August 31, 2014
“You have to be more strategic” gets said daily in the corporate world. Everyone seems to proclaim they are a “strategic thinker” on their Linked In profile. I hear the word “strategic” all the time, when it’s not even strategic. People get promoted because they are strategic, and held back in their careers at a given level because they aren’t strategic enough. Yet, have you ever really had a conversation with your boss about what it really means to be strategic? Can they articulate it? Or do they just say it and you just take it? Have you ever received training on being more strategic? Likely not.
So what does it mean to “be a strategic thinker”?
To me, the difference between a strategic thinker and a non-strategic thinker is whether you see questions first or answers first. Strategic Thinkers see “what if” questions before they see solutions. They map out a range of decision trees that intersect and connect by imagining how events will play out. They reflect and plan before they act. They are thinkers and planning who can see connections. Non Strategic Thinkers see answers before questions. They get to answers quickly, and will get frustrated in the delays of thinking. They think doing something is better than doing nothing at all. They opt for action over thinking. They are impulsive and doers who see tasks. They are frustrated by strategic thinkers. But to be a great marketer, you must be a bit of a chameleon. While pure strategy people make great consultants, I wouldn’t want them running my brand. They’d keep analyzing things to death, without ever taking action. And while tactical people get stuff done, it might not be the stuff we need done. I want someone running my brand who is both strategic and non-strategic, almost equally so. You must be able to talk with both types, at one minute debating investment choices and then be at a voice recording deciding on option A or B. You need to make tough choices but you also have to inspire all those non-strategic thinkers to be great on your brand instead of being great on someone else’s brand.
The problem with strategy is that things in our corporate life get in our way. The first conflict is with action, as corporations are pressured to take action, not stand still. There is a mistaken belief that doing something is better than doing nothing. The problem is that without proper focus, it just spreads resources randomly (investment, people) The second Conflict is with Sales. Sales people are not less strategic, they are just a different type of strategic. They place a higher value in relationship than many marketers. They have to work within the needs and opinions of their buyers and balance shorter term risk with strategic gains. Your brand might just be the tactic they use in their relationships with customers. The third conflict is with Agencies. Agencies are more emotional than brand leaders and value pride more than the brand leader—Agency people want to make work they can show off. The best Brand Leaders understand and work with these conflicts, and manage to stay “on strategy”, fighting off various pressures to go “off strategy”.
I think strategic thinking is a natural state, but it is un-learned through our youth. The way we teach and reward people as they grow up, we almost force strategic thinking out of them. Every test in school has a right and wrong answer, very little room for options or opinion. In the classroom, there is a pressure to answer quickly, provide the answer the teacher is looking for. Teachers ask you simple questions, and you’re not really allowed to ask them deep questions. As we get Brand Leaders from some of the best schools, they pride themselves that their brain works so fast–I love asking people “who here thinks fast?” and the entire room puts their hand up. I say “who here thinks slowly?” and no one puts their hand up. What is wrong with thinking slow? Is it a bad thing? But really, you need to slow down your thinking to ask all the right questions, map out scenarios, figure out the impact of your potential actions. You need to slow down, to decide what to do, before you do it.
Can you re-train your Brain to be more Strategic?
Strategic thinking starts with slowing things down and seeing all the options. You have to do the deep dive thinking before you start moving. Here’s some ways to slow down your thinking, force your thinking and you might actually find that you move faster.
- Find your own thinking time: block off time, go for walks at lunch or a drive to get away from it all. You need to find a way to reach your subconscious mind, where your best thoughts might be.
- Proactively, do the deep thinking BEFORE the decision time comes: Dig deep into the analytics, no matter your level. Every six months, I’d answer six simple questions: 1) where are we? 2) why are we here? 3) where could we be? 4) how do we get there? and 5) what are we doing to get there?
