“Strategy before Tactics” is key to Marketing Success

Strategy is doing the right things. Tactics is doing things right.” 

One of the most costly mistakes most organizations make is to start rolling out individual marketing tactics without a strong strategic foundation in place. Social media, blogging, website design, email marketing, advertising, proactive public relations … if you don’t combine these individual tactics into a cohesive strategy and develop the right marketing strategy, you won’t get the results that you hope to obtain.

The first step in realigning your marketing approach and establishing a strategic marketing plan for your business is taking the time to really understand your audience.

Once you have identified the audience you’re ready to start uncovering the key issues you face – the pains and problems your audience have when purchasing your products, programs or services. If you understand what “pains” people have and offer a “remarkable solution”, it becomes a lot easier to get them to do buy your products programs and services. They feel connected to you and trust that you understand their specific challenges.

Most organizations think marketing and immediately think web sites, email, advertising, social media and promotions – you know, tactics. Hate to say it but most marketers think that way too!

I’ve been working for and with organizations for many years and I can tell you that none of the tactics matter until you are crystal clear about which direction you are going. Strategy before tactics is the simple road to success.

This does not mean that I am opposed to systematically and consistently rolling out tactics, but only those that support a strategy that you can commit to. Once you nail the strategy part you can confidently go to work on a strategy with tactics, but no matter what you hear or think you can’t have one before the other.

Strategy and tactics are so intertwined; perhaps it is no wonder that people so often confuse them. Still, it drives marketing consultants like me “nuts” that strategies and tactics are too often interchangeably used.

Strategy and tactics are not one and the same. However, before a campaign can have either, you must first identify your overall goals and objectives.

“Great tactics will win you a battle, but great strategy is what wins you the war.”

Goals are the basis of any marketing initiative. An objective is exactly what you are seeking to accomplish. The more specific you define the goals, the better off you will be. This level of detail sets expectations and creates a commonality that everyone works towards. Establishing a goal sets expectations, and it enables you to begin working on a strategic plan. Only after a goal has been codified, does strategy enter the picture.

Strategy offers a high level plan to achieve an objective. The strategy springs from the very origins of the goal creation. The strategy offers an organizational approach on how to achieve a goal. Not only does the strategy reflect the broader goal, it outlines a scheme to achieve it. In this manner, strategy is a methodology, a train of thought that guides all future actions. The strategy is a platform upon which the tactics will rest or, to throw the analogy, the umbrella under which the tactics will lie.

strategies before tactics

A strategic marketing strategy sets up a framework to achieve a particular goal. Within this blueprint are key performance indicators. These indicators are yardsticks to measure progress. In most cases, however, they are not actually the goal. Rather, they tend to serve as proxies for behaviour. Next, the marketing communications strategy outlines what type of tactic to utilize and to what degree. It defines how much to invest in each tactic. The strategy further defines the markets. The strategy supports the goal, organizes the approach, and advances a plan to achieve those measures.

In essence, the strategy establishes the topological map. Once the topography has been defined, the tactics will create a more particular road map. Here is where some people begin to confuse strategy and tactics. The strategic point of view sets the campaign direction, the philosophical underpinnings. The tactics translate those ideas into reality. For this reason, strategy does not change very often, but tactics can (and do!). The strategy represents principles that will guide the tactical execution.

In a nutshell, strategy is about picking the right goals or objectives and tactics is about how you go about achieving those goals or objectives. The role of a tactician is much simpler once you have a strategy, because the objective and the direction are already defined. Strategy is as much about deciding what NOT to do as much as what to do.

The biggest way this applies to marketing is “segmentation” and “positioning’. While marketing tactics are focused on how to interact with your potential audience, marketing strategy is more about picking the right audience to go after. There may be many organizations out there doing what you do, and picking the right “niche” to call your own is the most important thing you can do to ensure success or guarantee failure.

When organizations contact our organization for marketing help, they are often looking for assistance with tactical projects. For instance, they want us to develop marketing communications tactics or help them get started with social media.

