Does this sound familiar? When you’re busy there’s no time, and seemingly, no need, for marketing. When things are slow, it’s crisis management time; you’ve got to get something done and get it done quickly, and damn the planning.

If it does, it’s time to devote some serious thinking to your strategy and marketing plan. You hear the word “strategy” all the time these days, probably because it has such a comfortable ring to it… a military rhythm that suggests a situation where every move is masterfully planned and precisely mapped. Under control.

Of course, a strategy doesn’t guarantee a perfect situation. It’s no magic solution or quick fix. It won’t eliminate the delivery delay or the troublesome customer or all the daily challenges of marketing your product. But it will prepare you for many of these challenges. And it will provide a compass and a chart and a plan of action to bring you closer to your goals.

Strategic planning should be an ongoing, constant process, inextricably linked with your customers’ needs, your product development, and your company’s image.

And a good marketing strategy will define what you’re going to do. Why you’re going to it. When, where, and how.

So where do you start? Good question. Marketing a product or service is a fluid, spiralling process, in which every element is repeated again and again as you analyze, revise, and develop. But it all starts with a goal or a vision. The strategy is the plan which provides the means to reach the goal. If you don’t know the goal of your company, you can’t develop a strategy. So make sure it’s clearly defined before you begin.

The Elements of Marketing Strategy

  • Your goal
  • Your customer
  • Your competition
  • Your product/product development
  • Your service
  • Your image.
  • Your unique selling feature
  • Your sales materials, people and technique
  • The Plan
  • Constant revision and Consistency

The elements are listed in an order which approximates the actual process. In practice, analysis, revision and development in each area will overlap.

Your Customer

As important as your goal is, it should be shaped by your customers’ needs. “The customer always comes first” is really the prime rule of marketing. It’s essential you immerse yourself in their culture so you know who they are and what is important to them.

As you do this, ask yourself certain questions. What do they believe is most important to them… price, performance, or service? What benefits really spark their interest? What do they really need? Who (their competition, industry gurus, industry publications) carries weight with them? Who are they key accounts? Where do they perceive the value in related products and products that compete with yours?. Who makes the buying decision, and who has influence on the decision?

Stay in touch with your customers, because attitudes change, trends shift, and accepted wisdom can become unacceptable overnight.

Your Competition

Get your competitor’s product in front of you. Use it. Talk to current users. Talk to ex-employees. Study their marketing materials. And determine how customers perceive the product, the company and the salespeople. What are its strengths and weaknesses? How is it priced? What are they doing to sell it? How does it compare with your product?

Your Product/Product Development

Know your product inside out. Determine where its strengths and weaknesses are relative to the competition. What do your customers like about it? What can you realistically do to bring it closer to their needs? How will this affect cost, perceived value and uniqueness? Know what’s unique about your product, but more importantly whether that uniqueness is an advantage of sufficient strength to influence the purchase decision?

Your Service

This is really part and parcel of your product. As above, know how your service is perceived, how you can improve it, and how the competition fares against you.

Your Image

This may be seen as a vague concept used by designers or public relations professionals to sell their services. But consider certain names — like IBM, Petro Canada, and NDP — and analyze the impression you get when you hear them.

Now think of certain products you’ve bought in the past for no clearly apparent reason… the price was the same and there seemed to be no real advantage.
These are all examples of image, that nebulous “something” that springs to mind when we come in contact with a company. Obviously, it can have a big effect on your feelings toward a product and whether or not you buy it or even consider listening to the sales message.

Referring back to your goal, and everything you know about your product and prospects, define the image you’d like your product to have. And make this ideal specific. Because everything you do affects your image, you must consider this definition before you make any marketing decision.

Your Unique Selling Feature

This is your edge over the competition, and it must be perceived as a significant edge. It differs from a unique selling proposition (USP) in that it’s not simply something you concentrate on in your marketing; it is truly unique. While consumer marketers can make a product sound exceptional by simply highlighting an aspect the competition hasn’t (“Made from aloidium cast at 500 degrees Farenheit” may be standard for a product, but it can sound impressive if you’re the only company touting it.), business buyers generally need a little more.

Your Sales Materials, People and Techniques

If you’ve come this far, you’re ready to start choosing your weapons. By knowing your customers and where they are, you can determine whether you should mass market or individually approach a few key clients, whether you should go regional or national, which trade journals to use for ads and who to contact within a company, what advantage is most important to highlight and what benefits you should describe for each person with influence on the purchase decision.

The Plan

Take all the information you’ve gathered, all the questions you’ve answered, and all your gut reactions, and call on your instinct. What makes sense?

This sounds simplistic, but by this point the “right” plan of action should be apparent.

Summarize your strategy in an active, concrete, specific and powerfully worded paragraph. Make sure you can answer these questions. What kind of companies am I targetting and who specifically within the companies? What is my product’s image and how will it attract buyers? What is the core of my sales story? Does this plan chart a new course the competition hasn’t yet taken? What elements will I use to convey the sales message? What’s the price of my product? And above all, does it satisfy my customers’ needs?

From this summary, develop a marketing plan, or a marketing calendar, which describes the critical path for each element of the strategy. As you’re developing this plan, keep in mind how you can measure the success of your strategy. Knowing your goal is the beginning of this. Sales volume, retention of key accounts, and simple product awareness are measurements you can factor in. Follow the plan. And at regular intervals review it.

Constant Revision and Consistency

By looking at what’s worked and what hasn’t in the past, and revising your impressions and analysis of customers and competition, you can adapt your marketing plan as necessary. But keep this in mind. While constant review and improvement is important you must remain consistent in your approach. If you suddenly go off on a new tack every year, you’ll lose what credibility and image you’ve built. Continue to hone your plan, but look at it as a long-term proposition.