Home / Strategy / Marketing plan vs marketing strategy (they are NOT the same)

Marketing plan vs marketing strategy (they are NOT the same)

Article originally published in December 2022 by Stuart Brameld. Most recent update in February 2023.

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Are your team confused about why they’re being asked to work on something? Are team members unable to prioritise work themselves? Is your marketing team trying to juggle lots of things at once?

These are all telltale signs of requiring a more developed strategy.

This article explains why it’s important to know the difference between a marketing plan and a marketing strategy, and why you need a strategy before a plan.

What isn’t a marketing strategy?

When speaking with teams about marketing strategy we often get back responses that are not strategic. Here are some typical examples.

“Our strategy is to grow SEO and organic traffic.”

…. this isn’t a strategy, this is a goal.

“Our strategy is to increase MQLs by 50% whilst maintaining a MQL to SQL conversion rate of 25%”

…. again, this isn’t a strategy, this is a goal.

“Our strategy is to invest in social media, paid content syndication, SEO, and email.”

…. this isn’t a strategy either, this is a list of tactics.

What is a marketing strategy?

Marketing strategy, and strategy more widely, is often misunderstood by leaders. Therefore, to provide some context, we have included some quotes below from the world’s greatest strategic thinkers.

Strategy is simply resource allocation. When you strip away all the noise, that’s what it comes down to. Strategy means making clear cut choices about how to compete.

Jack Welch – CEO of General Electric from 1981 to 2001. Heralded by many as the greatest leader of his era

The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do. Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs; it’s about deliberately choosing to be different.

Michael Porter – Award winning economist, author and Harvard professor

Strategy is a pattern of activities that seek to achieve the objectives of the organisation and adapt its scope, resources and operations to environmental changes in the long term.

Peter Drucker – Educator, author, consultant and considered “the founder of modern management”

You should think of your marketing strategy as a description of where you’re choosing to play and how you’re choosing to win.

Typically you will see strategy broken down into 2 core components:

  1. A diagnosis of the current situation and the challenge
  2. A guiding policy for how to overcome the obstacles in the challenge

The diagnosis clearly defines the challenge and sets out the current situation.

A strategy is a way through a difficulty, an approach to overcoming an obstacle, a response to a challenge. If the challenge is not defined, it is difficult or impossible to assess the quality of the strategy. And if you cannot assess a strategy’s quality, you cannot reject a bad strategy or improve a good one.

Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy Bad Strategy

The guiding policy sets out your decisions around where to play, without defining exactly what should be done. Furthermore it sets guardrails that direct and constrain action in certain directions in order to provide a focus for your team. Strategy is about choice and deciding where to play. and so your team should be able to clearly articulate the reasoning behind these choices and trade-offs.

We are yet to find a marketing team with a shortage of ideas. Your marketing strategy provides a guardrail for execution and direction for your team in terms of what to work on and why. At any point in time your team should be able to explain why they’re working on what they’re working on, and why they’re spending time on that as opposed to anything else.

Every marketing team has to make these tradeoffs. If you’re not talking about trade-offs, it’s not a marketing strategy discussion.

What is a marketing plan?

The video below from Roger Dean, one of the the world’s leading thinkers on strategy, provides an excellent overview of the differences between planning and strategy.

Most of the marketing strategies we see are really marketing plans, a long to do list or wish list of items, with little or no strategy behind them. As Roger explains in the video above, whilst the planning process creates comfort given all the outcomes are within your control, this comfort typically results in poor outcomes for the business. We have talked about the outputs over outcomes trap before on this blog.

Richard Rumelt, author of Good Strategy, Bad Strategy refers to this long list of “things to do” as “Dog’s dinner objectives”.

“A long list of “things to do”, often mislabeled as “strategies” or “objectives”, is not a strategy.  It is just a list of things to do. Such lists usually grow out of planning meetings in which a wide variety of stakeholders make suggestions as to things they would like to see done.  Rather than focus on a few important items, the group sweeps the whole day’s collection into a “strategic plan”.  Then, in recognition that it is a dog’s dinner, the label “long term” is added so that none of them need be done today.“

Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy Bad Strategy

Marketing strategy & marketing plan compared

Below we compare some of the typical characteristics of a marketing plan versus a marketing strategy.

Marketing strategyMarketing plan
Focused on achieving a company goalLittle to no focus on a company goal
Creates angst/nervousnessComforting
Outcomes your customer decides, outside of your controlOutcomes you decide, work within your control
No guarantees of successCan guarantee in advance
Subjective (“we believe”)Concrete
A journey which is refined over timeRarely changed, revisited once a year

Problems with marketing planning

We have listed the problems with long-term waterfall planning without a clear strategy below:

  1. The longer the gap between planning and implementation, the higher the chances the assumptions on which your plan is built have changed. Basically the further out you plan the more you are guessing. Agile project management professionals call this the cone of uncertainty.
  2. To plan accurately, you assume to know how long each of the items on your plan is going to take. This is rarely the guess hence you make-up completion dates based on assumptions.
  3. A rigid plan and structure leaves little to no room for new opportunities or changing course as things change
  4. Most marketing work is uncharted territory. There is no blueprint, no guarantee of success, no right answer. If it becomes clear your work is not delivering business value the incentive is to finish building the wrong thing. A better incentive would be to change to building something that does.
  5. When work is under-scoped in long-term plans it incentivises individuals to make trade-offs to meet (often arbitrary) deadlines. Skimping on quality in small and subtle ways adds up over time, leads to poor customer experiences and marketing debt.
  6. Work that is part of a larger marketing plan rarely provides maximum business value at completion and launch. There is, almost always, opportunity for continual improvement with marketing projects.
  7. Everyone adds buffers to planning estimates to avoid missing deadlines. This slows down delivery and ensures work expands to fill the available time (known as Parkinson’s law). Upfront planning effectively guarantees scope creep.
  8. With most planning, there is little involvement in priorities in determining what to work on and when. Prioritisation is a far more logical approach. Consider all possible work, determine what is most critical for the business or customer, and do that first.
  9. Estimates are almost always wrong. In the short-term estimate effects are minimal. Over longer time horizons estimates often end up bearing little to no resemblance to reality.

“Reality is that your business needs change over time, and what was a good plan at the beginning of the year turns out to be short-sighted as new information unfolds over time. The timeline roadmap format doesn’t afford the flexibility to show how these plans might change.”

The trouble with traditional roadmaps, ProdPad

To conclude

Long-term planning makes some stakeholders and executives feel secure. Plans can give the impression of lots of “stuff” happening, that a team is busy and that a “strategy” is in place. In reality a marketing plan often sets your team up for failure when you deliver everything on time with no real impact on the business.

A plan is a way to guarantee losing. A strategy is the best possible chance of winning.