The difference between marketing strategy and tactics.

I’m appalled. A successful marketing guy asked me a question recently — a real no-brainer — which led me to believe he didn’t know the difference between marketing strategy and tactics.

How can that be? He’s held several high-paying marketing positions. He’s college educated in Marketing 101. And 301, for that matter. He’s gotta know this stuff.

So I started doing some research online and I’ve found the problem: The internet!

There’s more misinformation than information out there. More nonsense than common sense. Even some of the biggest gurus in the industry have posted conflicting information on the subject of marketing strategy. difference between marketing strategy and tactics

I ran across one article that listed “search engines” as a marketing strategy and that “long-term strategies such as giving away freebies will continue to pay off years down the road.” No wonder the guy’s confused.

This isn’t just a matter of semantics, it’s negligence. Advice like that would never get past the editors of a trade publication for worm farmers, much less a brand-name business magazine. But you can find it on-line!

In any case, the easiest way to clarify the difference between marketing strategy and tactics is to go to the source. I’m sorry if the war analogy doesn’t appeal to you, but that’s where these terms came from, some 3,000 years ago.

Here’s how it breaks down: Goals first. Then strategy. Then tactics.

Goal: Win the war.

Strategy: “Divide and conquer.”

Tactics:

CIA spies gather intelligence.

Navy Seals knock out enemy communications.

Paratroopers secure the airports.

Armored Divisions race in and divide the opposing army’s forces.

Drone attacks take out the enemy leadership.

An overwhelming force of infantry invade.

Hand-to-hand combat.

A marketing strategy is an idea… A conceptualization of how the goal could be achieved. Like “Divide and Conquer.” Another possible war strategy would be “Nuke ‘Em.” (They call them Strategic Nuclear Weapons because they pretty much eliminate the need for any further battlefield tactics.)

A marketing tactic is an action you take to execute the strategy.

But let’s get off the battlefield and look at a successful brand. In business, great strategies are built on BIG ideas. And BIG ideas usually stem from some little nugget of consumer insight.

imagesBack in the 70’s, executives at Church & Dwight Inc. noticed that sales of their popular Arm & Hammer baking soda were slipping. The loyal moms and grandmas who had been buying the same baking soda all their lives weren’t baking as much as they used to.

Business Goal: Turn the tide and increase Baking Soda sales.

Strategy: Devise new reasons for their current customers to pick up that yellow box at the supermarket and use more baking soda. Specifically, sell Arm & Hammer as a deodorizer for the fridge. That’s a big, strategic idea that led Arm & Hammer in a completely different direction. They’re now marketing a whole line of environmentally friendly cleaning products. Every current Arm & Hammer product, from toothpaste to cat litter, originated with that strategy of finding new ways to use baking soda. And in the process, an old-fashioned brand has managed to stay relevant.

bakingsodafridgeTactics: TV advertising. Magazine ads. Digital advertising. Search engine marketing. Content marketing. Infomercials. Retail promotions. Website dedicated to all the various uses of Arm & Hammer Baking Soda. All the traditional marketing tactics were employed.

All good marketing strategies share some common components:

• Thorough understanding of the brand’s status and story. Arm & Hammer has a strong heritage that dates back to the 1860’s. That yellow box with the red Arm & Hammer logo is instantly recognizable, and stands for much more than just generic sodium bicarbonate.

• A realistic assessment of the product’s strengths & weaknesses. Market research proved what Arm & Hammer executives suspected… that people don’t bake as much as they used to. But it also showed that people use their baking soda for all kinds of things besides baking. That was the insight that drove the strategy.

• A clear picture of the competition. Arm & Hammer has always been the undisputed market leader in the category. However, when they decided to introduce toothpaste and laundry detergent, the competition became fierce. Arm & Hammer’s long-standing leadership position in one vertical market gave them a fighting chance against Procter & Gamble.

• Intimate knowledge of the consumer and the market. The shift away from the traditional American homemaker directly affected baking soda sales. Church & Dwight kept up with the trends, and even led the charge on environmental issues.

• A grasp of the big-picture business implications. Good strategies reach way beyond the marketing department. When you have a big idea, execution of the strategy will inevitably involve operations, R&D, HR, finance and every other business discipline.