- Next time you’re in a meeting, spend your time and energy asking great questions, not giving great answers: As the Brand Leader you are the thinker and decision maker on the team, surrounded by subject matter experts who know everything. The big secret about Brand Leaders we don’t always want to share is we don’t really know anything about anything. And once you realize that puts you in a very powerful position, you’ll be a better marketer.
There are six elements that are essential to good Strategy.
- Vision: An aspirational stretch goal in the future, linked to a well-defined purpose.
- Focus: Alignment of your limited resources to an distinct strategic point, that creates positive momentum towards your vision.
- Time and Space: Speed of execution always matter, because the potential strategic opening will be taken or the opportunity may close.
- Early Win: Quick movement and momentum towards your vision, as potential proof to everyone that this strategy will work.
- Leverage: Ability to turn the Early Win into creating a momentum of even greater pressure that leads to the tipping point to something bigger.
- Gateway: Realization point where you see a shift in positional advantage or power that allows you to see that your vision is achievable.
Most Brand Leaders have fear of focusing too tightly. But without focus, there can be no leverage to turn your efforts into a return that is bigger than the effort. If you aren’t making choices you’re not making decisions. Good marketers use the word “or” more than they use they word “and”. But, the only way to win in strategy is when your gains exceed your effort—you to get more, than you put in. That starts with focus. Every Brand has limited resources (financial, time, effort and alliances) against endless opportunistic choices to make (target, message, strategy and activities). Strategy starts with making a choice, where you will apply your limited resources, against the pressure points you know you can win and breakthrough, so that you can gain something bigger than the point itself.
Every brand is constrained by resources—dollars, people, alliances and time. Focus makes you matter most to those who care. Focusing your limited resources on those consumers with the highest propensity to buy what you are selling will deliver the greatest movement towards sales and the highest return on investment for those resources. In a competitive category, no one brand can do it all. Focus makes you decide whether to be better, different or cheaper. Giving the consumer too many messages about your brand will confuse them as to what makes your brand unique. Trying to be everything is the recipe for being nothing. Trying to do everything spreads your resources and your message so that everything you do is “ok” and nothing is “great”. With a long to-do list, you’ll never do a great job at anything. And in a crowded and fast economy, “ok” never breaks through so you’ll never get the early win to gain that tipping point that opens up the gateway to even bigger success. Without focus, there is no movement from your efforts.
You need focus in every aspect of your marketing. It starts with a focused Target Market: While it’s tempting to sell to everyone. Focus your resources on those most likely to buy. Realizing not everyone can like you is the first step to focus on those that can love you. You also need a focused Brand Positioning: Start with the target market you just picked–and assess their need states to see where you can best match up. Beloved Brands are either better, different or cheaper. Or they are not around for much longer. You need a focused Strategy: Brands need to understand where they sit before picking strategies. Evaluate the health of your brand using the Brand Funnel to understand where you are strong and should keep pushing or where you have a weakness (a Leak) that you need to close. And finally, you need a focused Activities. While everyone talks ROI, I talk ROE as well. Return on Effort forces you to prioritize all your activities.
When you focus, 5 things happen to your brand:
- Better ROI: With all the resources against one strategy, one target, one message, you’ll be find out if the strategy you’ve chose is able to actually move consumers drive sales or other key performance indicators.
- Better ROE: Make the most out of your people resources.
- Strong Reputation: When you only do one thing, you naturally start to become associated with that one thing—externally and even internally. And, eventually you become very good at that one thing.
- More Competitive: As your reputation grows, you begin to own that one thing and you are able to better defend the positioning territory
- Bigger and Better P&L: As the focused effort drives results, it opens up the P&L with higher sales and profits. And that means more resources will be put to the effort to drive even higher growth.
