Not the S word

It’s said that a well-defined and achievable marketing strategy makes meeting existing and new customer needs a likely and attainable goal. And while most companies do great marketing, fewer have created and translated a solid brand strategy through to their marketing practices and tactics at every touchpoint to achieve this goal. David Nothling-Demmer explores why ‘strategy’ this all the hype and why having an effective marketing strategy in place is one of the best marketing tools you can use.


A recent NZ Marketing survey of senior marketers points to strategy as being an issue that both client and agency grapple with as they look to turn high-level strategic objectives into creative outputs that help their brands grow. This got me thinking what exactly is strategy? Who gets to decide on it? How does strategy translate to marketing output? Does the word mean different things to different people in an organisation (or even between organisations)? And how do organisations ensure everyone is on the same strategy page? It’s these questions I will explore with marketers of top brands including Coca-Cola, Air New Zealand, Jaguar Land Rover and
more, leading creative and brand strategists on the agency side and consultants who are helping brands better mould their strategy. These are all questions we look to unpack in relation to challenges marketers currently face, including:

  • The importance of data and the effective use of it
  • Marrying up high-level business objectives with long-term brand building
  • Design strategy versus business stategy
  • Matching strategic resources with creative resources

I chat to marketers about their business and brand strategic objectives, how they communicate these to agency strategic directors, who in turn share with us details on how these objectives are turned into creative outputs through the lens of their own organisations’ strategic objectives.

What is strategy

“A well overused word these days,” says Wendy Rayner, GM Strategy & Brand, NZ at Coca-Cola Europacific Partners. This is a question I put to several marketers in the hope of narrowing down a definition of strategy. But each time, met with a different interpretation. Keeping it as simple as possible, Co-founder and Strategist at Bright Street tells me it’s an informed opinion about how you’re going to win.

Kristen Marks, GM and Strategy Director at Essence Agency Strategy adds, in keeping with the winning theme: “Strategy is all about having a plan, a pathway to success and a view of the endgame. Quite literally the Art of War, where we carefully craft how we will create and achieve behavioural change. Together.” Scott Graham, owner of Tactical Media and CAANZ award-winning media planner, has taught strategy at The University of Auckland and has spoken internationally about how to apply Sun Tzu, The Art of War, to business, says that strategy is about doing things right. “Understanding the main goal of an organisation and ensuring all the facets work collectively to achieve the objective.” In a business sense, Rayner adds: “Strategy is the optimal way forward that brings together the whole of business thinking. Incorporating the financial impact, the consumer need, the supply chain logistic and sell.”

Ziena Jalil, Independent Director at DNA says that strategy is a guiding light. “It is the framework which guides the decisions we make to achieve our goals and realise our purpose. It’s about where and how we focus our efforts and resources.” Thor Bayer, an independent strategy consultant who works with marketing teams on their relationships with agency partners says that good strategy provides a clear and unified way forward for a business, including key actions to focus on and what activity/ies to prioritise.

What makes for good strategy

From the above it would seem that it’s impossible to develop a good business strategy without goals, which link back to a business’ mission and vision. “No matter how complex or challenging the environment a business is in – a strategy needs to be simple, it must seem tangible and achievable,” says Jalil. A good strategy provides clarity on where we’ll play (e.g. the industry verticals we may choose to focus on) and how we will win. It also needs to be about value – what we’ll invest in, what the benefits will be and who we might need to play with to achieve our goals. A good strategy provides the principles which inform how decisions are made in an organisation – at all levels. These include, for example, decisions around how we will create value for our customers, shareholders and other stakeholders; the talent we need and how we’ll attract it; where we will invest and critically, where we won’t.

Purpose driven business strategy provides the guiding principles which inform marketing strategy. Knowing the organisation’s goals, where it intends to play and how it expects to win – provides clarity for example in terms of
products, services, pricing and competitive positioning.