A great strategy does not depend on brilliant tactics for success. If the idea is strong enough, you can get by with mediocre tactical execution. However, even the best tactics can’t compensate for a lousy strategy.

Some people confuse marketing strategy with goals. They are not synonymous. Here are a few examples of “marketing strategies” from seemingly credible on-line sources:

“Create awareness.” “Overcome objections.” “Boost consumer confidence.” “Refresh the brand.” “Turnkey a multiplatform communications program.” That’s just marketing industry jargon!

These are NOT strategies, they’re goals. (And not even very good goals.) Remember, it’s not a strategy unless there’s an idea behind it.

Any number of strategies can be used to achieve a business goal. In fact, it often takes more than one strategy to achieve a lofty goal, and each strategy involves its own unique tactical plan. Unfortunately, a lot of marketing managers simply throw together a list of the tactics they’ve always used, and call it a strategy.

unnamedSometimes you can build a hell of a strategy around a simple, tactical idea. Like Dominoes did with their 30-minute delivery guarantee. If you’re still wondering about the difference between marketing strategy and tactics, try the “what-if” test. Someone said, “Hey, what if we guaranteed 30-minute delivery?” and a strategy was born. Dominoes couldn’t compete on product quality, but they could compete on speedy delivery. After that, their entire operation revolved around the promise of 30-minute delivery. That’s strategy.

“What if we came up with a bunch of new uses for baking soda?” That’s a strategy.

On the other hand, “What if we do search engines?” doesn’t make sense. Must be a tactic. “What if we increase market share?” There’s no idea in that, so it must be a goal.

What if we could screen all web content for factual errors and eliminate some of this confusion? Wouldn’t that be nice.

For more on the basics of marketing and branding, try this post.

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Leave a Reply 110 comments

Donald Cunningham Reply

John,

I too have noticed how the line between strategy and tactics has become blurry. Reading your post was a good reminder of marketing 101: tactics fail without strategy.

Julia Reply

Oh how it scares me that you needed to publish this. But glad you did! Thanks…

1day1brand Reply

John,

The term “Strategy” is so badly abused in the world of Branding — As elsewhere. I chock it up to the fact that most people are tactical… ready, fire, aim types.

My personal favourite definition of “Strategy” is “knowing what not to do.” Your strategy, defines your actions and keeps you from getting distracted on the wrong tactics.

— Axle Davids
@1day1brand

Karthik Reply

Excellent post on an often confused subject, primarily thanks to the internet. Really like the way you’ve used examples to explain.

schmogel Reply

when you throw in ‘objectives’ – it becomes increasingly jumbled.

Mariana Reply

I think the “What-if” test will help a lot of people to understand the difference.
Great post, thank you.

johnfurg Reply

That’s for sure! Thanks for reading.

-john

johnfurg Reply

I sure hope so.

Thanks for reading!

-John

Brad Reply

John – where do ‘objectives’ fit in?

Addoptions.org » Blog Archive » Marketing Strategy vs. Tactics Reply

[…] if you find the definitions out there confusing, then the post on Strategy vs Tactics by John Furgurson on the Brand Insight Blog is the perfect explanation.  I especially like the […]

John Reply

I have asked dozens of web marketing professionals if they know the difference between strategies and tactics. They typically reel off a list of tactics that they think are strategies. When you point out the difference, they get offended because they think all marketing is the internet.

Thanks for posting this. It was worth restating again. http://addoptions.org/blog/?p=42

ibrahim Reply

Great article. Just learnt a lot from the what ifs. I never went to business school, but this article has helped to differenciate and read between the BS of most brand “strategists” or rather tacticians. Thanks

johnfurg Reply

Objectives/goals gotta come first. You build your strategy around them.

Jorge Barba Reply

A strategy is at it’s core a guide to behavior. A good strategy drives actions that differentiate the company and produce financial success.

It’s amazing that you had to publish this but at the same time it’s useful to set the record straight.

Russell Granger Reply

One area where the confusion is becoming almost codified is in job categories. There have a been a slew of recent postings for titles in “Digital Strategy,” but when you examine the descriptions they invariably want media planners. Media planning — online or otherwise — is almost entirely tactical.

