The 5 essential elements for smart strategic thinking

Posted on Posted in How to Guide for Marketers

Strategic thinkers see questions before they see solutions. Ever hear someone say, “That’s a good question.” It usually means someone has just asked an interruptive question, designed to slow everyone’s thinking, so they reflect and plan before they act. 

The strategic thinking side of marketing is logical and has to map out a range of decision trees that intersect, by imagining how events will play out in the future. The risk of being only strategic is that, if you think too long, you may spiral around, unable to decide. Moreover, you may miss an opportunity window.

Opposite to a strategic thinker is the instinctual thinker who jumps in quickly to find answers before they even know the right question. Their brains move fast; they use emotional impulse and intuitive gut feel. They want action now and get easily frustrated by delays. They believe it is better to do something than sit and wait around. They see strategic people as stuck running around in circles, as they try to figure out the right question. Instead, these instinctual leaders choose emotion over logic. While a “make it happen” attitude gets things done, if they go too fast, their actions may solve the wrong problem.

Brand leaders must be both strategic and intuitive. Learn to change brain speeds. Slow down the thinking when faced with challenging issue and move quickly with your best instincts on execution. 

The five elements of smart strategic thinking

Everyone says they are a strategic thinker, yet few are. Early in my career, I confess that I was more of an instinctual marketer. To learn strategic thinking, we need to slow down and organize our thoughts. Here are the five elements that make up smart strategic thinking:

1. Set a vision of what you want for your brand

A vision sets aspirational stretch goals for the future, linked to a clear result or purpose. Write a vision statement in a way that scares you a little and excites you a lot. It should steer everyone who works on the brand to focus on finding ways to create a bond with your consumers that will lead to power and profit beyond what the product alone could achieve. As Yogi Berra famously said, “If you do not know where you are going, how will you know if you get there?” 

To be a visionary, you must be able to visualize the future. Imagine it is five or 10 years from now and you wake up in the most fantastic mood. Visualize a perfect future and write down the most critical milestones you need to achieve. Even think about words that will inspire, lead, and steer your team towards your vision. 

As strategic thinking starts with asking questions, a smart strategy must ask interruptive questions that frame the issues regarding what you want to achieve. By raising those issues early on, you can focus the team on the significant problems that need to be solved to get you on the path to your vision.  

2. Invest resources in a strategic program

Think through the options of where you should invest in moving your brand into a more powerful and profitable position. The programs you choose should solidify the brand’s core strength, build a brand idea that tightens the consumer bond, battle competitors on positioning, or address the situational challenges and opportunities.

3. Focus on an identified opportunity

Focus your limited resources on a distinct opportunity you have identified based on a potential change in the market, including changes to consumers, competitive situation, technology, or sales channels. 

In today’s data-driven world, everyone has access to the equivalent information and in turn, can see the same opportunities. Use speed to seize the opportunity before others can take action, and before that opportunity is gone. The best brand leaders never divide and conquer. They force themselves to focus and win. The smartest brand leaders use the word “or” more often than they use the word “and.”  If you come to a decision point, and you try to rationalize doing a little of both, you are not strategic. Force yourself to make choices.


Many marketers struggle to focus

Myth 1: The most prominent myth of marketing is to believe that your brand will get bigger if you have a broader target market. 

Reality: Too many marketers target anyone. I will always argue that it is better to be loved by a few than tolerated by many. You have to create a tight bond with a core base of brand fans, and then use that fan support to expand your following. 

Myth 2: The second myth to becoming a more prominent brand is to believe a brand stands for everything. Some brands try to say everything possible with the hope the consumer hears anything. 

Reality: Hope is never a strategy. To be loved by consumers, a brand must stand for something with a backbone and conviction. Trying to be everything to anyone ends up becoming nothing to everyone.

Myth 3: Your brand will achieve higher sales if you try to be everywhere, whether in every sales channel or on every possible media option.

Reality: If you went to Las Vegas and put a chip on every square, you would be bankrupt before midnight. The worst marketers lack focus because they fear missing out on someone or something. By trying to be everywhere, the brand will drain itself and eventually end up being nowhere.

Every brand has limited resources, whether they are financial, time, people, or partnerships. Marketers always face the temptation of an unlimited array of choices, whether in the possible target market, brand messages, strategies, or tactics. The smartest brand leaders limit their choices to match up to their limited resources, to focus on those that will deliver the highest return. 