People driven marketing strategy is made of several key elements including who the target audience is; what their needs and goals are; how they will be reached and engaged with; what the communication expectations are – for instance to inform, influence, or drive behaviour change; what if any partnerships we may have. An effective marketing strategy is informed by good data and leads to the development of a tactical plan – with specific actions which are delivered, outcomes that can be measured and evaluated to ensure the strategy continues to meet organisational goals. Prof Lawrence Freedman, the author of A History of Strategy … said it best: “Strategy is about revolution. Anything else is just tactics.” And we’re seeing a lot of tactics these days. And while eco-systems, frameworks, brand onions, data, D2C, UX, creative briefs, ads and comms are all parts of the strategic journey, they’re rarely THE strategy.

Nor is creating endless sub-thinking for every decision, implication or possibility because, at best – they can paralyse the potential of the strategy and end up just creating incremental change rather than fundamental or – at worse – just cause mass fucking confusion. And don’t get me started on optimisation or user journeys or white-label solutions or writing endless decks that go nowhere … because they’re often more about keeping things the same than moving things forward. This discipline has been my life. I believe in it and I’m employed because of it. It can create incredible opportunity and value and has some incredible talent working in it and
– more excitedly – wanting to work in it. But the reality is for all the people who have strategy in their title, few are setting the stage for brilliantly creative, commercially advantageous, progressive revolution … most of us are simply executing a small part of someone else’s thinking and then going off thinking we’re hot shit.

What this means is as a discipline, we’re in danger of becoming like a contestant on Love Island, initially interesting to meet but ultimately blunt, disposable and forgettable. And while there’s many reasons for this – some beyond our control – we are contributing to it by acting like our own worst enemy. Doing things like arguing about which ‘flavour of strategy’ is the right ‘flavour of strategy’ for the modern age. Apart from the fact most of the ‘new flavours’ are just re-badged versions of old strategic rigour – albeit with some more consideration and expression in it – this is just an argument of ego that’s distracting us from the real issue … We can be so much more than we think we are. We need to be so much more than we think we are. But to realise this we need to stop thinking of strategy as if it’s engineering or simply the act of being able to think strategically … and get back to objective, distinctive and focused revolution. I’ll leave you with one more quote from Prof Freedman: “Strategy is getting more from a situation than the starting balance of power suggests,” says Rob Campbell, Chief Strategist at Colenso BBDO.

If we’re not doing that, then we’re not just kidding ourselves … but also our entire discipline and our clients trust. And while they’re many reasons for it – as I have already mentioned – we’re all kidding ourselves a lot these days. As with everything, what happens next is up to us. But I hope it results in us being strategically dangerous because when we’re in full flight, that’s when we’ll show how much value we can add to commerce, culture and creativity. As a traditional marketer, Wendy says she goes back to the 101. “Have great insights on
the market, the consumer and the shopper. Plus be all over the commercials and the internal stakeholders you have to sell to before you get to the consumer. Use those insights to build the marketing mix that best drives growth. Tie together everything from brand, through selling, price, comms to consistently talk to the consumer to motivate the targeted behaviour. Whether that’s buying a drink, a tyre or a service. The fundamentals of marketing are as true today as always. It is just the ‘how’ and ‘where’ we talk to consumers that is evolving,” she says. Too often people confuse a strategy with a plan, and go straight to tactics and implementation. People, products and markets are dynamic, so this can mean they’ve missed thinking through the fundamentals of where they need to focus to have the greatest impact in terms of achieving their vision – even when external factors are variable.

A strategy needs reviewing and refreshing to ensure it remains relevant, both to the environment around and the people within a business. When something like Covid-19 comes along, a strategy definitely needs to acknowledge and adapt to the changes brought on, however, for many businesses this may not mean a fundamental reset of ‘where we are going and why’, but the ‘how’ may change.

How is strategy interpreted?