Michael Hartzell Reply

John,

What if we

What if we thought of a way for knowledge to be improved in every person by 10%?
What if we could conceive a way to make everyone have a license to own a domain name?
What if we could mandate every person had to be tested before they were able to host a site?
What if there was a certification program that would put a giant stamp on websites / blogs which were accurate?

I think I’m getting the hang of this. 🙂

What if we postcard? nope
What if we facebook? (people say that which confuses things)
What if we twitter? (people say that too)

Just as the trend has changed from creating our own labels and identity in the phone boo or other traditional mediums, the search engine does respond to what is in the heads of those with fast thoughts and shaky keyboard fingers.

To be “found” we bend to the words the crowd is using. To not do so makes us accurate and right but alone in the corner. I have a constant debate as to whether it is helpful to add misspelled keywords to the list deliberately.

So do we listen and fill what people perceive to be the need even if it is not how the language / definition was created? Or do we stick to our guns and say “everyone is stupid and I wish they would get it”?

Except for the rant in the beginning I really enjoyed your article. Will see where I can out reference to it in my resource box for workshops. I have constant imperfections and find myself shifting back and forth with definitions and language every month. As you said, the Internet has given everyone an appearance of authority and education. (even me) 🙂

@michaelhartzell

PS
Strategy has become a gobbleygook word like innovation.
Check out http://gobbledygook.grader.com/ It will give a gobbleygook score for an article. hmmm. Wonder if I should do it with this comment? naw…. too risky. 🙂

Dr Bruce Hoag Reply

The confusion doesn’t end there. Strategy used to mean five or ten years. Now it’s closer to two; so the time frame covered by tactics is also changing.

This article adds to the confusion, however, but stating categorically which things are strategic and which things are tactical. The fact is that it depends on who you ask. There’s no agreement as to what it is, who does it, or if it even matters. (I can give you a boatload of references that attest to this if you’re really interested.)

There’s nothing wrong with offering an opinion, as long as it’s presented as such, rather than the “I can’t believe how stupid everyone is” approach.

Dr Bruce Hoag, CPsychol
Work Psychologist
http://www.p-advantage.com/Newsletter.php

Doris A. Keyes Reply

Super-Duper site! I am loving it!! Will come back again – taking you feeds also, Appreciation.

Dipti Reply

Hey John,
that was a great article. “There has to be an idea behind a strategy!” you made it so simple to understand! Thanks

Dipti

Eric Goldman Reply

John;
A great article and one which was much needed to clear up some confusion. Thanks!
To add to this article, given it’s all about strategy, here’s some food for thought on the strategy behind using Social Media Marketing, or SMM as part of one’s marketing mix.
Like any of your marketing endeavors, your SMM Campaigns should of course be run against or according to a strategy designed to achieve a specific goal (and of course, use Tactics to get there).
Many people understand this intuitively, but have difficulty designing the strategy or perhaps their difficulty is in thinking strategically versus tactically. So many of our clients asked for help in this area that we decided to write a post on the subject. The link is at the end of this comment points to a blog index with 4 posts on it:
1) How to Run a SMM Campaign. This is a formal process description on how to run your campaigns according to the Process Mantra of Think, Plan, Do, Measure and Repeat. You may recognize these as part of a Continuous Process Improvement strategy. And because the specification calls for using ROI as one of the metrics to monitor, the other 3 posts cover:
2) How to measure the ROI of your website as a whole
3) The 10 best free ROI calculators on the Web and
4), How to build your own ROI calculator so that you can measure the ROI of your SMM.

Here’s the link: http://bit.ly/cEc0ln

Let’s Get Something Straight « It's a-REAL-ia Good Life Reply

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amirrudin Reply

I have always use the formula MOST: Mission, Objectives, Strategy and Tactics. This way i think you cant go wrong……….

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Glendaajackson Reply

Some really great opinions here. This article provides its Marketing Strategy vs. Tactics. It is important to actually figure out how compatible a subject is for a certain social media channel.