Although those tactics can be very beneficial to organizations, what most public sector and non-profit organizations really need is a marketing strategy. Strategy is not just a fancy word. It’s a process that defines your approach to reach your organizations goals. Without a strategy, it’s easy for organizations to get caught up in chasing the latest marketing trends or switching tactics every week or month. Not only is that an exhausting way to do things, it also means you could be wasting time and money on tactics that will produce little results.

What happens when tactics trump strategy?

  • Lack of clear and consistent messaging. For marketing to be effective, you must create a consistent brand message that communicates what makes you different and why someone should buy your products, programs and services. Without a strategy in place, it makes it much harder to determine compelling messages that will speak to your audience.
  • Difficulty achieving goals. Surprisingly, most organizations don’t have well defined goals. But, even if you DO have specific goals and objectives, it will be difficult to accomplish them without a strategy. What we find in our work is that organizations often see where they want to go, but have trouble connecting the dots on how to get there. It takes research, creativity and strategic thinking to build an effective strategy. But once you do your likelihood of success is that much greater.
  • Wasted budget. If you don’t take time to build a strategy, you could be wasting time and money on the wrong tactics because you’re just guessing about what will work. Taking the time to build a marketing strategy and tactical implementation plan on the front end will ensure your budget is being spent most effectively.
  • Unfocused efforts. All of your marketing tactics should flow out of a marketing strategy. It helps guide your decisions and makes it easier to determine where to spend your time. Without it, your efforts will be weak and unfocused. And, it’s a whole lot easier to get caught up in the marketing tactic du jour.

So, how do you formulate a strategy? Answer these three questions and get everyone on your team aligned around the answers. If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you’re not ready to start implementing tactics. Doing so can cause all sorts of problems:

1) Why do we do what we do?

This is the age old mission question. Until you can get very clear about the one overarching purpose for your organization, things will always seem a bit muddy. When you can grab onto your “why” you have the basis for every decision you make and a thread that can define your branding and positioning and you will be successful in building a vibrant group of clients around your organization.

Ponder this question for a moment as it might help bring some clarity: What is joyful to you about the result your organization brings a client? There are many variations on this one, but it might help your get started. Perhaps the greatest challenge with purpose and mission is that it can’t be faked. You can’t copy it; it simply is what you stand for – so dig deep on this one!

2) Who do we do it for?

The tricky part about this one is that the answer should be as narrow as possible. If you nailed the first answer above, know that some percentage of the world out there won’t be attracted to your why – and that’s okay. Now your job as a marketer is to go even narrower and start really understanding who you can help and who gets the most value from your unique approach.

Look to your best clients. Find the commonality in this group and you should be able to develop a very narrow ideal client profile that entails both physical description and ideal behavior.

A secondary element of this answer applies to your team. Who fits your why, your culture? Who can come to your organization with the mindset to serve your mission?

3) What do we do that’s both unique and remarkable?

The last piece of the puzzle is about what you do. But, it’s not simply about defining what business you are in. That’s important to understand, but more important is to find and communicate how what you do is unique in a way that your ideal client finds remarkable. In a way, that allows you to stand apart from everyone else that say they do the same things as you do. i.e your unique selling proposition (USP)

This isn’t as simple as it might sound. Most organizations don’t fully understand what their audience truly value. It’s not necessarily a better product or good service. Those fall under the category of expectation and everyone can and usually claim them. The difference is in the details, the little things you do, the way you do it, how you treat your clients, how you make them feel. It’s in the surprises, the things that exceed their expectations.

Go talk to your clients, they know what you do that’s unique. Listen carefully and don’t be afraid to embrace the little things you do, that’s where you are different in a way that matters. Source


As you are reading this blog you may be asking why you would want to contract someone to help you with your marketing strategy. Good question! But I would ask why hire an architect or engineer to help design a building or bridge, why not just hire the construction crew and start building. You save a lot of money and you can get your building or bridge up quickly.

Now can you imagine anyone building a bridge or building without a plan? Of course not, but in our world of marketing and communications we see organizations spending thousands (sometimes millions) of dollars on marketing and communications without a proper marketing strategy or plan. Frankly the best investment a marketer or communicator can make is working with someone who understands the marketing and communications business and can craft a strategy so that your tactics fit into a plan with measurable objectives, segmentation plan, etc.