Given the different interpretations of strategy it’s obvious that the term will mean different things to different type of organisations. “I think it can mean very different things to different people in the same organisation. There are different types of strategy, each of which are often owned by different functions business, brand, marketing, comms, commercial, people, digital, media etc… I think in many of these contexts, the word strategy is used to beef up the perceived value of the work, when in reality the real focus is almost entirely tactical,” says Howard. To get everyone on the same page when it comes to strategy Ian says that it’s important to define what you mean by strategy up front, then when you’ve defined it, communicate it, communicate it again and then just to be sure, communicate it again.

“If it’s truly a strategic relationship, the focus needs to be on the long term. In my experience, what undermines strategic intent more than anything else is a sudden shift to short term success. So often I’ve seen great work go into defining a robust, ambitious and innovative long term strategy, then after Q1 it all comes to nought as the number crunchers insist on short term growth. Strategy is a long bet and it’s often uncomfortable, uncertain and unpredictable. Progress of course needs to be measured, but those measures should ladder up to the higher goal, not just to short term results.

“I don’t think the responsibility purely sits with the client either. It’s on agencies to ensure they’re being genuinely objective. If “strategists” in agencies were focussed on uncovering the right problem to solve, and the right way of solving it, do you think the answer would be “make an ad” as often as it is now? If strategy is purely there to defend what the best agency/client relationships recognise that it’s a team project and that you will develop the solution in partnership through a set of iterations of thinking.” Ben Goodale agency has already decided it wants to sell, it’s not strategy at all,” he says. Scott agrees, saying that it’s important that everyone is on the same page. “The First Fundamental Factor In Sun Tzu, The Art of War, before anything else in the book is Moral Influence. Which means “that which causes the people to be in harmony with their leaders, so that they will accompany them in life and unto death without fear of mortal peril.”

This is about having a Strategic Intent (a cause). It’s about the selection and maintenance of an aim that encapsulates the future state of the organisation and provides a ‘sense of purpose’ that unites and surpasses that of an individual. A clear intension based on means available (or to be developed). But it also need to be
measurable, so everyone can see and feel and share in the wins and losses,” he says.

Who owns strategy?

An organisational brand strategy is different from an individual product or service line brand. Ownership for an organisation’s brand strategy lies with its leadership and board, but all staff need to live the brand. It’s also important to understand that while organisations develop their brand strategy, brand value is determined by stakeholders and customers. Kirsten says that’s it’s important that the value of strategy is clearly defined. “Sharing the journey through workshops and tissue sessions, that bring the power of agency and client diversity of thought together. Encouraging shared ownership of the eventual strategic framework and deep understanding of direction.” When a client engages an agency partner on strategy, what do you feel marketers need to do to ensure they are getting the most out of this strategic relationship? “Embrace the process, ask questions, bring instinct and insight to the table. Trust and empower the agency to take risks and seek meaningful difference.”

When working with agency partners marketers feel this is when strategy goes south. So we asked marketers how much they rely on their agency (external) partners to help deliver on this strategy. Are they simply a supplier or do you expect them to take an active role in delivering on strategic elements? “We see our agency partners as extensions of our marketing team in targeted areas. As the brand owners we want to own the whole picture but partner with experts in key areas such as research, advertising creation and media placement. “That leap from strategy to the actual creative marketing output is probably the hardest of all a marketers jobs. Even with the best script in the world for a digital piece of work, there is an art in the key steps such as picking the best talent, the best director or music. In my experience these steps can be the difference between the best piece of work and an average one. One that consumers love and that will make a difference to behaviour and one that is forgotten the moment it’s viewed,” adds Wendy.

Scott says that everyone in the organisation should take ownership for the strategy. “Again depending on circumstance, but for most NZ business (I would have thought) the Brand is representative of the whole organisation (what they are). Brand integrity is not just external, but as importantly internal and should be part of a business’s culture. Unfortunately, most businesses pay lip service to it with Mission and Vision statements that get put on walls and mean very little to the actual people expected to implement.”