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James Reply

Strategy vs. Tactics: In a nutshell, strategy can be defined as a long-term means to an end whereas tactics can be defined as a short-term means to an end. A strategy is a way of achieving a desired goal in the longrun whereas a tactics is a way of achieving a desired goal in the shortrun. Remember, strategists think long-term, tacticians think short-term, but both are needed to succeed. Hope I was helpful

kate Reply

This is an excellent separation of strategy versus tactics. You are so right – much of the advise on the web is to treat strategy as the front end of a marketing plan, independent of goals.

Thank you!

Dr. J. Kyle Howard Reply

Fantastic! Language seems to have taken a backseat to expediency… Use whatever comes to mind, no need to worry about being correct or even knowing how to spell for that matter. As marketers, maybe we should learn to write in emoticons.

Mark Wail Reply

Why the confusion. I knew about the difference even before entered college. You skipped “objectives”

Sunil Tiwari Reply

Hey John,

Thanks for putting this information together. Clears lot of questions I had in mind.

Great work.

Thanks,

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Robyn Medlin Reply

Thank you for making it clear in people’s mind what the difference is! Great article!!

Francie Reply

One big factual error is in your description of the Arm & Hammer case. I was there in 1969 when Jerry Schoenfeld, the new product guru – then president of Kelly, Nason New York – and Bob Davies – then Baking Soda brand manager, later President and then CEO of Church & Dwight – implemented it.

The strategy was “Get people to use more baking soda with each use” The tactic was: put an open box in the refrigerator to get rid of odors. Other tactics were: use it in your cat litter, and my personal favorite – dump it down the sink to ‘sweeten the drain’ after it’s been in the fridge. Brilliant. You’re right that it launched many new products and a new life for a classic brand.

suresh Reply

reveberating some of the comments..this is an excellent article.
Interestingly, the word “strategy” is probably the most over-used word in a MNC. It echoes from every meeting room to another, and every ppt slide must have a mention of this to be vetted. The blurry edge of strategy and tactics drive this. A lot of tactics nowadays are labeled as tactical strategies – a misnomer or an oxymoron. So much enery and focus goes down the gutter of not having strong leaders stepping in to differentiate and set directions on this…but of coures they may have been confused by the internet!
How interesting the concept of strategies and many others were invented and applied successfully at the warfront!

kash Reply

i like the way you have divided the whole context and then discussed it. i was not aware of this as well to be honest, but now i understood it well. Thank you

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Amber Reply

Thanks for clarifying things for me 🙂 I am a second year marketing student and this is surprisingly very helpful while writing some essays 🙂
Cheers.

David Livingstone Reply

Nicely said. Was looking around for an article such as this to send to a colleague, and didn’t want to have to write up something myself – and you said it much better than I could have. Much appreciated.

Toya Reply

Great article! The final paragraph with the what if’s was most helpful for me. It made sure every bit of confusion was removed. Which I had read it sooner!

Angie @AgentKnowHow Reply

John, I can’t not explain how much this post as meant to me. I shared it with my associates already and I am most certain that I will share it again this time next year as it has helped me to lead my real estate agents in devising their business plans. Asking the what if’s questions and other questions like: how will you achieve this, what’s the value of achieving this is extremely helpful.

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Monique ~Mo'Love~ Bradford Reply

This article was wonderfully written and very informative!! I’m an internet marketing major and the discussion this week is the difference between strategy and tactic. You article has been a great help to better my understanding of the two.

Jeff Geoghan Reply

Nice summation and nice placement on page one BTW! It’s nice to be “found”.

In my industry of real estate sales strategy is almost completely sublimated by tactical efforts. In my consulting with agents they trip over themselves to tell me about their “strategies” which consist of hiring website companies or CMS software or a newfangled yard sign.

When I sit down with them and start working through their approach to objectives/strategy (deliberately ignoring tactical items) their eyes usually glaze over or they confess to wanted to just “do something”.

Courtney Reply

Great job explaining this! From previous research, I found a ton of awful articles about the subject, but you clearly explained it with excellent details! Thank you!

Kathy Reply

I definitely learned something here…thanks for the information!

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Larry Reply

Wonderful article. In a recent business meeting I was reminded by the presenter that success in business comes down to three things. Strategy, tactics and analytics. And when all the smoke clears it really does come down to fundamentals, and knowing their definitions helps! I love the war metaphor. Very clever.

