Musing on Marketing

The simple difference between a strategy and a plan

Strategy. It’s the most over-used and misunderstood word in the jargon-filled world of business, and particularly in marketing. I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve sat through where a ‘strategy’ turned out to be a series of random tactics. In others, the call to ‘strategize’ was, in reality, just a plea for brainstorming some new ideas. But it’s not really surprising. After a little research, I’ve come to the conclusion that anyone who claims to fully understand the definition of strategy is probably kidding themselves. And people who find it difficult to define strategy are in the majority. To muddy the waters further, a quick trip to Wikipedia tells us that a strategy is a ‘general plan’. This is why I’ve come up with a simple definition of strategy vs. plan that works for me, and that I hope might work for you. But let’s start with some background.

Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ – an over-used, inappropriate analogy?

Over the years I’ve sat through a lot of marketing lectures about strategy. The most commonly-used analogy to explain business strategy is to compare it to war. Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’, a military strategy book written around 500 BC, is the marketing academics’ go-to work on the subject. But is this really relevant to business today? Two of the oft-quoted lessons from the book, paraphrased a little, are:

  1. Only start fights you know you can win.
  2. Deceive your enemies to make them do the wrong things.

In business, we rarely know if we can win. We can make well-researched and educated guesses, but we can’t be sure. And if we go around trying to deceive our competitors, word will get out. Trust in our brand could be irrevocably damaged. The analogy just doesn’t work for me.

More academic stuff

A deeper exploration of business strategy comes from the academic, Henry Mintzberg. Again acknowledging that a strategy is a type of plan, in 1987 he came up what he called the ‘5 Ps for Strategy‘: plan, pattern, position, perspective and ploy. He proposed that the essence of strategy is that it is long term in nature and that it involves every function in an organisation. He acknowledged that competitors need to be considered but cautioned that it’s a mistake to focus on them too much. The problem for a marketer is that Mintzberg’s intellectually fascinating insights are, to say the least, a little complex. This makes interpreting them in a way that can help with day-to-day business decisions rather difficult. And what does ‘long-term’ mean? Some industries change slowly. ‘Long-term’ might mean decades. Others, like the semiconductor business, may have to pivot frequently in response to changing customer needs or an evolving competitive environment. Just ask any AI-chip vendor.

Michael Porter’s Harvard Business Review article from 1996 entitled ‘What is Strategy‘ is, to my mind, a more useful source of reference. Like Mintzberg, Porter emphasises that strategy, in particular how a business is positioned vs. its competitors needs to permeate the whole business. I can recall numerous times when the agency has been asked to ‘reposition’ a company. But all we could ever do is communicate that company’s new positioning if they’d taken all the other necessary steps to achieve a new position. Incidentally, to understand the concept of positioning, there’s no better book to read than this marketing classic: “Positioning, the Battle for Your Mind” by Jack Trout and Al Ries. Here’s a preview.

Business strategy vs. marketing strategy

After a client meeting earlier this year, the client’s CEO asked me the difference between a business strategy and a marketing strategy. I’m so steeped in thinking about marketing that I had to pause for a moment to think about the other aspects of a business that would be included in the former but not in the latter. Finance, purchasing, manufacturing, and logistics came to mind, and there may be more. However, if companies are slow to pay their suppliers, it affects perceptions of their brand. If they buy cheap components that affect product reliability or have poor quality controls in manufacturing or are slow to deliver, reputational damage may be done. So, all of these activities have an impact on marketing and the answer is not black-and-white.

According to this blog post on, “The main difference between the business strategy and strategic marketing strategy is that the marketing strategy is in place to support the business strategy.” I’m now left wondering about the difference between a ‘strategic marketing strategy’ and a non-strategic marketing strategy! Marketers can so often be their own worst enemies when it comes to communications.

Let’s get simple

I promised you a simple definition of strategy vs. plan, so here it is:

“If I want to travel from London to New York, I need a plan. If I want to travel from London to New York faster than you, I need a strategy.”

When you boil it all down, a strategy is just a plan to achieve a defined goal within a competitive environment. You can employ a strategy for any aspect of marketing execution. Of course, the business strategy is an all-encompassing thing, but you can have a content marketing strategy, an advertising strategy, and even a Twitter strategy. The only proviso is that you have a clear objective to exceed the performance of one or more competitors in your endeavours. For that, you need to have some understanding of how well they’re doing. If you don’t, you can’t have a strategy, but you may have a plan.

If you’d like help with strategy, or planning, please get in touch.


Bob Jones

B2B marketer, entrepreneur, and engineer