The reasons for undertaking a B2B marketing strategy and planning exercise are well established but too often I have seen the result sitting on a shelf somewhere gathering dust.
The lack of an effective B2B marketing strategy and plan can result in lost opportunities and a long term decline in business. Without the market analysis that is a key pillar of any strategic process market changes can catch a business unawares with potentially catastrophic results.
Too many marketing plans are poorly constructed and a complete waste of time and money. It is easy to get bogged down in detail and miss the overall picture. This post outlines some tips on how to maintain focus on what matters.
B2B Marketing Strategic Planning – The Theory
In theory, B2B marketing strategy matches an organisations resources and capabilities with its objectives. It considers the restrictions imposed by the environment in which the business operates.
At its most basic level, a strategy is a means to get from point A (now) to the desired point B (the future). A solid B2B marketing strategy should deliver control and focus. It should deliver a series of targets and sub-plans that permeate down through an organisation. All great in principle but:
Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (A mid 19th century Prussian General) said “no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy” (paraphrased)
Eisenhower said “plans are useless but planning is everything”
And Mike Tyson said “everybody has a plan until they take a punch in the mouth”
For the record, I am a great fan of B2B marketing strategy but to blindly stumble into the process is a mistake. First, let’s look at some of the problems with the B2B marketing strategic planning process before suggesting a possible solution.
The Problem With Strategic Plans In B2B Markets
A business may assume if we do A then B will naturally unfold but the real world of business is populated by people and they do not always act in a way that is predictable, or logical.
A more realistic plan could be based on if A happens we do B or if C happens we do D but what happens if several issues do not fall into place as expected. People, markets and the world in general is unpredictable.
People issues and change management are one of the main reasons strategy fails. Everyone should see the potential benefits of change. People need to understand the what and why or they are unlikely to come along for the ride.
Start With A Thorough Market Analysis
Most marketing plans fail because the marketing analysis is performed without sufficient detail or with bias. If focus is maintained and analysis is performed correctly then, in theory, the rest of the B2B strategic marketing and planning process should flow without major problems.
Market analysis is the foundation on which all good strategic plans are based. However, there are three main problems
- Failure to allocate sufficient time and resources to the process.
- Lack of focus.
- A blinkered view.
An appropriate analysis is time-consuming and, let’s face it, not very exciting. The time and effort allocated to the process are often significantly less than it should be. To stress again, failure to analyse the situation will only ensure the B2B strategic planning process is built on sand.
Given the complexity of the analysis task, it is easy to lose focus on what is important to follow through to a conclusion and what is not. While it is vital to allocate sufficient time to the analysis process, it is also important to avoid blind alleys with no relevance.
It is important to keep an open mind at all times and not make broad assumptions. It is all too easy to think, of course we know who our competition is. We know our key markets and our target customer base is clear, but are they? Throw away any preconceived ideas and assumptions.
Construct An Outline Plan
At a top-level briefly answering some key questions can bring a process that is starting to wander back on track. Key questions to ask include:
What basic product/service does the business provide?
- Why are those products/services needed?
- Who needs them and why?
- Who else can satisfy that need?
- Why should a potential customer pick this business and not a competitor?
Some basic numbers are a starting point. What is the growth target? From which market segments? What is the current position? What is the sales gap we need to fill?
It is then important to draft out several possible paths (scenarios) to get from where the business is now to where it wants to be. These scenarios should include well-defined target customer groups or segments.
B2B markets are complex. Although there are some problems with generic strategies Porters competitive strategies do deliver a useful starting point. Porter stated there were three basic ways a business can achieve a sustainable competitive advantage as follows:
- Cost leadership
He also argued businesses need to avoid a mix of the above and make a firm decision on the single option they wish to pursue.
Provided a business can maintain industry standard pricing then if it can achieve overall cost leadership it will be among the better performers in its market segment. Cost leadership is based on taking every opportunity to drive out the cost to become the lowest-cost producer in the market.
As the name implies a differentiation strategy is based on delivering a unique offering of real value to buyers. Differentiation involves charging a premium price. Businesses that successfully employ this tactic are above average performers but, to be a success, the offer must deliver distinct advantages over anything else available in the marketplace.
Finally, a focus strategy is based on selecting a few market sectors (excluding all others) and delivering a specific offering of interest to those specific sectors alone. With a basic understanding of the issues and general ways forward it is possible to move on to the next stage.
In stable markets, the standard marketing planning process can work well. But markets are increasingly turbulent and a rigid process is of little use. The plan is unable to adapt fast enough to cope with rapidly developing circumstances. Market and competitor analysis remains a vital starting point, but any planning based on that analysis must be adaptable.