Strategic Thinking

At the heart of all marketing work, if it's going to be successful, must be strategy. A lack of understand of this basic fact is behind why a significant percentage of marketing initiatives fail.

There’s been a number of different definitions of marketing proposed over the years. From McCarthy's 4 Ps to Shimizu's 4 Cs, to Econsultancy’s M3 model, everyone has a slightly different conception of what it is.

So keeping with our rule of defining before we unpack, before we get into talking about marketing strategy and how it can be used to deliver better CX, let’s examine what we mean by marketing strategy.

Marketing strategy is planning the following things:

  1. Objectives are for the next 12-36 months;
  2. How to compete and win in chosen areas of the market to achieve the objectives set;
  3. How your organisation and its offering will be shown as distinct and differentiated to the audience;
  4. Which comms channels and messages to use to communicate with potential and current consumers;
  5. How your organisation will deliver the work all these entail.

There’s obviously more to marketing than just these five elements; we could get into the weeds about segmentation, targeting and positioning, pricing theory and optimisation using conjoint analysis or analytic hierarchy process, different methods of tackling distribution and creating positive experiences of a brand... But for now, we’ll stick to the planning part, since we’re looking at strategy. Which means planning how to execute on those five pieces.

Marketing strategy is: objective setting; planning how to compete and win; making your offering distinct and different; comms planning and organisational change management

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For the first, this means having a strategic plan for positioning and development of immediately recognisable brand assets, such as the logo, colours, iconography, store design and so on. For the second, we’d look at comms strategy and positioning, and for the final part, we plan how we’re going to execute in a way that makes it hard for competitors to do what we’re doing. That might mean by creating a moat around your organisation, it might be through having hard to replicate IP, or through pricing and so on. But in some way, you must be challenging to attack.

With that in mind, let’s have a look at how we go about creating a marketing strategy which delivers great customer experience.

Objective Setting

The foundation of all strategy is objective setting; the articulation of a goal or intended position for an organisation at a point in the future. After all, strategy is all about who in the market you’ll aim to convert, and how you’ll go about it. Thus without knowing what the objective(s) is/are, and having them set out usefully, no action taken can be judged against any other. As a result, everything becomes a possible method of achieving the end goal.

For this reason, we highly recommend that objectives are expressed and measured against the SMART criteria:

  • Specific: objectives should be given in a single, clear, simple, falsifiable format.
  • Measurable: all objectives must have relevant KPIs attached, along with success and failure criteria for measuring if the KPI has been moved in a useful way.
  • Achievable: objectives should be challenging, but doable within the time frame specified.
  • Realistic: any objective should be defined solely by its outcome, with no inclusion of any tactic or method for achieving it. It’s solely a statement of a goal.
  • Time-bound: finally, any objective must have a target date for it to be reached by.

Any objective which doesn’t meet these five criteria risks doing more harm than good. For example, an objective with a KPI but no success or failure criteria risks being gamed, producing the right movement in the measurement, but for no useful gain. Goals which are unrealistic will just demotivate the team as time passes, and equally a goal with no end date can be left because it’ll never become a priority.

This is also why it’s important that there’s ideally one, and never more than three objectives for a year. If there are more, they aren’t big enough, and if there isn’t one, there’s no way to measure the progress made in any period of time. After all, it’s easy to post-hoc rationalise anything that’s been done, by finding a measure which says it was the right thing to do.

For the same reason, objectives shouldn’t be set by sales, profit, revenue, or turnover. Instead, they should focus on the customer journey. Those can all act as KPIs, but the aim should always be to improve part of the marketing mix, to develop the path to purchase.

The final part of why we set objectives first is that it gives us a clear way to decide what we’re not going to do. Strategy is all about decision-marking. Interestingly, the root of the word decision is the Latin decisio, itself coming from de (off) and caedere (to cut). The act of deciding is literally cutting off other options, and so it is with strategy. When we decide what we’re going to do, we’re also therefore deciding everything we will not do. Objectives make those decisions simpler, by ensuring we’ve got a target to measure each option against, to then choose which have the best chance of helping to meet the goal.

As a result, your objectives might be something like “increase purchase consideration and intention by 10%”, or “engage 25-40 year old users on social media to improve brand awareness and positive sentiment by 15%”, or “move our brand to be perceived as a luxury purchase with greater value by 40% of our current customer base”. Things we can usefully measure options against.