Strategic partnerships

I asked strategists on the agency side, when a client engages an agency partner on strategy, what do you feel marketers need to do to ensure they are getting the most out of this strategic relationship? “They need to share well. Be clear on the business situation, the objectives, the risks, the desire of the business. And give the agency the time to do the job they need help on, and not expect everything to be right first time – the best agency/client relationships recognise that it’s a team project and that you will develop the solution in partnership through a set of iterations of thinking,” Ben Goodale of Quantum Jump tells me. He says that in recent times we have seen in recent creative and media agencies bolster their strategy teams because of this. “You’d have to be living under a rock not to recognise the growing complexity of all facets of marketing and conversely the need for richer
thinking. Clients are handling a lot of the wood chopping in-house, but they still look to agencies for big brains and ideas to complement their internal resources, to provide an external point of view and inspiration.”

Kirsten says that in order to get the most out of their strategic partnerships, marketers need to embrace the process, ask questions, bring instinct and insight to the table. “Trust and empower the agency to take risks and seek meaningful difference,” she says. The First Fundamental Factor In Sun Tzu, The Art of War, before anything else in the book is Moral Influence. Which means “that which causes the people to be in harmony with their leaders, so that they will accompany them in life and unto death without fear of mortal peril.” This is about having a Strategic Intent (a cause). It’s about the selection and maintenance of an aim that encapsulates the future state of the organisation and provides a ‘sense of purpose’ that unites and surpasses that of an individual. A clear intension based on means available (or to be developed). But it also need to be measurable, so everyone can see and feel and share in the wins and losses.

Lost in translation

Wendy says that when it comes to translating brand strategy to creative output that leap from strategy to the actual creative marketing output is probably the hardest of all a marketer’s jobs. “Even with the best script in the world for a digital piece of work, there is an art in the key steps such as picking the best talent, the best director or music. In my experience these steps can be the difference between the best piece of work and an average one. One that consumers love and that will make a difference to behaviour and one that is forgotten the moment it’s viewed.” Ian says that brand strategy done well is a business strategy brought to life. It’s the filter through which all business decisions should be run, not just marketing and creative work. “It provides a point of distinction, an aligned understanding of how the business would and wouldn’t behave, what it wouldn’t and wouldn’t say, how it looks at the world and what it’s doing to improve it. Without that clearly defined lens, the brand can behave
however it likes and that just leads to confusion and a lack of distinctiveness. Consistency is the key to successful brand building and I think we know enough now – or at least I hope we do – to agree that brand value is up there as one of any business’ most valuable assets.”

Donna McCort, Creative Director at Dow Goodfolk says that when it comes to developing this brand strategy agency partners are key. “I think maybe the theorists are not the practitioners. It is often a huge gap. You know, can on the one hand be poor strategy or on the other hand, it might not be an idea that easily translates into that brand’s expression. I remember a big corporate client had done a whole lot of positioning work and came up with, the positioning of the brand of fresh thinking. Which, you know, you can imagine how that would, probably provide a lot of inspiration for but in terms of a product, um, that’s going to be packaged up, it’s, it’s way wide open,” says Donna.

Scott believes that in today’s environment brand advocates need to understand the shifting demands. “Whilst ‘Digital,’ is transforming the business landscape, companies need to be cognisant that ‘Marketing,’ is a much bigger picture then that. Too many businesses focusing primarily on traffic, goal conversions and enquiries, making them reactive to data shifts which leads them to a game of catch up. “Marketeers need to be able to view not just the current conditions that they are playing in, but to look to see future trends and external conditions that represent both opportunities and threats. I had one case recently, where (through data analysis) we were able to warn a client about a significant market shift coming within the next 8 months, and how they weren’t positioned to leverage the new landscape. However, always chasing the mighty enquiry (was the single biggest Marketing KPI), they kept their resources focused on what was driving the immediate (short term gain), and we now find ourselves scrambling to shift focus and change our positioning to meet the new market conditions (playing catch up),” he says.


This article was originally published in the June/July 2021 issue of NZ MarketingClick here to subscribe.

About David Nothling-Demmer

David Nothling-Demmer is Editor of NZ Marketing magazine.

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