Case Study: Starbucks loses Focus by going after entertainment
A great case study in a brand who lost their focus is Starbucks back in 2003, as they took their corporate arrogance and large following and entered the music and movie business. What happened is they lost focus on what they do really well: sell coffee in an atmosphere that helps you escape your hectic life. As we hit 2008, people were wondering if the Starbucks bubble had begun to burst. Starbucks closed stores and laid people off. Would it be the next Benneton? But the Brand successfully re-focused by building around Coffee, closing every store for hours to re-train their barristers, coming out with new coffee flavours and building innovation around the coffee routine with pastries, snacks and sandwiches. Since the re-focus, sales are up 58% over 5 years, and margins are back up to a highly respectable 55% levels.
Transforming your Focus into a Gateway to something bigger
Once you breakthrough, strategy becomes a transformation going beyond the breakthrough. Too many pure strategists over look the importance of the EARLY WIN, think of strategy as just vision and strategic choices. But they’ve never run a Brand, and they don’t know how many others you need to keep motivated and aligned. You want that Early Win, to kick start some momentum—you can slice off part of the business, a segment of the population or have your message connect and breakthrough. The LEVERAGE is when you start to see and use the positional advantage or power that the early breakthrough has given you. Without this, the early win becomes the only win, and it’s a hollow strategy. Look for ways to find that tipping point: leverage those who have broken through as a way to gain other followers, use the messaging to drive some momentum. As you go through the process, it’s important that you not get distracted from achieving the GATEWAY that lines up best to you vision. It’s easy to be tempted by new opportunities that your breakthrough has given you but stay focused on your Vision.
Marketing Warfare borrows strategic thinking from War. Napoleon was a notorious strategic thinker, known to map out every possible scenario, and prided himself on making quick adjustments knowing every option. Napoleon had two main strategies: 1) where there opportunity to win, attack their strong point first, break it and then finish the battle against their weakness. 2) where there is limited opportunity, attack their point of weakness which forces their strong point to disperse in a defensive posture.
Case Study: D-Day focuses the entire war effort on capturing a beach.
If we fast forward to WWII, while Germany was fighting a war on two fronts (Russia and Britain), Allied Forces planned D-Day for 2 years and joined in full force to focus all their attention on one beach, on one day. Prior to the attack, there was debate, do we attack in one place that could be penetrated or in multiple spots where the Germans could would have to fight many battles? If we look at D Day using the six elements of good strategy, we can see how
- Vision: Win World War II, with a goal to re-claim Europe and stop Germany. Spread democracy.
- Focus: Almost all of the Allied forces, with 200,000 soldiers, landing on the Beaches of Normandy on the morning of June 6th.
- Time and Space: Planned excessively, debated options, looked for beaches unguarded by Germans. Russia attacking from the East weakening/distracting Germany.
- Early Win: Despite heavy casualties, able to capture the beaches and get heavy Allied forces into continental Europe.
- Leverage: Re-claiming Paris, pushing back the German Army, turned the momentum into the Allied Forces side. Positional Power had shifted to where Germany now defending on their own territory.
- Gateway: A year later, the German Army is defeated in Berlin. US now able to focus and fight Pacific war and defeat Japan.
- Vision:Win World War II, spread ideals of democracy.
- Goals: Re-claim Europe, maintain troops.
- Key Issues: How do we turn the tide in the war effort in Europe? Where would the best attack be to get onto Continental Europe? What defense technology investments are needed?
- Strategy: Pin Pointed Attack to gain a positional power on Continental Europe.
- Tactic: D-Day, take all our troops and attack the Beaches of Normandy to get back on mainland Europe and battle Germany on an equal footing.
Case Study: Avril connects with her core audience through Free Mall Concerts.
A great example of strategy that might not look like strategy on the surface was how Avril Lavigne’s career was managed. In 2005, Avril’s career was flat, after some early success, which is a normal path for young musicians. To kick off her album, she did a series of free mall concerts—and was criticized as desperate. She was desperate and not everyone understood the logic. Let’s use the six elements of good strategy to assess the Avril re-launch:
- Vision: Be a pop superstar again, #1 album, sold out concerts.
- Focus: Malls are exactly where her target (11-17 female) hangs out, allowing her to focus all her energy on her core target.