The Who and How of Competition

The second part of strategy is, as we mentioned earlier, who in the market you’ll aim to convert and how you’ll go about it. This means understanding who exists as a potential customer in the market, what they’re like, where they’re located, what attributes of the offering they value, which channels they interact with and how they view themselves. It also means evaluating different tactics against the stated objective(s) and the business model and organisation strengths, not planning in with an idea in mind of how to tackle the challenge.

This is known as market orientation; understanding that you know less than nothing about the market you're in, and starting with research. By simply being in the business of selling to a market, you're already biased in ways which make you estimate incorrectly about that market. As such, you should be doing online and offline ethnographic research before you plan how to do anything. Aim to understand meta-motivators behind why people purchase. Using the old example of people don't buy drill bits, they buy holes, you can take this one step further and say they're buying a tool to help put up a shelf so they can put up pictures of their grandchildren. Simply selling ways of putting holes in walls isn't necessarily useful. You can't sell a sledgehammer to someone who needs a 5mm masonry bit.

People don't buy drill bits or holes; they buy a tool to help put up a shelf. Learn to understand customer's meta-motivators before planning marketing strategy

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Think of Cirque du Soleil. When Cirque launched, circus revenues were (and remain) in decline. The offering across most circus groups was pretty comparable, and decreasing in its attractiveness to modern audiences, who viewed animal acts as out-dated and often inhumane, and the content as irrelevant in modern times. Worse, from a business perspective, animal acts are expensive. Vet bills, transport costs, feed and training, and specialist animal handlers all make those acts costly.

When they looked at the potential audience for live entertainment for a circus-type product, only three elements from the traditional circus concept resonated - clowns, acrobats, and the tent. So the clowns became beautiful, with a far higher-end production value to the costuming. The acrobats were set as the centre of the productions, with a single narrative built which all the acts became a part of, drawing from the concepts of ballet and opera. And the venues would have to be incredible, with musical scores written specifically for the performances.

By creating something with a far higher level of perceived quality, geared specifically to a modern audience, going only for the mid to higher end consumer, Cirque created something new. Its competitors became other higher-priced nights out, like the ballet, opera, musicals and West-End/Broadway theatre, rather than other circuses. Today, the organisation employs more than 4,000 people, and generates revenues of over $800 million a year. By understanding the market, both in terms of customers and competitors, and finding product which competitors couldn’t match, they changed the circus forever.

All strategic work builds from the objective by this same process of research of the market and the organisation, and definition of possible options for winning. Then when evaluating options against each other, we ask a simple question: what would have to be true, for this choice to work?

Once we understand what the world would have to look like for each choice to be sound, we an evaluate whether those conditions are, in fact, true, through research and testing.

With the results of those tests, we have useful evidence for whether the conditions identified hold up or not, and so we can root out options which cannot work, and go ahead with those which may indeed generate the desired gains to hit our objectives.

Differentiation and Distinctiveness

At this point, it’s worth taking a moment to look at how an option is generated. All good marketing aims to create an organisation which is differentiated against competitors through positioning, and distinctive in its brand assets. Think back to Cirque - its product is distinctly positioned not just against traditional circuses, but also against the broader category of live shows, and differentiated through its branding and unique OOH advert style.

The same is true when we consider how people interact with brands online. Whether it’s through an advert or reading a blog post, purchasing a product or browsing a social media channel, most interactions will last as short a time as possible to reduce friction. However, that means rushing people through what they’re doing, lowering the time they’re engaging with the brand and absorbing the messaging we want to convey.

Add in to this that most brands lack strong brand salience, we end up with a need to create a brand which is immediately recognisable. If the customer doesn’t realise it’s you they’re dealing with, especially in the area of comms, then it doesn’t matter how useful or emotive or anything else the touchpoint is, it’s not going to add to their perception of your brand.

This is why we should always strive to create an experience of a brand which is both distinctive and consistent in look and feel, and in how brand assets are presented. Every piece of material an organisation puts out should look like it came from the brand, and not a competitor, to reinforce who it is that the consumer is interacting with.

