Ready for a secret? The three biggest marketing questions aren’t actually marketing questions. (Sorry to disappoint.) They’re actually business questions. And while they appear to be simple questions dressed in plain clothes, in my experience, they often are the hardest for organizations to truly answer in a consistent, meaningful way.
Question #1: What is your tolerance of risk versus reward?
Do you want certain incremental progress or uncertain breakthrough potential? How does this align with financial expectations based on the nature of your organization (i.e., commitments to owners or shareholders)? Is there one answer to this question as a whole, or multiple answers based on business unit, geography, or product line? (Note: Having multiple answers should be a deliberate decision, not an accidental strategy.)
To be clear, this isn’t just a business question--it can also be filed under “organizational behavior” and “management leadership,” among others. Far too often, a single company will have over a dozen different approaches toward risk versus reward; at different levels, in different roles, for different reasons, with no cohesive thought or rationale. Inevitably, this leads to clumsy investment strategies and inefficient performance. Until an organization truly defines its risk tolerance, it is very difficult to architect a thoughtfully integrated marketing plan.
Question #2: Where is your business truly excellent?
What are we really marketing here? Does your company have the best product, the best cost, or the best solution? In other words, are you Apple, Walmart, or Amazon--and what does this mean for how you run your business (and market it as a result)? In our experience, it is very uncommon for a single organization to be good at more than one core competency.
To put a finer point on it, the best marketing initiatives are driven by strong business strategies leading to clearly defined targets, clearly defined objectives, and clearly defined strategic drivers. At the risk of being redundant, while these sound simple, it is astounding how infrequently organizations are able to marshal their resources behind a business platform where the dots all truly connect. (In all honesty, it’s even more astounding when we find a corporation where the whole of leadership is on the same page. More on that in a future column….)
Question #3: What do you really want to accomplish?
Ahh, an oldie but a goodie. The deeper and further you get into marketing planning, the deeper and further you get into priorities and trade-offs--it’s that simple. Obviously, everyone would love to have both sales and brand equity go up. And, with differentiated products, weak competitors, predictable supply chains and limitless budgets, this would be an easy task. But we all know this is not the reality of any business today.
Bottom line, this is about prioritization. At a macro level, where do you want to end up--and why? What are the most important drivers for the organization? At a micro level, how might the constituent parts of the plan individually and collectively add up to the whole? At the end of the day (and quarter, and year), what is most critical that you accomplish (or learn, as planned learning is often an essential component of marketing planning)? Answering this question effectively will drive everything from budget allocation and metrics definition to campaign design and optimization strategy.
Ernest Hemingway once said, “Never mistake motion for action.” Unfortunately, many organizations do just that. Managed by inertia, they believe that they have a clearly defined “true north” in place guiding their decisions, when it’s really just the momentum of the past carrying them into whatever direction the wind blows. In order to truly create action--in this case, strong, smart, deliberate marketing action--an organization needs to answer three big business questions in order to set the table for marketing success.