In today's business environment, budgets are tight, resources are limited, and organizations are forced to cut corners. The directive is to economize in order to increase profitability or just to remain competitive.

Some organizations are also reacting to a previous over-reliance on high-priced strategy consultants—many of whom have not provided clear value or return on investment—by decreasing the amount of time and resources they put into strategy or strategic processes.

Unfortunately, the failure to first build a solid strategic foundation is counter-productive, risking costly mistakes later on not only for marketing but also for the entire organization.

But today, strategy is out, and execution is in. Witness the popularity of the book by Larry Bossidy (former CEO of Allied Signal) titled Execution: the Discipline of Getting Things Done. First published in 2002, it's now ranked No. 168 on the best-seller list.

This emphasis on execution at the expense of strategy is on the rise in marketing organizations as well. Many executives question the value of spending money for marketing strategy, especially if they have already defined an overall business objective. They want the marketing team to simply go out and execute a marketing plan.

Too often, the success of a marketing plan is judged by the tangible marketing deliverables that the team produces—a series of events, press releases, marketing collateral, websites, etc. Since these deliverables draw attention inside and outside the organization, considerable effort is put into making sure they look good, whether they are hardcopy or web-based.

Packaging, or look and feel, is a key part of deploying a marketing strategy. Many important and on-target messages have been lost because they were delivered in plain-vanilla, or worse, hard-to-read, distracting, or downright ugly packages. However, attractive packaging, when combined with content that is not well thought out (or more importantly, not on target strategically), will fall flat on its pretty little face.

Because a "pretty face" will only go so far, it's extremely important to spend the upfront time to be sure that your marketing programs are built on a solid foundation, that you have nailed down the key elements of your marketing strategy, and your team can clearly articulate them—before going off to create those highly visible (and often highly expensive) marketing deliverables.

Before executing a big-picture strategy, such as "we want to enter XYZ market next quarter with ABC product line," take the time to understand what is required to really make a key marketing initiative successful:

  • Be sure you really know and understand your target customers, including what motivates them, what causes them pain, and why they would be interested in even considering your solution or offering.

  • Have a solid understanding of the current market situation. Know the competition, where they are successful, and where they are struggling. (Remember that the status quo can be your biggest competition!)

  • Play devil's advocate. Ask what could go wrong, what countermoves you can expect from competitors, what obstacles you can proactively plan around. Be honest. The time to consider possible pitfalls is before you begin the project, not once you are stumbling into them.

Once you have done this analysis in a logical and well-thought-out fashion, clearly define your value proposition or unique differentiation. Your positioning should be captured in a neat, organized, succinct manner and communicated throughout the organization. This way you can be sure everyone involved in the initiative, including key vendors and suppliers, will buy into the same messaging, understand it, and be able to use it appropriately in their marketing activities.

What happens if you don't take the time to do this? The answer is quite simple. If you don't understand exactly what you're executing, you may find yourself way down the wrong path fairly quickly. You might be executing a plan effectively—even impeccably—but against the wrong set of objectives. Doing so in marketing can quickly become costly, not only in terms of dollars but also in lost time to market, limited market share, and damage to the corporate reputation.

Consider this analogy: Your organization can spend much time and money getting your team suited up with terrific mountain-climbing gear, instructing them how to use it, and motivating them to go climb a specific mountain... only to eventually find out that you are on the wrong mountaintop—or, worse yet, that you really should not have been climbing mountains in the first place, but deep sea diving instead.

Take the time to ensure you have a well-thought-out, fully developed marketing strategy. It may require more work upfront, but it will pay off in the long run. After all, about the only thing worse than not knowing where you're going is starting out for your destination, only to find out later that it's not really where you want to go.

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image of Linda Popky

Linda J. Popky is principal at Leverage2Market Associates. A strategic marketing expert, she is the author of the new book Marketing Above the Noise: Achieve Strategic Advantage With Marketing That Matters.

LinkedIn: Linda Popky

Twitter: @popky