The difference between strategy and tactics

I repeatedly here colleagues talking about a strategy when they mean a tactic.  For example, digital marketers often talk about a ‘social media strategy’.  As a strategic marketer, I feel such comments should properly be referred to as a social media tactic.  So what is the difference between strategy and tactics.

There is often much confusion between non-marketing managers as to what constitutes a strategy and what constitutes a tactic.  The terms strategy and tactic often seem to be interchangeable.

Strategy should be viewed as the pursuit of long-term goals, tactics are for the shorter-term.  Strategy has a broad focus and is key to determining your competitive position and in defining your market. Long-term projects such as new product development may be viewed as strategic activity.

Strategy is the development of effective responses to the changing business environment through market analysis, market segmentation and the positioning of your business in the marketplace.

A strategy will apply across all or the majority of the elements of your marketing mix.  This is why I feel it is wrong to talk of  ‘social media strategy’ as that activity has a narrow focus on one element of your communications mix not the far wider marketing mix.

Tactical marketing is for the short-term and has narrow focus.  Often it is the day-to-day activities of marketing your products and services. Tactical marketing often deals with individual components of your marketing mix such as promotion, sales or pricing.  Often tactics will deal with specific elements within a particular marketing mix element e.g. promotion may involve email, social media, traditional advertising or direct marketing.

Often strategic problems will be new and unpredictable whilst tactical problems will be repetitive and well structured.  Strategy often depends on analysis of data external to your business whilst tactics rely on data generated internally.  For example, your strategy may rely of financial data from external bodies like the Bank of England whilst your tactics may rely on internally generated sales or productivity figures.

Strategic Marketing is a concentration on an organisations long-term aims and objectives whilst considering and maintaining market advantage.

To give a military analogy, the allied invasion of France during World War Two was part of a wider strategy of stretching German military resources over several fronts therefore making it impossible for the Germans to properly defend its borders.  Within that strategy there were numerous tactics such as extensive bombing campaigns, commando raids, sabotage by special forces and partisans behind German lines on transport and communication infrastructure, the use of double agents to spread misinformation, assassinations and even prisoner of war camp escapes.

In the peninsular war, the Duke of Wellington knew that Napoleon’s army relied for supplies by raiding the country they invaded, so he had a defensive strategy which stretched the French supply lines.  To weaken those lines he used a burnt earth policy denying the French sustenance and would use irregular forces to raid French supply convoys denying the French supplies of food and ammunition.

Bowman created his ‘strategy clock’ which correlates with Michael Porter’s generic marketing strategies; Differentiation, Cost Focus and Niche.

The clock identifies eight strategic options, some of which are of use, some of which are recipes for disaster:

  1.  Low Price/Low Added Value: This equates to Kotler’s less for less strategy, a common practice amongst ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ discounters.
  2. Low Price: This equates to Porter’s cost leadership strategy.  This strategy can lead to damaging price wars.
  3. Hybrid:  This is a low-cost approach combined with appropriate market segmentation.  This is a good value at a low cost strategy. It smacks of a dual strategic approach which Porter states leads to a marketing ‘No man’s land’.
  4. Differentiation:  This strategy can be split into two categories.  The first is differentiation without an added price premium.  This category can help grow market share.  The second category is differentiation with a specified price premium i.e. the added value perceived by consumers justifies the price premium.
  5. Focused Differentiation:  This is where there is perceived added value amongst a tightly defined market segment which warrants a premium price.  For example, a cruise ship operator who focuses on wealthy customers over the age of 55.
  6. Increased Price/Standard:  This is a common strategy in B2B markets where there is a requirement to continually raise the bar in terms of product usability and levels of service.  It can be an appropriate strategy where higher margins can be generated by transcending the offer and standards of competitors or where competitors are losing market share.
  7. Increased Price/Low value:  This is often a disastrous strategy.  it is only really applicable when there is an absence of competition such as in a monopoly situation or where there are significant entry barriers.
  8. Low Value/Standard Price:  This is also a suicidal strategy in terms of marketing.  it inevitably leads to loss of market share.  it is only suitable when you are managing your exit from a declining market e.g. Harvesting a dog product before it is withdrawn.

Both strategic and tactical planning matter.  Strategic planning, adapting your organisation to a changing environment is critical.  Successful organisations are continually adapting to their changing environment to survive and remain successful over the long-term.

Strategic marketing facilitates that process.  A strategic marketing plan provides a systematic framework for market analysis and a well-defined methodology to pursue strategic goals.

Successful plans are not simply concerned with process.  They are valuable in communicating goals, motivating staff and developing staff ownership of those goals.

The following are key reasons to plan:

  1.  Adapting to Change: Management can focus on strategy whilst staff focus on day-to-day tactics.
  2. Resource Allocation: Planning allows for the appropriate allocation of scarce resources to meet opportunities and to counter threats.  No plan can succeed if it doesn’t have appropriate resources.
  3. Strategic Windows of Opportunity:  Disrupting markets through the application of new technology, the creation of new market segments, developing new distribution channels, redefining markets as demand changes, dealing with legislative change and environmental shocks.
  4. Consistency:  Strategic plans provide a common base to work from across organisational functions and inform the decision-making process.  Strategic plans help improve communication between organisational functions.
  5. Integration:  Strategic plans help integrate the marketing mix across an organisation.  They can help generate synergies across marketing mix elements.
  6. Communication and Motivation:  Strategic plans communicate strategic intent.
  7. Control:  To control activities they must be based on a pre-determined plan.  Such plans must include meaningful targets which can be measured.