When you focus, five amazing things happen to your brand:

  1. Stronger return on investment (ROI): When you focus your dollars on the distinct breakthrough point or against a program that you know will work, you will see the most positive and efficient response in the marketplace. 
  2. Better return on effort (ROE): You must make the most efficient use of your limited people resources. Find the Big Easy! Focus on the ideas with the most significant impact that is the easiest to execute. Avoid those ideas that are small and difficult to implement. While you may not always have the data to calculate your ROI, you should have the instincts to figure out your return on effort (ROE). 
  3. Stronger reputation: When you limit your audience and brand message, you will have a better chance to own that reputation among that core target audience. 
  4. More competitive: When you focus your message to a specific target audience, your brand will start to create a space in the market, and you can defend against others from entering that space.
  5. More investment behind the brand: When you focus and deliver business results, your management team will ask you to do that again. They will give you more money and more people resources. Even with increased resources, you must take the same focused approach. 

4. Leverage the breakthrough market impact

A smart strategy turns an early breakthrough win into a shift in momentum, positional power, or tipping point where you begin to achieve more in the marketplace than the resources you put in.

Many underestimate the need for an early win. I see this as a crucial breakthrough point where you start to look at a small shift in momentum towards your vision. While there will always be doubters to every strategy, the results of the early win provide compelling proof to show everyone the plan will work. You can change the minds of the doubters—or at least keep them quiet—so everyone can stay focused on the breakthrough point. 

The magic of strategy happens through leverage, where you can use the early win as an opening or a tipping point where you start to see a transformational power that allows you to make an impact and achieve results in the marketplace. A smart strategy should trigger the consumer to move along the buying journey from awareness to buy and onto loyalty, and it can help tighten the consumer’s bond with the brand.  

5. Performance result that pays back

The shift in positional power in the marketplace moves your brand toward your vision and creates a future pathway to building a consumer bond, brand power, and brand profitability. 

A brand can become powerful compared to the consumers they serve, the competitors they battle, the channels they sell through, the suppliers who make the products or ingredients, the influencers in the market, any media choices and the employees who work for the brand. We explored these eight sources of power in the opening chapter. 

You can drive profit through premium pricing, trading consumers up on price, finding a lower cost of goods, using lower sales and marketing costs, stealing competitive users, getting loyal users to use more, entering new markets or finding new uses for the brand. We explored these eight ways a brand can add to their profitability in the opening chapter. For a strategy to work, what pays off in the marketplace must pay off in brand power or business results. 

Using Gray's Cookies to demonstrate strategic thinkin

We will use the fictional Gray’s Cookies as a case study. Gray’s Cookies are the ultimate healthy cookie, which is excellent tasting, low fat, low calorie and made from the best ingredients. I did mention it was fictional. This cookie is battling the major mainstream competitors, starting from a small niche with a core target market of fans who are beginning to love the brand. 

Five elements of smart strategic thinking for the fictional Gray’s Cookies brand:

1. Set a vision of what you want

  • Gray’s wants to be the first healthy cookie to generate the craving, popularity, and sales of a mainstream cookie. The company wants to make Gray’s a $100 million brand by 2022. Like many new brands, is how to drive trial while closing gaps.  

2. Invest resources in a strategic program

  • At the rapid growth stage, Gray’s needs to build a strong bond with consumers, and address the distribution gaps while battling any mainstream brands who could enter the healthy cookie segment.

3. Focus on an identified opportunity

  • Gray’s Cookies recognizes the opportunity created by the consumer shift to healthy choices. If they can take the dominant power player role in the healthy cookie segment, they can drive a high market share in a rapid growth category segment.

4. Leverage a breakthrough market impact

  • Gray’s Cookies is the dominant power player role in driving high trial, and significant market share results to gain additional shelf space in the retail stores.

5. Achieve a performance result that pays back

  • Gray’s will bring mainstream cookie users over to drive higher sales and establish itself as the dominant “healthy cookie” brand.

Read our story about consumer strategies

This type of thinking can be found in our Beloved Brands and B2B Brands playbooks

Learn to think, define, plan, execute and analyze your brand

  • You will find strategic thinking models and examples for each of the four strategic thinking methods, looking at core strength, competitive, consumer, and situational strategies. 
  • To define the brand, I will provide a tool for writing a brand positioning statement as well as a consumer profile and a consumer benefits ladder. I have created lists of potential functional and emotional benefits to kickstart your thinking on brand positioning. We explore the step-by-step process to come up with your brand idea and bring it all together with a tool for writing the ideal brand concept. 
  • For brand plans, I provide formats for a long-range brand strategy roadmap and the annual brand plan with definitions for each planning element. From there, I show how to build a brand execution plan that includes the creative brief, innovation process, and sales plan. I provide tools for how to create a brand calendar, and specific project plans. 
  • To grow your brand, I show how to make smart decisions on marketing execution around creative advertising and media choices. 
  • When it comes time for marketing analytics, I provide all the analytical tools you need to write a deep-dive business review, looking at the marketplace, consumer, channels, competitors and the brand. Write everything so that it is easy to follow and implement for your brand.

You will learn everything you need to know so you can run your brand. My brand promise is to help make you smarter so you can realize your full potential.

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