This is why you shouldn’t simply use Google’s Material Design framework or Bootstrap or similar for your brand design language. Yes, it’s beautiful and lovely, but it also looks like everything else out there, not least of which is Google. If your digital presence looks and feels like other people, then it doesn’t look and feel like you. It’s not distinctive.

Now let’s think about differentiation a little too. This is more about the product or service you offer. Many people have said over the past ten years that it’s nearly impossible to have a differentiated product in a market - in many ways they’re not wrong. It’s hard to think of a category which doesn’t have more than one active player in it, and thus it’s hard to find a category where you haven’t got choice in the market. Which means there must be overlap between products. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t be different. Just that it’s hard.

So how do we create a differentiated product? Firstly, as mentioned in the last section, we start with research. We go out and learn about the market. Then we segment the whole into groups of users, turn those into personas based on traits of groups, and evaluate how attractive each persona is from a business perspective. Finally, we use systems like conjoint analysis to understand what the personas in question value, so we can position the product or service to that market effectively.

The classic example of this is Dove. At its core, there’s nothing fundamentally different about Dove to its competition. It’s soap. Just soap with some moisturiser. There’s nothing there that a competitor couldn’t come along and replicate easily. Thus the challenge is to turn that minor differentiation into a major one. From the 60’s onwards, Dove was positioned as a cream more than a soap, so it was gentle on your skin and didn’t dry it out. Move forward to the 2000’s onwards, and that wasn’t going to cut it. So Unilever took the decision to re-position Dove, and rather than it being about moisture, they were going to stand for beauty in all its forms.

However, as Les Binet and Peter Field have shown in their research on advertising effectiveness (The Long and The Short of It from 2013 and Effectiveness in Context from 2018), it’s not simply enough to work on brand purpose. Over time, that will deliver greater returns than short term sales activation work, but over a short time, marketing designed to bump sales will give greater ROI. That’s why we need both parts to deliver the greatest long term results.

When Dove built their strategy, they didn’t just do the positioning work on showing how they, as an organisation, were different. They also executed through traditional product ads as well, showing how Dove’s mission to celebrate real beauty and be different to other soap brands was reflected in a product which was different, focusing on the old product benefit of being gentle on skin. Distinctive brand assets, with a differentiated product, promoted through a differentiated brand. Which brings us on to...

Comms for Brand Awareness and Affinity

There’s two elements to any successful brand, when we think about the longer term brand-building side of marketing. The first is awareness, ensuring the consumer knows that you exist at all. After all, you can’t create CX if the consumer never shows up. The second part is affinity - every interaction delivers an experience, and our aim is to deliver experiences which build a positive brand impression. Which all starts with having a strategy informed by data.

Research First, Everything Else Later

When it comes to building awareness and affinity, we have to start with data, which means doing research. We believe that it should be both qualitative and quantitative - after all, without the qual, you don’t know what quant to look at. Our pre-strategic planning research has one aim in mind: understanding how the brand is currently perceived, who’s seeing and engaging with it, who doesn’t, and why. That gives us the information we need to set a target, define the position for the brand, and set objectives for the strategy.

Remember, distinctiveness and differentiation are about creating a brand that looks like itself, and has a product or service which sits in the market in a unique position. But brand awareness and affinity is about how the organisation itself is positioned, how that relates to the offering, and why it’s preferable to the competition.

How to do that research varies from campaign to campaign, but the objectives are always the same. You’re looking to understand four key things:

  1. What does the average consumer think about us?
  2. What do our brand loyalists love about our offering, versus the competition?
  3. What do our competitors loyalists love about those offerings, against what we provide?
  4. When people are considering a purchase, what’s the journey they go through, and how are they evaluating the options available?

Once we’ve done our research and we understand the nature of the challenge we’re facing, the next part is to set the target and define the position and objectives. Let’s look at each of those in turn.


If we understand the challenge that faces our brand in the market, then we should understand who we need to talk to to fix it. First though, a little theory. Increasingly there’s an understanding that targeting comes in two flavours, and both are required for marketing to be effective.

Firstly, we have to have marketing that resonates with the average consumer. This is mass market, emotive, brand affinity and awareness building in nature. The second is targeting on activating a specific segment within the market. The former builds likelihood to purchase when the need for the offering arises, whilst the latter converts a set from the consumer who needs what you do now.