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

Most marketing firms are tactics-focused. They will sell you new tactics for attracting clients or “‘increasing conversions.” Those things are great, but only if you already feel like your marketing is in the right place, and just needs more fuel. If you experiencing that “sinking feeling,” and you know what I am talking about if you are, then you need something more than some new tactics. The Centre of Excellence for Public Sector Marketing is a strategy focused marketing firm who work with government, non-profit and member based organizations and we would love to help you with your marketing challenges.

One of the hardest things to do is pulling back to objectively look at your organization and build a strategy that will help you get results. If this is something you need help with contact us. This is what we do every day for organizations just like yours and we would be happy to help you.


Why Charitable Foundations need to be Extra Careful with Partnerships

In 2012, I wrote a blog on breast cancer and the Susan G. Komen Foundation. The pink ribbon carries a lot of associations—women’s health, breast cancer, all types of runs, pink clothing on football players etc.

But in a prominent fight between breast cancer charity, the Susan G. Komen Foundation and women’s health organization Planned Parenthood, the ribbon was suddenly associated with controversy in an area which makes no sense except in the fanatical right-to-life world in the USA where the anti-abortion movement is very strong. What happened was the breast cancer charity decided to pull hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to Planned Parenthood, citing a congressional investigation over whether Planned Parenthood uses federal funds for abortions. Planned Parenthood in turn accused the Komen Foundation of having “succumbed to political pressure.”

The move immediately incited backlash in the media and online, but the charity’s communications strategy and response was roundly criticized. Komen was slow to respond online — and when it did, it changed its message numerous times. First, it cited a policy stating that it doesn’t provide funding to organizations under investigation. After critics were quick to equate that to a political move aimed at appeasing right-wing donors, Komen changed tacks and said the real reason was actually related to the fact that Planned Parenthood doesn’t actually administer screenings but hands out referrals for mammograms. See my blog

Well here we go again. They are now under fire for its partnership with Baker Hughes, one of the world’s largest oilfield services, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. According to the Huffington Post, Baker Hughes announced it would paint 1,000 of its gold drill bits pink to “serve as a reminder of the importance of supporting research, treatment, screening, and education to help find cures for this disease.” Source


San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Action “thanked Susan G. Komen and Baker Hughes for partnering on the most ludicrous piece of pink sh*t they’ve seen all year—1,000 shiny pink drill bits.” The organization said the partnership is “the most egregious example of ‘pink-washing’ they’ve ever seen,” noting that toxic fracking chemicals are linked to breast cancer.

Will this become a full-out crisis that will significantly damage their reputation and relationships with donors and supporters? Hard to say, but clearly this was a poor choice in selecting a partner. It’s not the first time the Foundation has come under fire and it most likely won’t be the last. What matters more from a reputational point of view is how true they stay to their declared set of values and priorities.


Branding… the most important component of a Marketing or Communications Strategy

As markets become more competitive, and clients become more demanding, organizations must work harder to secure their fundamental relationships. Building distinctive relationships with their clients and stakeholders is what branding is about, whatever the market, whoever the client. The brand is the marketer’s most advanced emotional tool. It combines and reinforces the functional and emotional benefits of the offering, adding value, encouraging consumption and loyalty.  A good brand facilitates recognition, makes a promise, and, provided the full marketing and communications back-up is in place, delivers satisfaction.

Branding in the commercial sector is pervasive and fairly easy to understand and recognize. However, branding in non-profit and government is not as common but is becoming more popular because of its ability to create visibility effectively and ensure memorability. Many people who work in the public and not-for-profit sectors are hesitant to  recognize that they face stiff competition and fail to see the need to put an emphasis on branding. However, this view is slowly changing as more leaders in these sectors are recognizing that they are in a competitive market with limited funding. This realization highlights the fact that strategic identity and branding can significantly help organizations achieve increased program awareness, utilization and satisfaction, and most important improved funding.

Branding facilitates consensus building within your organization. Focusing on “them, not us” will lead to great collaboration among organization members. Communication silos are often a challenge that members of public sector and non-profit organizations face; branding will help break down the silos within your organization.