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Ferris Oxside Reply

Can a tactic exist without strategy? Vice versa?
Simply put: strategy is thought; tactics are actions.
The act of strategy is a tactic; strategies may be composed of tactics.
A strategy with very little thought resembles a tactic; a tactic involving involving a great deal of thought resembles a strategy.

I ask this question in almost every job interview. It is a tactic I use to gauge a candiates ability to think (as a strategy).

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Manoj Mahajan Reply

I believe the article is great, and simplifies the difference between Strategy and Tactics. I have also read the comments and thought, if i could get some suggestions or rather tactics to increase my sales. I have a wholesale and a retail store and sell Branded Perfumes. The sales had dropped in the last 3 months and nothing is coming to my head. Please suggest.

Ivan Reply

Congrats! Great article and after all this time it is number3 result in Google when searching “tactics vs strategy”.

But would it be possible to explain me again me again what is the difference between “Divide and Conquer” and “Boost consumer confidence”. I think they both pass the What If test, so it is all up to “the idea behind”. I don’t get it?!

    johnfurg Reply

    “Boost consumer confidence” is a goal, and a pretty vague one at that. Divide and conquer is a strategy.

Achieving Your Ecommerce Business Goals | Web Fada Blog Reply

[…] on the definitions and where those concepts originated thousands of years ago is a 2009 posting on Brand Insight Blog. I’ll also spend some time clarifying things in the […]

Marketing Tactics Reply

Thanks for the great article. Ive often wondered what the difference was between strategy and tactics. This i a very good explanation. Thankyou!

Jason Nethercott Reply

Great explanation and examples of goals, stategies and tactics thank you John. I’m running a marketing course at the moment and have now included a question on the difference between each to make sure that my students become clear on the differences.
Thanks greatly!

A to Z of marketing tactics | Give it some sparkle Reply

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Dixie Reply

This has been a good blog to help me differentiate strategic vs tactical marketing. I will keep them compartmentalize in my future endeavors or marketing.

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[…] A strategy is an idea… A conceptualization of how the goal could be achieved. Like “Divide and Conquer.” … A tactic is an action you take to execute the strategy. — John Furgurson […]

Michelle Reply

Hi John:
This is the most simple and practical explanation I have ever read about the difference between a strategy and a tactic. And yes, the lines do get blurry but after reading this article I had so many inspirational ah-ha moments and I thank you for this.

Achieving Your Ecommerce Business Goals « businessroot Reply

[…] on the definitions and where those concepts originated thousands of years ago is a 2009 posting on Brand Insight Blog. I’ll also spend some time clarifying things in the […]

Sean Conyngham Reply

Great article! Simple yet profound. Wish I read it a few years ago. Well done!
Sean

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Yes! Finally something about sales strategies.

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silvana Reply

THANK YOU! im in advertising undergrad and you are so right the internet is FULL OF false and confusing information, now i will never forget the difference between tactics and strategies.

Viola Reply

Hey! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my previous room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this page to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thanks for sharing!

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Raed Bilbessi Reply

Excellent article and very well written. At times, I feel people use the word “strategy” to sound … well, “strategic”. A goal defines point “B”, as opposed to point “A”, which is where you are now. The goal is what you want to accomplish. A strategy gives you an idea about how to get there, but it’s only an idea. The devil is in the details, which is where the tactics come in. Strategies without a goal will get you somewhere (provided they have supporting tactics), but you have no idea where that might be. Strategies without tactics will always look nice on paper, but nothing will ever happen. Tactics without goals and strategies in turn will not necessarily produce favorable results.

Claire Reply

Hi John,

Maybe you can help me clarify this. From my perspective there are many cases where the difference between goals, strategy and tactics is not so clear cut. Say you are an Anti-Hunger nonprofit doing your website. In that context, take the statement “Educate the public about the benefits of anti-hunger programs.” Is this a goal, a strategy or a tactic? It seems like it could be all three, depending on the context, what comes before and after in the chain of actions. Take this longer chain of goal-strategy-tactic–can you clearly establish which is which?

