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 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.
Strategic Planning – The Theory
In theory, 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 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 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.
Build In Flexibility
One of the major reasons strategic plans are not implemented is they lack flexibility. They follow a rigid path based on assumptions about what will happen in future and what the market and competition will do in any chosen situation.
Perhaps this is the main issue that is eluded to in the above quotations. What happens when the unexpected happens? What happens if we take that ‘smack in the mouth?’ Does our plan have the flexibility to cope with changing circumstances? Or is it so rigid that it is no longer applicable to any new situation?
Eisenhower and his generals put months, perhaps years, of planning into D-Day. They probably understood little would go to plan but they at least had a basic structure in place and had communicated it to those who needed to know.
They were well aware they would need to rely on their men in the front line to modify the plan as the situation demanded. If the tanks did not turn up, or the enemy strength was more than expected the men on the ground needed to find their own way to get off the beach.
Once off the beach, those in immediate command may have lost more men and resources than expected. They may be in completely the wrong place. They may be missing the support they were promised but they would at least know what the plan required them to achieve as their next task. The detailed planning may have evaporated as soon as they hit the beach but the basic structure remained.
Perhaps Eisenhower was right. There is value in taking the time to analyse a situation. Detailed plans may be useless but studying the current situation and the various future scenarios that may come to pass is not.
People Make It Happen
After all your time and effort on analysis and planning, you could have a strong, well thought out, plan. It may have sufficient flexibility to deal with the unexpected but unless that plan can be sold to those who need to implement it and their buy-in is secured it will be a complete waste of time and effort.
The word ‘sold’ is the key term as it has to be a standard sales exercise, illustrating the benefits and quantifying ‘what is in it for them’. With buy-in secured a plan champion should be appointed. Their job should be ensuring the plan is utilized when making key business decisions.
Whatever sub plans and objectives fall out of the main plan must be progressed and followed through. That can be difficult given the many competing business priorities. Many good plans founder because once put in place they are not referred to or utilized and the business continues to bumble along as it did before.
An Adaptable Marketing Plan
With analysis in place, it should be then possible to create a series of scenarios of what could happen in future. A basic outline plan of what the business should do if a given scenario were to come to pass should be constructed. The most likely scenario can then be selected and the remainder of the planning process undertaken.
A balance then needs to be struck between a plan with sufficient detail to flow down through the organisation but flexible enough to be adapted to accommodate unexpected events.
Objectives remain important for the short to medium term but tend to be irrelevant in the long term. The plan should be understood by all but it should be flexible and a living document that changes and adapts.
Beware Of Plan Hijacking
A cautionary tale. In my early marketing career, I worked with the Sales and Marketing Director on building a strategic plan for a medium-sized manufacturing business. We worked hard on the process for several weeks. We worked through the analysis, undertaking internal and external discussions and progressing each step of the process.
One of the final steps was to present the analysis, our conclusions and the draft plan to the senior management team. After a half-day of discussion, we were reaching a satisfactory conclusion when in walked the company founder. He was a brilliant innovator and technologist who had delegated Managing Director responsibilities several years earlier.
His strong view was the carefully calculated future growth and turnover figures should not be ‘X’ but should be ‘Y’(where Y = X++). This view was based exclusively on a new technology (and potential product line) he had been working on. He forced through his view that a value should be added for this technology with the detailed planning for entry to this new market to be added later.
The result was a plan with no foundation, unrealistic expectations and (crucially) no buy-in. Looking back the suggested technology and product line was at least a year ahead of its time. Unfortunately, the founder failed to explain or convince those around him of its benefits. He kept analysis and product planning to himself and detailed plans to take the product forward never materialised.
I wish I could say the above was a one-off case but I have seen several similar situations since in a variety of organisations. Setting unrealistic targets and outcomes is certain to ensure limited (if any) buy-in by those who have to implement the plan.