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Marketing strategy vs tactics – why the difference matters

By Dave Chaffey 29 May, 2018

10 key differences between strategy and tactics

What is the difference between a strategy and tactics?’ is one of the most common questions that 'crops up' when I’m running training workshops or discussing creating marketing plans with businesses.

It’s no surprise, since the difference between these two activities often isn’t distinct. Yet, it’s an important question to answer since our research shows that so many businesses don’t have a clear marketing strategy or plan. Without a clear strategy it’s likely some of your tactics may be poorly directed, so may not be propelling the business in the direction needed.

10 key features that distinguish marketing strategy and tactics.

In this article, I will show the difference between strategy and tactics by looking at the characteristics of marketing strategy, which distinguish it from tactics. I’ll give examples which help show the difference between the two based on essential strategic activities.

1. Strategy defines future direction detailed activities don't

All businesses use tactics to run their marketing because these happen organically, but a marketing strategy doesn’t, instead it requires a proactive effort to define it and communicate it to inform tactics. It’s vital to define a strategy since ultimately this is what will make your business successful by differentiating it from your competitors.

PR Smith’s excellent SOSTAC® framework clearly shows the difference between strategy and tactics. This visual shows how strategy answers the question ‘How do we get there?’ while the tactics are ‘the detail of strategy’:


In our members’ guide, Paul Smith gives different examples of tactics.  These include:  The marketing mix of the 4Ps of product, promotion, place and price.

Just to show that the distinction between strategy and tactics isn’t always clear, Paul and I have had many discussions over the course of writing our books about the differences. I will concede that the details of the 4Ps are tactical, but as will see prioritising processes are clear.

Where we do agree is that the trifecta of STP - Segmentation, Targeting, Positioning ARE a key part of strategy as we’ll see in these following points.

2. Strategy defines competitive advantage

Looking at strategy through the lens of how precisely you can compete against competitors is a good way of distinguishing between strategy and tactics. If it fits your mindset, you can think of it as your ‘rules of engagement’ in a battle or war.

Sun-Tsu was certainly  the first to write about this and Sun-Tsu's strategic thinking can be readily applied to marketing strategy, his well-known, but likely apocryphal quote illustrates this well:

"Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat".

3. Strategy defines top-level resource allocation

Every business has limited resources of budget, people and time at their disposal in the same way a general does. So an essential part of strategy is deploying these resources to drive the biggest impact.

I like the technique of informing strategy by deciding what you WON’T invest in addition to deciding where you will focus. In this classic Harvard Business Review paper it's suggested that many strategies fail because they are not strategies at all, instead they are simply aspirations...

"One major reason for the lack of action is that “new strategies” are often not strategies at all. A real strategy involves a clear set of choices that define what the firm is going to do and what it’s not going to do".

4. Strategy sets a specific long-term vision

WIthin SOSTAC® , the O stands for objectives and vision.  It’s clear that you need specific targets to work towards and review performance against. Lack of specific targets to be delivered by communications is a common problem when there is no strategy and people in a business are focusing on tactics only.

As well as these hard numbers, having a softer idea of future vision is important so you can communicate your direction with the people inside a business and beyond to partners and other stakeholders. Your strategy should define the linkage between vision, goals, objectives and how to achieve them through resource allocation.

5. Strategy sets specific long-term objectives

Collectively, tactics should support the overall direction of a business. They should contribute to the overall aims of the business. The best way to ensure that the tactics are contributing to overall strategic objectives is to LINK align objectives against strategies.

We also recommend building forecasts based on conversion models to ensure that strategic investments are going to give us the returns we need.

6. Marketing strategy defines priority markets, audiences and products

This is where Segmentation, Targeting and Positioning fits. Tactics will involve devising the best way to communicate these to audiences, but typically won’t involve a strategic review of which are the best audiences or product/market fit.

In a larger business, using the BCG Matrix to review your portfolio of products and set future priorities for growth is a key technique.

Another key part of STP is defining key audiences and marketing personas which will inform the tactics of how you reach and communicate to these audiences.

7. Strategy defines brand positioning

Once our target audience characteristics, preferences and behaviours are defined through personas, strategy involves defining how we want our brand to be perceived relative to competitors. This involves considering the generic strategy factors that Michael Porter identified based on market pricing and differentiation.

8. Strategy defines how to engage the audience through branding

Branding can be considered at a tactical level, for example which brand idents and colour-ways to use. But branding should also be thought through at a strategic level also, to consider how a business can appeal to audiences through key messaging including message architecture and tone-of-voice, again part of positioning relative to competitors.

9. Strategy defines a long-term roadmap for investment in technology and other major investments

In today’s marketing, we also need to exploit data and technologies to get better response from our tactics, that’s why our strapline is ‘Plan, Manage and Optimize’. We should techniques like AB testing available through conversion optimization tools to get the best results from the tactics we use. But to do this modern marketing strategy requires a marketing technology stack to be defined to achieve this

In this era of digital transformation, many organisations are running change initiatives to use marketing technology to improve their processes and use of customer insight and data.  The investments in digital experiences, marketing automation and, in future, artificial intelligence and E-learning will be significant. So often, it won't be practical in terms of the cost of technology or the complexity of investment to implement everything required in one year. So longer-term roadmaps of martech to build an integrated martech stack need to be defined to support marketing goals.

10. Strategy helps steer activities through governance

Finally, marketing strategy should link through to give businesses an overarching control of the tactics. This involves the Action and Control parts of PR Smith’s SOSTAC® framework. As part of strategic planning, we need to make sure we have the best tactical process to ensure tactics are aligned with strategy to make sure they are kept on track.

Member resources we have to support these control activities include:

So, that’s our summary of why businesses will benefit from setting out a marketing strategy in addition to using the tactics that everyone else uses. I hope you u business strategy too!

By Dave Chaffey

Digital strategist Dr Dave Chaffey is co-founder and Content Director of marketing publisher and learning platform Smart Insights. Dave is editor of the 100+ templates, ebooks and courses in the digital marketing resource library created by our team of 25+ digital marketing experts. Our resources are used by our Premium members in more than 100 countries to Plan, Manage and Optimize their digital marketing. Free members can access our free sample templates here. Dave is a keynote speaker, trainer and consultant who is author of 5 bestselling books on digital marketing including Digital Marketing Excellence and Digital Marketing: Strategy, Implementation and Practice. To learn about my books, see my personal site Digital marketing books by Dr. Dave Chaffey. In 2004 he was recognised by the Chartered Institute of Marketing as one of 50 marketing ‘gurus’ worldwide who have helped shape the future of marketing. Please connect on LinkedIn to receive updates or ask me a question.

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