- Time and Space: First ever to give free concerts, she still was relatively famous. Everyone (mom and kids) was happy with the “free” gesture.
- Early Win: She attracted 5k screaming 13 year olds per mall—creating an early win among her most loyal of fans: those who loved and adored her. Local news covered the story giving her added exposure.
- Leverage: She was able to leverage the good will and energy to get these loyal fans to go buy her album in the mall record stores which helped her album debut at #1 on the charts.
- Gateway: Everyone knows the charts are the gateway to the bigger mass audience–more radio play, more iTunes downloads and more talk value. The comeback complete.
Avril’s strategy holds up very strong. Not a surprise because Madonna did this same strategy for years, except replace malls for teeny-boppers with London Night Clubs for 20-somethings where should we drop her songs and even make random appearances. If Avril were a brand, here’s what the plan might look like:
- Vision: Recording Super Star
- Goals: New Album Sales, increase popularity, new recording contract
- Key Issue: How do we drive album sales for a slumping Avril?
- Strategy: Reconnect with core teen fans to create momentum to trigger album sales
- Tactic: Free Mall tour to get most loyal fans to reconnect and buy the new album.
Case Study: Starbucks refocuses by building around the Coffee routine.
Starbucks experienced tremendous growth through the 80s and 90s, mainly because of the their coffee. Starbucks quickly become a life ritual in the morning to wake you up. Following their “hobby” into the entertainment field in 2003-2008, they hit the skids and faced some trouble that caused them to re-trench and focus on building around their coffee ritual again. Let’s use the six elements of good strategy to see how they did this.
- Vision: Cherished meeting place for all your quick service food needs built around coffee.
- Focus: Build around the coffee ritual, but look to shift the coffee routine to both breakfast and lunch. They built a broader portfolio of products–refreshing drinks and delicious deserts, snacks and sandwiches around these two time slots.
- Time and Space: Starbucks had the under-utilized bricks and mortar of their restaurants going un-used past 11am. Driving a broader portfolio would own more share of requirements, while moving the ritual to lunch would allow them to drive more same store sales from the same real estate investment.
- Early Win: Starbucks launched series of new products that made Starbucks seem big on innovation, including Sandwiches, Wraps, pastries and cookies, all with high quality.
- Leverage: The leverage point was turning a coffee routine into a breakfast/lunch routine, expanding the life ritual of Starbucks so that it’s now a broad-based place for breakfast and a light lunch, but still connected with coffee.
- Gateway: Starbucks is no longer seen as just for coffee, but rather an escape at any point in the day. Most Starbucks are open till Midnight. Sales have grown double digit each of the past 5 years and the Starbucks brand is one of the most revered and beloved with consumers.
If you were to write the Starbucks, here’s how it might look;
- Vision: Cherished meeting place for all your quick service food needs
- Goals: Increase Same store sales, greater share of requirements from Starbucks loyalists
- Key Issue: How do we drive significant growth of same store sales?
- Strategy: Move Starbucks loyalists to lunch with an expanded lunch menu.
- Tactic: Exotic refreshing coffee choices, light lunch menu, increase desert offerings.
Here’s a checklist to see if your strategy holds up:
- An end in mind vision, pathway that has milestones, objectives and specific goals for your programs
- Specific strategic choices that are mapped out, not a vague chance.
- Pin-pointed focus of your resources (effort, investment, time, partners)
- An early win as the breakthrough point.
- Game changing Leverage point, where there is a change in positional power and you’re able to turn a small win into something big.
- Gateway to something bigger, defined as a win for the brand that translates into an increase in power or value.
Strategic Thinkers see “what if” questions before they see solutions.
At Beloved Brands, we run a Brand Leadership Center to train marketers in all aspects of marketing from strategic thinking, analysis, writing brand plans, creative briefs and reports, judging advertising and media. To read more on strategy, here is a workshop on HOW TO BE THINK STRATEGICALLY, click on the powerpoint presentation below:
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