We address a new article in Ad Age that argues that strategy should flow up from tactics and not the other way around.
In the article, For New Brands, Tactics and PR Trump Strategy and Advertising, marketing and branding stalwart Al Ries argues that the biggest problem facing today’s companies is that they rely too heavily on boards of directors and corporate executives to develop strategies that often do not result in executable and effective tactics. While we don’t disagree that some strategies and tactics deserve to be thrown in the trash bin of ill-conceived ideas, we would argue that having a strategic underpinning is the foundation upon which the best brands are built. It’s the who, what, why, how, and when of strategy development that is the determining factor between a brand boom or a bust. In short, informed and empowered decision-making stacks the strategic deck.
Ries argues that executives often develop “strategic goals that can’t be achieved” and gives the example of Quaker Muller launching a new yogurt brand in an already crowded Greek yogurt marketplace:
In reviewing all the myriad ways that that this brand launch was botched from the get-go, having a strategy first approach doesn’t seem to be at the heart of the problem; it was that Quaker Muller developed the wrong strategy. Even though PepsiCo – Quaker’s parent company – is extremely market research-driven, we have to wonder how their information and insights led them to an unsuccessful strategy. Ries argues that where the strategy derived is the problem – read: the C-Suite. We instead argue that the strategy didn’t match up with measurable objectives, i.e. “To achieve XX% of all yogurt sales and increase brand recognition of Quaker Muller’s yogurt brand by 25% in the first year,” instead of just “Enter the U.S. Greek yogurt market.”
In the case of Quaker Muller’s yogurt launch: if the executives completed a comprehensive competitor audit, robust discovery through conversation monitoring within the Greek yogurt market, opportunity evaluation, and ideation based on accurate audience metrics and insights, where did their strategy go wrong? There is, in fact, opportunity in the yogurt market in the U.S., but brand distinction doesn’t happen overnight, and they abandoned this co-branded yogurt before the brand really had the opportunity to test whether its tactics were working and course-correct where they weren’t. Our theory is that their misstep happened by not developing attainable, measurable objectives out of which sensible, achievable tactics would flow. If they had, we may all be reading this article while eating a cup of Quaker Muller yogurt at our desks. But we’re not. This brand failure, or any brand failure for that matter, doesn’t mean that having a strategy first is wrong, but having the wrong strategy and mismatched objectives certainly are.
Ries would likely argue that a better strategy would have developed out of employing tactics, testing out things first, then building up to an overarching strategy…but without a strategy, what is the end goal? What does success even look like in that model? In the Quaker Muller scenario, how do you execute tactics when the other developments didn’t occur – like strategic partnership that made the yogurt even available? Had the brand fully explored all of the elements of successful strategy development, armed with information and insights in developing their strategy, tested their assumptions and course-corrected along the way, they may have decided to launch the brand differently, which is the point of discovery – to make informed strategic decisions.
While we agree with Ries that the tactical execution missed its mark, it’s the why behind the ineffective tactics that we again differ. Rather than brands losing out from the strategy developed wrongly at the top, we would argue that the tactics that are developed are not adequately mapped to an effective brand strategy. Again, in the case of Quaker Muller, did the brand misunderstand the market and opportunity at the strategic level? Did they wrongly commit its resources to carrying out tactics that could not be successful? These questions don’t arise because a strategy came from the top down, but because they made strategic decisions somehow misreading the entire landscape – like the fact that there was no brand recognition in the U.S. for the Muller yogurt brand, that the Greek yogurt market was incredibly cluttered, and perhaps even that Quaker’s brand equity didn’t intuitively extend to yogurt in the minds of consumers.
A strategic partnership alone focusing on Quaker being a household name could not possibly solve these problems. Given the competitive landscape, customer loyalty to existing competitor brands was high. A robust competitive audit would have shown this, and effective tactics to increase awareness could have been employed more effectively to support the brand launch.
When there is no strategy behind a brand, there is no cohesion, nothing sticky that binds together all of the elements of brand’s activities for the consumer. In other words, there is no map. A brand based primarily on tactics finds itself without a direction, or even a compass pointing north. When does a brand have enough feedback and information from tactics alone to build the strategy? What does the brand look like in the meantime? To the consumer, it looks like a town with no name – it’s all over the place, throwing things against the wall to see what sticks, abandoning ideas and moving on to the next. For a brand in today’s competitive, multi-channel environment, it’s hard enough to win the hearts and minds of consumers. Having no overarching strategic roadmap makes it even harder.
What do you think? Do today’s brands today suffer because of their strategic approach? Use #brandingstrategy and let us know your insights. Do you need help in developing a holistic brand strategy? We'd love to talk with you. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org