With the former, obviously we’re talking to the category as a whole, so the target is the entire market. But with the latter, where we’re after specific sales activation, we need to talk to a smaller group. That might be drilled down by psychographics, demographics, or firmographics, or it might be through customer journey stage or recency of engagement or something else entirely. But in some way, we select a group of users to convert, which will have a measurable, significant, tangible effect against our identified issue.


Next we look at how to position the brand. This means looking at the positions of the other actors in the marketplace, the brand attributes we already have which can be leveraged, and the target market and what they might respond to (based on our research findings).

The aim here is to position the brand in a way which is different to the competition (playing into the brand distinctiveness and product differentiation), and which resonates in the mind of the consumer. Going back to our earlier example of Dove, that meant not being about cleanliness, but also caring about and championing honesty about beauty and its portrayal in media, and how that affects women. Have their adverts always been perfect? No. Do lots of people dislike them? Yes. But people will dislike any creative you make, so don’t worry about it. Polarising is good, bland is awful.

Dove’s campaign kicked off with the now famous ad Evolution, showing the power of make-up and Photoshop to create an unrealistic goal for women when it comes to their looks. It continued with ads like Real Beauty Sketches and product marketing with the Beauty Diversity bottles.

Owning a specific position, which no-one else in the market had tried to go for, gave the brand significant advantage when it came to executing, as no-one else was competing for that position. And after more than 20 years going after the same position, they’ve made the brand almost unassailable in that space.

Moats and Maintenance

For our final outing in marketing strategy, we come to the ultimate goal of all marketing - creating competitive advantage. There’s a number of ways that can be achieved.


  • Create a brand which is more mentally available than your competition
  • Have better CAC (customer acquisition cost)
  • Generate better retention and CLTV numbers.


  • Build an offering which is hard to replicate
  • Be the first to market and gain early mover advantage
  • Defend yourself through legal measures.


  • Generate advantages through scale and size
  • Build cash reserves to allow buy time to adapt when change occurs
  • Have capacity planning to ensure you can ramp up or down when needed.

All of these nine things are ways of creating a competitive advantage, and none are better or worse than the others. Indeed, creating any of these necessarily affects the others. Building brand equity means spending cash reserves, having early mover advantage creates risk in going to market in an unproven area, creating legal barriers to entry through, for example, patents, creates its own set of issues.

What matters isn’t the specific implementation, but in the creation of some form of defensible moat around your organisation, which you can use to protect yourself from both established competitors and new, disruptive entrants.

The challenge in creating these and delivering on an identified strategy should be obvious: the organisation you need to win will likely not be exactly the one you have now. As a result, it’s important to map the core competencies of your organisation as it stands against what’s required to execute effectively. That can be used to create a map for moving from where you are to where you need to be, and for implementing and managing the change required.

Let’s look at a few examples of successful businesses executing this way, using good marketing strategy to deliver excellent customer experiences, and see what we can learn.

Consider the Following

EasyJet - 2014

Back a few years ago, EasyJet faced a basic problem. Where they’d traditionally been one of a very small group of airlines offering cheap airfares, the market had become saturated with new carriers who were able to out-compete the brand on its prices, whilst the more traditionally pricey brands had started to lower prices too. As a result, they found themselves stuck in a tough middle-ground, unable to attract a customer after a cheap flight, but not getting the more expensive customer, due to being perceived as a cheap brand.

The strategy was simple - cut costs, and go after higher average net worth customers, who’d be likely to have higher secondary spend values, improving margins.

This was something that couldn’t be achieved using direct response comms methods, or through traditional SEO or digital execution; they rely too much on the existing brand impression to work effectively. As a result, EasyJet had to change its brand positioning to reach the new target consumer. At the same time, they couldn’t do that whilst also breaking the business by not appealing to the current customer.

The first part was to reinforce a culture internally of zero waste. Every purchase decision was scrutinised to look at how costs could be saved, as long as it didn’t come at the expense of safety. However, the big savings had to come from creating greater ROMI (return on marketing investment).

In doing this, the number of digital display ad partners was cut from seven to three, reducing duplication massively and saving more than £2m in the UK alone. All through just removing duplication. Next, they did what any sensible business does and stopped PPC spend on brand terms. Unsurprisingly, people searching on branded terms weren’t going to a competitor, and whilst the PPC numbers looked great, all that happened was it stole performance from already existing organic rankings, which the brand had anyway. That saved another £4m.

