The shocking truth about marketing and strategy

This is a dangerous essay.

It’s dangerous for you, because if you only grasp it casually it will take you further away from the truth, rather than closer to it.  And it’s dangerous for me, because it risks my work being bracketed into a category which I’ve painstakingly avoided for the past 7 years.

The category I’m talking about is “marketing”.

I cringe when people describe me as a “marketing consultant” or words to that effect, because I know the assumptions this conjures in the mind.  “Marketing”, for most people, is a downstream discipline; something which takes place away from the “real” running of the business.  It’s something that (if we’re honest) many people don’t take seriously, and often for good reason.

I noted in my piece on Phil Knight’s book about the founding of Nike that he pretty much didn’t mention “marketing” once in the entire story – and this is coming from the best “marketed” brand of all time!

That’s the kind of disrespect we’re talking about.

So you can understand how someone in my position, who wants to effect transformational change at the highest level of a business, would be very careful not to be seen as a “marketing guy” – since this instantly precludes me from that.

And yet, although it threatens my carefully cultivated status, this is still a piece I want to write, because I think its implications are profound and important.

What then is the shocking truth about marketing and strategy?

That they are the same thing.

Yes, when properly understood, there is no gap between the two disciplines.  They are in fact synonymous.

This is an opinion I’ve quietly held for a long time.  The clue is in the very word “marketing”, which when you think about it means “the craft of navigating the market”.  Navigating the market is of course the fundamental activity that a business does – and choosing the direction in which to navigate is naturally the task of strategy.

Therefore you can see how based on that understanding, there is no gap there.  They are both nothing more than answering the question “where do we want to go?”.

So why then do they seem so different?

Why is the gap between everyday marketing and everyday strategy not just a crack, but a chasm?

To understand this you need to think about the two common definitions which have been applied to the terms – both of which are incomplete.

These are roughly as follows:

Marketing = how you appeal to customers
Strategy = how you get leverage over competitors

Customer focus.  And then competitor focus.

These are the basic philosophical drivers behind how most self-identified “marketers” or “strategists” think.  Marketers think “how can I get our customers to like us and buy us?”.  Strategists think “how can we outmanoeuvre our competitors in a game of chess?”.

(There’s an important caveat here, which is to recognise that people who call themselves “brand strategists”, or planners in ad agencies, or anyone like that, actually fall under the category of “marketers” and not “strategists” – for they are applying strategy to the wider marketing task.  “Strategists” for this definition are more like your McKinsey / BCG types, deciding the plays of the business as a whole.)

Now on the face of it these definitions appear perfectly adequate and acceptable, but they actually manifest in flawed application of both disciplines.

In the case of marketing:

• This explains why most of it ends up just being pretty words and pictures
• This explains why it often drives brands into highly competitive scenarios in search of customer approval
• This explains it gets siloed into comms and promo and generally fails to shape the business as a whole

In the case of strategy:

• This explains why most strategy ends up being so technical, dry, and unimaginative (not to mention all the bloody chess analogies…)
• This explains why it generally fails to fully consider the needs, emotions, and psychology of the customer
• This explains why it lacks the passion, creativity, and imagination which is necessary to build truly powerful brands

In other words what we can see here is how conventional marketing and conventional strategy are in fact two incomplete halves of the same greater whole, which is real marketing / strategy.

Real marketing / strategy can be defined by joining the two halves together:

Appealing to your customers in a manner which gives you leverage over the competition.

This means “marketing” which guides the whole business, not just comms.  Which manoeuvres against the competition.  Which creates barriers to entry.

And this means “strategy” which captures the imagination of the customer.  Which is passionate and mischievous.  Which is creative and emotional.

In other words, the exact same thing.

Now you might well ask, if this is true, why I always talk about “strategy” and rarely talk about “marketing”.  If they are both flawed and incomplete, why privilege one over the other?

The reason for this is because although conventional understanding of strategy is flawed, it is less flawed than that of marketing.  Conventional strategy has two crucial things going for it which marketing doesn’t, namely:

• People recognise it as a “whole business” discipline
• People recognise that it sits at the top of the pyramid

This means that strategy is positioned in such a way as to have a proper impact on the business – which marketing, sadly, is not.

From my position then it’s far easier to bring marketing’s “heart” to the conventional understanding of strategy, than it is to bring strategy’s “head” to the conventional understanding of marketing.

(Indeed throughout my career I have found “marketers” to be by far the most resistant audience to my ideas – presumably because my process implies a criticism of their discipline as they understand it.)

However, despite this being the angle that I’m coming from, I want to stress that the convergence of marketing and strategy can be done just as plausibly from the other direction.  If you are a marketer of some stripe you can play the same game by trying to pull strategy into marketing – just as I am trying to pull marketing into strategy.

See what I mean?

So there you have it.  That’s my confession.  And now I’ve put it out there, I’m going to bury it again for the reasons I’ve discussed.  You won’t hear the word “marketing” much more from me, I can assure you.

But between us here?

You know what I really think.  And I hope that whatever angle you’re approaching it from, you can join me on my covert quest for convergence.

Get weekly articles that will enable you to see things others don’t. 

Connect with Alex on Linkedin for daily ideas and discussion


Thank You

Check your inbox for your first mail.