The only strategic decision in marketing

Chances are: you’ve failed to make it.

Every manager faces the daily crucible of decision-making. From small decisions about the language in an email to larger ones about product development, you face constant pressure to make determinations about your company’s future. And you probably define a great number of these decisions as “strategic.”

In Harvard Business Review, Phil Rosenzweig defines a strategy as the “most important and most difficult decisions … with consequences for the performance of the company,” and proposes a number of ways to improve strategic decision-making. This arbitrary standard for a strategic decision leads to a wide variety of decisions being erroneously labeled as such. One person might set the bar for a strategic decision as low as anything thoughtfully considered. Another might define it as any decision that materially affects the future of the business. I propose a simpler definition, courtesy of a friend of mine at McKinsey:

Strategy is any decision that can’t be undone. Everything else is tactical.

Many questions that go beyond the usual day-to-day thinking we consider tactics are reversible, and don’t warrant the weight of strategy. No facet of your business is guilty of liberally defining their work as strategic than marketing.

Despite the prevalence of the phrase “strategic marketing,” there is only one element of marketing that is strategic: the story your brand chooses to tell.

Your brand’s story defines you in the eyes of your audience: prospects, customers, employees, and potential partners. It’s not what your business does, but rather why you do it and the emotion you inspire with those you connect with. Whether you have given it deliberate thought or not, your brand has a story and it’s told through every interaction you have with the public.

Yet marketers — even “strategic marketers” — often think in the pedagogy of campaigns. Campaigns are by nature tactical: they exist to achieve a defined objective. That’s why so few campaigns work. Marketers think about a campaign as an independent being with a strategy of its own, rather than a tactical application of your brand’s one strategic marketing decision: its story.

You ought to be thinking of your campaigns as derivative of your story, not as independent stories in and of themselves.

A great example of this comes from Woden’s hometown of Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported a few years ago how Steven Singer Jewelers rode their “I Hate Steven Singer” campaign to a dominant position in the city’s jewelry industry. Despite that campaign’s success, it has proved difficult to evolve. The campaign has been running for 14 years, and its current iteration (implying that competitors like Zales and Tiffany also hate Steven Singer) lacks the resonance of the original. Steven Singer won the tactical battle for attention, but has lost the long-term war as the campaigns are devoid of an underlying strategic message.

Compare that to Old Spice, who has mastered the art of unique, memorable campaigns that also tell their brand story. Old Spice was the scent my father used to wear, and one that felt old-fashioned in the early millennium’s halcyon days of AXE body spray. With the help of Wieden+Kennedy, Old Spice turned that notion on its head by evolving our father’s classic sense of masculinity into something just as authentic, but uniquely relevant to a contemporary audience. Suddenly, the man who wore Old Spice was charming, never took himself too seriously, and exuded a confident sense of manliness others aspired to. From “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” to “Smell Like A Man, Man,” Old Spice managed to develop ever-evolving tactical campaigns that preserved the core strategic story of their brand: worn by classic, confident, discerning men everywhere.

Your audience interprets your brand strategy from these inputs whether that’s your intent or not. A brand needs to consider the strategy behind its story, because if you do not, your audience will create it for you. No business can better speak to the potentially disastrous consequences of that than Macy’s.

I have written at length before about Macy’s failure to define its brand in terms beyond discounting. Audiences have come to expect another “largest ever” sale from Macy’s at all times, and in the vacuum of any other narrative, they’ve defined one for themselves: Macy’s is cheap. That interpretation is at odds with Macy’s unwillingness to commit to that message (I’m not sure what Macy’s thinks their story is, which is a testament to the clarity with which they communicate it). Walmart has a narrative of economy, but embraces it and commits to it, so their story feels authentic and tactical messaging about discounting reinforces the core story: Walmart gets your more for less.

Macy’s has evaded the strategic decision about its message, so they continue to try and execute campaigns that don’t support a wider, strategic narrative. In this void, audiences are clear about the story they hear. The problem is the brand isn’t listening.

The tactics of today’s marketing environment are more forgiving than ever. Digital, content, email, and social media marketing all permit you to test different approaches and adjust in real-time to deliver the best results. And it’s why the companies who expect to be relevant into the future are spending less time on tactics, and more time considering the only decision in marketing that can’t be undone: your brand’s story.

Strategy is any decision that can’t be undone. Everything else is tactical.