That saved budget then got put into a brand building campaign, to move the position from being the people you use when you’ve got no money, to the people you fly with when you want to experience life. That meant TV, backed up with digital media spend, to get the brand position out there.

The campaign was hugely successful, creating a brand which appealed far more broadly and attracted new consumers who did indeed spend more. It delivered a return of 17:1 on marketing spend, and planted a flag in the sand for what the company would try to stand for in the future.

The strategy we see here was simple - firstly, look at where the spend is going and fix where it’s wasteful. Then look at the brand perception and market position, and adjust it to make it competitive, through targeting higher net worth individuals. Finally, differentiate the product against other airlines, to sit in a more unique spot, whilst using the distinctive brand assets (the particular orange they’re known for, the Easy logo and so on) to tie the new perception to the existing brand.

John Lewis - 2012

John Lewis is, in my mind, one of the most interesting British brands. Given the towering presence it has in the mind of the UK consumer, it’s actually quite a small organisation in terms of retail presence. It has relatively few stores, most of which have opened in the last ten years. Compared to competitors M&S and Debenhams, it's a minnow in terms of high street presence.

Pre-2008, the marketing for John Lewis was much like you’d think of for any high street retailer. Product focused, rational purchase decision based, and mostly print and TV. Appealing to the consumer making a considered choice in their buying decisions. That started to change in 2007 and ‘08, when the marketing team began to re-position the brand through emotional advertising. The first steps were pretty tentative. That didn’t last.

When the financial crisis came in ‘08 and ‘09, the high street suffered badly, and John Lewis was no exception. Sitting as a moderately premium brand, targeting a middle income consumer which simply didn’t exist, something radical was required to keep the organisation in existence.

The objective was to reach a broader audience of consumers, and to increase visitor frequency to the store, by softening the brand image and increasing recall. So the team, in conjunction with their agency partners Adam & Eve, created the brand’s 2009 Christmas ad. It ran in three formats (70, 30 and 10 seconds), and launched the “John Lewis Christmas ad” phenomenon. Their most recent, with Elton John, has racked up more than 13m views just on YouTube. The ad from 2013, The Bear and the Hare, more than 40m.

The real genius though was carrying this through to all their advertising. In my mind, the best example of this was the “Never Knowingly Undersold” ad from 2009; one of the most beautifully conceived and perfectly targeted adverts ever created. It also marked a shift in the organisation's advertising strategy, from one built around the brand and its product, to something far less tangible: the brand's promise. To be with you, unchanging and traditional, holding to old values, like "Never Knowingly Undersold", forever. Whether they can live up to it remains to be seen, in today's much-changed retail environment. Nevertheless, it's a stunning piece of work.

The success is clear to see. Whilst most of the high street has suffered badly in the years since 2006, John Lewis, whilst not being unaffected, still exists and returns a profit, despite everything. Which is more than you can say for its much of its competition.

Audi - 2018

Lest you think that this is just old news and doesn’t work anymore, here’s a more up-to-date example.

Over the past few years, Audi had had a challenging time. Perceived as one of a few “German car makers”, and with a brilliant but old strapline, there was a need to re-connect with consumers. The company had good low-value sales, but the higher-priced, more exclusive and profitable models languished against their rivals. The objective was simple - make Audi’s premium vehicles an aspirational purchase for high net worth consumers again, and grow intention for the brand for purchase consideration in the target market.

Marketing partner BBH decided the way forward would be to focus on the intelligence of the technical innovations in Audi’s luxury segment, using emotive, and brilliantly creative messaging.

With a raft of excellently produced media, including the sublime 2017 ad “Clowns”, the brand’s premium sales grew at 3x the the UK market average for the segment. The campaign had a ROMI of 2.07, with an estimated £1.78 billion of incremental value generated from 2015-17, and CLTV up 6%.

With continuing ads like 2017’s Snow, 2018’s Dream, and the endlessly entertaining Escape, and 2019’s Synchronised Swim, they continue to deliver brilliant creative, which is on brand, and builds on the brand promise of brains and beauty. It’s not just ads though. The same creative ideas is backed up in print, through web media and radio.

As always, the strategy comes first. A great strategy, with brilliant creative execution across varied media and channels, will always deliver results.