right audiences for our product? What do they pay attention to? Where can we reach them? How have they come to know, buy, and enjoy other, similar products?
  • Second: Development of a strategy that best fits your opportunity
    • Audience research tells us that our audience learns about and buys many consumer products exclusively online, through social media and a handful of news/review/culture publications. Competitive analyses show us that most of our competition ignores these channels, especially the influential publications.
    • We will therefore adopt an initial channel strategy of promotion
    • For branding, product experience, positioning, and pricing, you’d apply a similar data + informed opinions = strategy model to the above (i.e. use the answers research provides to make wise product marketing decisions)
  • Third: Tactics that map back to the strategy
    • Since influential publications and review sites are our primary, initial target, we’re going to build relationships with relevant journalists, bloggers, site owners, reviewers, etc. at in-person industry events and through a series of introductory coffee meetings.
    • We know these people are tough to please, and skeptical of new offerings that don’t have credible associations, so we’ll recruit one of the most influential and well-connected reviewers as a key taste-development consultant.
    • We want to have brand recognition and association even before the initial outreach (because folks who’ve heard of us will be more likely to accept meetings), so we’ll run a massive, data-driven content marketing campaign that ranks all of the existing beverages in the field using language-analysis of each journalist/blogger/site’s reviews (and, if that doesn’t get wide distribution, we’ll run a few more, similar content campaigns).
    • Our social media marketing will focus initially on distribution of our content efforts and brand positioning, then pivot to our announcement of an upcoming product of our own, backed by the influential taste-development consultant.

This set of tactics should be dramatically different if the market and audience research produced other findings. That’s why it’s so critical to have a strategy before you have tactics. And to have a deep understanding of your audience, your market, and yourself/team before you make create strategies.

If you conflate the two and start posting social ads to Facebook or recruiting influencers on TikTok or buying billboards and mailers in Florida, your marketing will fail.

#3: Team Cohesion

Last but not least, keeping the dichotomy between tactics and strategy unclear makes teams less effective.

If one marketing team (say, the performance advertising group) is given a set of tactics to execute on that doesn’t work in strategic concert with what the content marketing team is doing, they risk stepping on each other’s toes, cancelling out each other’s efforts, or simply missing out on the opportunity that comes with telling a singular message through every medium.

When marketers of all stripes (and their leadership, product, and sales counterparts) operate with a clear, cohesive strategy, potential is maximized. When these teams are executing tactically under multiple, disjointed, unclear strategies (even if they’re doing a phenomenal job hitting their tactical goals), the business suffers. Consumers get confused. Messages get diluted. Pricing and positioning don’t match. The product’s values often go unrecognized by those who buy it. It’s “clean out the fridge” soup instead of boeuf bourguignon. The whole fails to deliver more than just the sum of each part.

As this post on People as Vectors in a Team put it:

When people all work in precisely the same direction, their magnitudes sum up. Give those some people degrees of deviation, and the varying directions subtract from the achievable value.

Next time you’re making plans (perhaps your 2023 marketing strategy?), keep in mind:

Strategy: built on data and opinions, this is how you answer the question: “why are we doing that?”

Tactics: built on strategy, these are individual investments you make to achieve the strategic goal.

Phew. Glad we got that sorted, because marketing is really fun and rewarding once you nail down the core process. And it’s often a giant waste of time if you don’t.

P.S. Special thanks to Amanda Natividad and Lindsay Wassell for reviewing and contributing to this essay.