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Strategy and Execution: Marketing in 2021

There’s a popular saying in the business world that goes something like: “A perfect strategy that’s poorly executed will fail.”  But how “perfect” can your strategy really be if you aren’t able to execute it?

For decades, we’ve kept the two groups and their advocates in separate buckets — “thinkers,” who come up with brilliant plans, and “doers,” who get stuff done. The truth, however, is that success cannot be achieved by excelling at either strategy or execution individually. Both are equally important.

There are numerous surveys that paint a gloomy picture of how an astounding number of businesses fail to execute their strategies. But in my experience as a marketer, I’ve seen far too many companies that don’t have a strategy, or at least one that’s well-defined and clearly articulates what needs to be done and how.

Why you can’t just skip to execution

For one, strategy is simply the logical way to start. Let’s say you’re building a new house. The first thing you would do is hire an architect to create a blueprint. You would likely go back and forth with the architect several times before your design looked perfect on paper. Once your designs are approved, only then would your contractor start to build your house. It would be absurd to have the electrician, plumber, and carpenter start before your blueprint was finalized, as they would be standing around with nothing to do.

But many businesses make the mistake of bringing on a bunch of specialists to “execute” without first having a marketing strategy, value proposition, or plan in place.

This approach seems to work at first because the teams seem to be very busy executing a lot of “marketing stuff” – creating new content, setting up meetings, participating in events, and so on. But eventually, the company ends up frustrated with their marketing impact and disappointed at their organization’s growth rate. Sometimes this results in firing the CMO. Only then do they realize that they haven’t been executing the right things all along.  

PWC’s Strategy& found that executives are significantly concerned about their company’s strategy. Their latest research shows that:

  • 70% are concerned that their strategy isn’t clear enough about how they create value for their customers.
  • 73% are concerned that their strategy isn’t meaningfully differentiated from their competitors.

And they’re equally concerned with their ability to execute the strategy:

  • 79% are concerned that their company doesn’t allocate sufficient resources to implement the strategy.
  • 74% are concerned that they haven’t translated the strategy into tangible actions.
  • 74% are concerned that the strategy asks them to work on too many priorities.

So it’s important, to begin with, a plan and a focus on what’s critical for success. One of the biggest mistakes I see companies make is to specify too many marketing objectives without being realistic about what it takes to get there. For example, launching a new marketing campaign every month or participating in 15 (virtual or live) events next year may sound good on paper. But when you start to consider all of the work that goes on behind the scenes to execute a marketing campaign or event, you begin to realize that the goal may not be attainable unless you are willing to bring in a lot of resources to help.  

Otherwise, you end up with half-baked executions or what I call the “sprinkling effect” – doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that without achieving any momentum or making any real impact. A better approach is to identify your three most important goals, figure out the things you need to put in place to achieve them (budgets, resources, expertise, etc.), and execute them extremely well.

What to include in your marketing strategy

Many companies spend several months developing their marketing strategy, which is understandable — it’s the foundation, after all. The question is – does your strategy address things that are truly important? While this will vary from company to company, at the most basic level, your marketing strategy should be able to answer the following:

WHO – Who is your ideal customer and who is not?

WHAT – What problem does your product/solution solve, or what result do you help your customers achieve?

WHY – Why should a customer choose you over your competitors?

HOW – How will you reach your customers, and how will you equip your sales team for the purpose?

In my experience, not many companies spend a lot of time aligning their internal teams around the above questions. For example, simply telling your sales team, “Your target for the next quarter is 10% above the last quarter’s performance” without discussing how it can be achieved sets the stage for frustration and unmet goals. Realistic planning involves setting clear goals, prioritizing the must-win “battles,” resource allocation, and getting commitment from those who will do and oversee the day-to-day execution.

Have a strategy for success

I remember hearing a story from a marketing strategist friend about his experience of working with a client. He was in charge of creating a marketing strategy for the company. They planned five goals to fulfill and for each of those goals, specified several initiatives to carry out. At one point, they realized that the company needed more resources to execute those plans fully. Still, the CEO decided it would be too expensive for them to hire and instead attempted to do everything internally.

One of the goals was to reach out to new customers through social media. The task of running campaigns and networking on social media was assigned to the office manager — apparently, she was the person who was the most active on social media. She set up the company’s social media accounts and posted through them for a month or two. Then she got buried in other tasks and stopped posting. Soon after, social media was dropped from their plan as the CEO didn’t see any results.

The takeaway? Don’t have a strategy that you cannot successfully implement.  

That said, here are some things that a great strategy does:

  • Focuses your limited resources, limited budgets, and limited energy on the activities that will help grow your business most.  
  • Allows you to declare who your ideal customer is so that you can go out and find them. Without defining who your ideal customer is, you fall into the trap of marketing to everyone. If your message doesn’t resonate with a specific person, it’s too generic to be useful or relevant.
  • Builds trust and credibility with your customers. When you know what your customers want and need from you, you can focus on delivering it. How can you better connect the dots between their current pain points/challenges and your product/service as the solution? A good strategy will help you answer this.
  • Tells a differentiated story. Do you know what sets your company apart? Take any one of your competitors, and the chances are that you may be saying, doing, or offering something very similar. How can you expect to stand out in the eyes of the customer if you don’t know how your company uniquely provides value?
  • Saves reputation and cost. For instance, a massive $958 million is wasted on ineffective marketing content, while poor marketing strategy can cause damage to even those companies that are great at selling. With a good strategy, you can avoid these costly mistakes.

Have an execution for excellence

Along with a practical strategy, you need thoughtful execution. Notice I said thoughtful, not blind execution. Just because the strategy is in place, it doesn’t mean that opportunities or challenges won’t come up where you need to adjust. Just look at 2020 for a real-life example of that. Every such instance requires careful consideration and decisions at the time of execution.

Going back to our example at the beginning of the article —once the construction starts on your new house, a million different scenarios may arise that will prevent you from executing the blueprint flawlessly. The soil or ground conditions may be different than expected; new inspections may show that electrical wiring has to be relocated, or the special tile you wanted from overseas may not be available. This is where thoughtful execution comes into play.

Here are some outcomes that proper execution achieves:

  • Ensures that you are only implementing the marketing programs and content that resonate the most with customers and help the sales team close more business.
  • Builds customer trust and credibility by presenting a consistent story across every customer touchpoint.
  • Protects your precious time, money, and energy from tasks and activities that aren’t working.
  • Gives you confidence that your brand messaging is differentiated and relevant to customers.

Bottom Line

As a business in the digital era, you are in need to adapt and evolve, more than ever. With increasing competition to meet changing customer demands in a rapidly shifting business landscape, it’s challenging to grow your business predictably and profitably. Closing the gap between strategy and execution can be your answer to the problem.

If you’re looking for some actionable and concrete help with your 2021 plan, my team created a Marketing Strategy Workbook, which will help you create a winning marketing plan in 7 steps.