The main driver for this growing acceptance of branding in government and the non-profit sector is the overall communications environment today. More groups compete for people’s attention. Today marketers and communicators are faced with as many as 4,000 marketing messages per day; 15 to 20 years ago it was less than half that amount. The competition is for attention and retention of your message.

Branding gets attention, cuts through the clutter and allows you to develop relationships with audiences. But while much emphasis has been placed on branding, all but a few projects fall flat. For governments and the non-profit sector it is a more complex and difficult issue to brand than the private sector.  In government, branding is made harder because of complex reporting structures, bureaucracy and decision-making.  In the non-profit sector there is less bureaucracy but boards of  directors and stakeholders have been known to get in the way of good branding practice.

What makes the difference between an average brand and a great one?  An average brand becomes a great brand by living  its values; that is the key ingredient. For a brand to come to life with target audiences, the organization must be internally aligned to deliver the brand promise through the organization’s culture, reward systems, activities and structure.

Best Practices 

Commonalities among organizations that have implemented successful branding strategies include:

  • Effective use of internal communications e.g. intranet to raise staff morale and commitment through the shared beliefs and vision.
  • Providing management and staff with a deeper understanding of the brand promise and the behaviours and values the promise demands – and educate them to adapt their behaviour.
  • Enabling all staff, to understand how their own activities and responsibilities contribute to delivering the brand promise to the target audience(s).
  • Changing organizational policies, e.g., recruitment, training, rewards & incentives so that the organization is also behaving in line with its brand promise.
  • When staff understand and accept that the values are genuine, they align their attitudes and behavior to the brand values. The result is greater satisfaction for both the people interacting with the organization and staff who work in the organization.

Making Branding Work       

Branding programs only works if the priorities of the relationships permeate an organization and its culture. Brands are about people and everyone who works for the organization are part of the marketing and branding team. Brands are carriers of trust, so what an organization wants its target audiences to believe is realized by how well its words and deeds match audience needs and expectations. Making brand promises and creating brand images and expectations are ultimately of no value without the internal practices and attitudes to deliver the promise.

Brand is much more than a visual identity or a tagline: it’s a core business tool, a strategic platform for both communicating and building value for the organization among its audiences.  A brand contains within it the complete value that the organization delivers, a relevant promise that matters to its audiences and aligns with the organizations strategic and operational goals.

Branding is seen as a strategic investment in the organization. It can lead to an improved ability to communicate and internalize organizational vision and mission; a well-conceived and communicated brand provides clear and easy to understand sets of principles that help guide management decisions and operations. If used strategically a brand can be a very key asset for the organization and have a major impact on how the organization is seen by both the key target audiences and stakeholders.

A brand is the raison d’être of an organization. It is  as a combination of both tangible benefits and the intangible values, associations and expectations attached to the organization– it is the “meaning” or “promise” triggered by seeing or hearing the organization’s name.


There is a very popular misconception that brand building is synonymous with large budgets and major marketing efforts.  While a successful branding effort certainly does require “communicating” the brand to target audiences and key stakeholders, it necessitates much more than a significant advertising or communications investment.  It’s not necessarily how much is spent on communications, but the consistency of effort over time. Having different messages and designs from various parts of the organizations as well as lack of consistency in its online communications is antithetical to good branding practices.

Most successful branding efforts start with the development of a sound strategy and plan that takes into account the organizations mandate, staff input, and target audience perceptions. The branding process action plan includes internal and external research, the development of potential branding models/platforms, validation of proposed direction with target audiences and staff, and finally a short and long term implementation plan for “communicating” and supporting the brand    both externally and internally. In addition, like any strategy, the impact of the brand strategy needs to be monitored and adjusted as required.

To find out how branding works and how to build a brand in government and nonprofit sectors; Check out:

  • Guide to Branding in the Public and Non Profit Sectors
  •  Or you can purchase our Introduction to Branding for Non-Profits and Public      Sector Organizations Workbook.
  • All of these resources can be found on   CEPSM.ca
  •  We also give customized internal workshops on branding ( contact: JimMintz@cepsm.ca  or ClaireMills @cepsm.ca)