Alleviate hunger >
encourage an expansion of anti-hunger programs >
create public support for anti-hunger programs >
educate the public about the benefits of anti-hunger programs >
present program benefit information on our site in an engaging way >
use stories, video, charts, illustrations

You could say the first item on the chain is clearly a goal, and the last one is clearly a tactic. What about everything in the middle?

Thanks in advance

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JaneK Reply

Great article. I am (and have always been) very confused by Goals, Objectives, Strategies and Tactics. I’m still not clear, and as a middle aged marketer, I really need to get this sorted out!

Does every person in the organisation set their own Goals, Objectives, Strategies and Tactics, or is each associated with a certain level in the organisation? For example, as a digital marketing manager, am I setting my own Goals, Objectives, Strategies and Tactics, or am I simply executing Tactics that comply with the Goals, Objectives, Strategies my Marketing Director and General Manager have set?

The answer to the paragraph above may influence the relevance of the following comments. It seems to me that what is a tactic at a senior level of the organisation, can be a goal for a more junior member of the organisation. Is that possible? Or do the more senior members of the organisation not engage in setting tactics? If a Marketing Manager decides on tactics that include the development of a new Facebook page, is it possible that the Marketing Co-ordinator may have “Develop new Facebook page” as a goal, and then has to set Objectives, Strategies and Tactics at his/her level to launch that page? The Marketing Co-ordinator’s Strategies might include “Upgrade web site destination content” and Tactics might drill down to “Write new article on planning a better dinner party for the web site” and “Organise photo shoot for dinner party article” (BTW, I could still have the above examples of Strategies and Tactics incorrect, too.)

Sorry – I have always been seriously confused by the above questions!

    johnfurg Reply

    As a tactical marketer, your goals and to-do list should come from the marketing strategy. That’s the short answer. Thanks for reading!

TiredAdGal Reply

Love this article because it reminds me of a client request we received a few years back for a “strategy”. We presented strategic recommendations only to be yelled at “Where are your strategies???!!!” Only then did I realize the SVP Marketing client wanted tactics. Cart. Meet Horse.

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[…] you don’t know the answers to these questions, you’re not ready to start implementing tactics. Doing so can cause all sorts of […]

Dirk Reply

Thanks for giving a significant definition between strategies and tactics. There still webmasters who doesn’t have a better understanding of tactics vs strategies and I must say that reading this post will give webmasters better ideas and solutions for the success of their online marketing endeavors. Surely, this post will be helpful to them as it is to me. Thanks for posting an amazing analysis here!

Vance Reply

Awesome blog you have here but I was curious if you knew of any discussion boards that cover
the same topics discussed in this article? I’d really like to be
a part of online community where I can get responses from other experienced individuals that share the
same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let
me know. Many thanks!

    johnfurg Reply

    There are some LinkedIn Groups that I’d recommend. Shoot me an email directly and I’ll give you the run-down on them. Thanks for reading!

“Strategy before Tactics” is key to Marketing Success | Marketing in the Public Sector Reply

[…] on your team aligned around the answers. If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you’re not ready to start implementing tactics. Doing so can cause all sorts of […]

Lilian Reply

Very good article. Thanks for the enlightenment on the difference between marketing strategy and marketing tactics.

James Gauley Reply

Thanks for the good read. It does surprise me that many people throughout the industry cannot write a proper Creative Strategy and generally confuse Objective with Strategy. I must also impress upon you that a meaningful Strategy, e.g. Marketing, Business, Advertising or Creative is one of the most difficult pieces to produce. To keep it simple, I think of it in terms of a map i.e. “Where are we going” for Strategy and “How are we going to get there” for Objective. The rest is Support and Stats. The best at the game said: ” A great campaign will make a bad product (or service) fail faster.” —Bernbach Smart people in this business are in desperate short supply.

Project Management - Tips for making marketing projects happen | Yeomans Reply

[…] Read how innovative marketing strategy and tactics increased the sales of baking soda by clicking here […]

Plan Strategy & Tactics To Achieve Your Business Goals Reply

[…] look at a great example from Brand Insight Blog. In their article they show the process of a big brand turning around their baking soda sales. You […]

Heroin Reply

You could definitely see your enthusiasm
in the article you write. The world hopes for even more passionate writers such as you
who aren’t afraid to mention how they believe. All the time go
after your heart.

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