This article is part of an occasional series from leading voices about key issues facing marketing today.
There are (probably) 14,821 templates for marketing plans. One is sure to be perfect for you and your company, and you'll probably find the right one about a month past your deadline.
But it's really not a template you need. It's a tactical approach to understanding where you've been, where you are, where you're going (or should be), and what resources are required to get there. Easy. Really.
If you're new at your firm or your job, you'll have to speak with people who've been there a while. (Sorry.) They can offer some perspective on the company—its products and services, competitors, changes in the market (and in government regulations, if that matters), the impact of disruptive approaches, the speed at which the company responds to outside forces, the way the business treats its employees, and the value that the CEO attaches to Marketing. You may get excited at the firm's adaptability and commitment to its mission, or you may get so depressed that you put paper back on the street.
Get out of your office
The truth is, though, that talking to the people on the inside is rarely universally informative. That's why a more useful tactic is to speak with the folks on the outside: customers (especially), partners, suppliers, and investors. They're the people often called "stakeholders," but that gives me visions of Jonathan Harker standing over a coffin. And you have to speak with prospects, as well—the ones still in the pipeline and the ones lost to somebody else.
Customers will reveal what really matters to them (things that no one in the company is consciously aware of) and things that don't matter at all (which the CEO may well be in love with). Prospects will identify the things that attracted them to you. Lost prospects will share the things they felt others do better or, as they learned, you don't do at all.
Partners and suppliers offer different but vital points of view about how easy or how challenging it is to do business with your company. Do they think you add advantages they couldn't get elsewhere? Do they feel you respect them? Do they trust you?
The same considerations may apply to investors (for both closely held and public firms). Would they invest again? Will they maintain their investments? Have they realized an ROI?
Why does all this matter? Because it defines who you are as a brand. It informs your conclusions about the company's position in the market, it's organizational characteristics, and the promises it makes... and keeps or breaks.
Those three components are essential to the brand, and the brand must be defined before the marketing strategy can even begin to take form. I'll give you an example.
The truth will out
A manufacturing firm was, for the first time in its forty years in business, facing aggressive competition. To address the threat, the CEO decided that, for the first time in its forty years in business, the company had to do marketing.
When I spoke to the people on the inside, I learned that the company (which made nuts and bolts and other fasteners for the building industry) put lots of time and effort into giving its customers information about the appropriate product to use in each situation. Those situations involved architectural, structural-engineering, and even local building-code requirements. It was, according to them, a vital resource for customers, and that turned out to be true.
Yet what the company completely ignored was why its own customers would ever consider another supplier. The customers admitted that this company's quality was better. Its field reps had good relationships with project managers and foremen. And the salespeople got back to customers with incredible speed. So?
Out of sight, out of mind
So the "other guy" was doing one thing that made a tangible difference. In a business that ran on deadlines, had inspection schedules to keep, and needed to avoid any downtime for workers, the competitor delivered 25-33% faster. And, in construction, time is literally money.
My client's position and characteristics were both solid. The promise, however, needed lots more than marketing. It needed more inventory (which meant ordering and shipping more goods from its facilities overseas), and it needed more distribution centers around the country (so product could be shipped from closer locations).
The president and product managers had a smack-on-the-forehead why-didn't-we-see-that reaction. The CEO decided that the price was too high to expand, so he didn't do anything. No new inventory and facilities. No marketing.
Three years later, the firm was no more.
Research, explain, strategize, plan
So here's the thing: Do the research. Compile it. Explain how the insights can overcome barriers and expand opportunities (and how ignoring them could interfere with revenue and growth).
Then put those findings together with possible obstacles—pending regulations, potential trade barriers, rising shipping costs, more (or less) expensive raw materials, the availability of talent at the salaries the company's willing to pay, low employee morale—and counter-balance those factors with all of the positives: efficiency-related price reductions, a loosening of government requirements (domestically and overseas), high employee enthusiasm, new sources of materials or services, affordable data analysis and automation technologies, a training and incentive program that retains skilled workers, etc.
Generate assumptions from that. Set the strategic objectives. Define how you'll execute them (the traditional tactics of a marketing plan). And always, always tie the information back to how the strategy contributes to effective operations, revenue generation, and company growth.
Because, when you get right down to it, executives are Machiavellian. Get them where they want to be, and they'll care a whole lot less about the means required to get there.
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