Marketing strategy vs marketing plan: What’s the difference?

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Is there really a difference between a marketing strategy and a marketing plan?

While the terms are commonly used interchangeably, they are actually two very different concepts in the real world. It may seem like splitting semantic hairs, but understanding the difference between marketing strategy vs. marketing plan is crucial to the success of your campaigns and your progress toward overarching business goals.

Let’s compare and contrast the concepts in greater depth so you’re prepared when it comes time to implement a marketing strategy and plan.

What is a marketing strategy?

A digital marketing strategy is the “why” behind your marketing. Every piece of marketing collateral or content you create will be informed by your central strategy.

Basically, marketing strategy is a reflection of your short-term and long-term business strategy. Your marketing strategy should also be a distillation of your brand values, voice, mission and messaging. For example, if your business aims to scale up quickly, the strategic marketing vision you develop will support that objective, perhaps by focusing on consumer acquisition or ramping your online presence.

A good marketing strategy will encompass your unique selling proposition, all that your business hopes to achieve and its brand identity.

An article from the Harvard Business Review put it bluntly: “[S]trategy is a singular thing; there is one strategy for a given business — not a set of strategies. It is one integrated set of choices: what is our winning aspiration; where will we play; how will we win?”

What is a marketing plan?

Your marketing plan is the “how” to your strategy’s “why”. Ideally, a marketing plan should be just that – a plan of action for how you will execute on your strategy to accomplish marketing goals, and by extension, business goals.

The process of creating a marketing plan is about addressing the real-world steps you will take to create, promote, track and measure your marketing campaigns, programs and assets. The workflows, tactics and procedures you develop will provide a roadmap for making your strategy actionable.

How do strategy and plan fit together?

To use a not-at-all-complicated metaphor, the ship that is your business needs not only a direction in which to travel (i.e., a strategy), but also the sails to power it (i.e., a plan).

Marketing strategy and plan work hand in hand, with the latter taking cues from the former. Everything that your strategy lays out should be addressed with a plan that defines the processes for achieving marketing objectives.

However, the lines can be a bit blurred. Strategic planning is one oft-used phrase that can create confusion. In reality, strategic planning is just high-quality planning that is informed by a thorough marketing strategy. It’s a bit like the contrast of branding vs. marketing. Branding is the effective execution of strategy by cultivating a brand tone, style, image and reputation that strategy calls for.

Needless to say, a strategy without planning is like a winning idea without a way to realize it; and planning without strategy will lead to a rudderless ship.

How to create a marketing strategy

Strategy is not an amorphous concept. It takes real work and thinking to establish a good marketing strategy that ultimately facilitates business success.

Here are some basic steps to crafting a comprehensive strategy:

  • Identify your objectives: Strategy begins with your business objectives, both now and in the future. For example, if the business goal is to expand into new markets, the strategic marketing approach may be to make inroads with new customer segments. Brainstorm how your marketing can reflect other short-term goals and long-term ambitions, like to become an authority in your industry.
  • Refine your audience: You have to know who you’re marketing to in order for any effort to be successful. Defining who your audience is will enable you to resonate with buyers and push customers through the marketing funnel. A strategic marketing priority is to develop buyer personas. These personas will be central to deciding on the angle and value prop of the marketing you end up creating.
  • Establish your brand guidelines: Your brand needs to be codified in a way that ensures every piece of marketing you create will be identifiable and will conform to your standards. This means outlining editorial voice, graphic design preferences and all other critical brand elements. Having a unified presence leads to a better customer experience. Without a single source of truth for how the brand should be represented, your actual marketing may devolve into disparate shots in the dark.
  • Assess opportunities and threats: Your level of strategy will influence how prepared you are to capitalize on an opportunity or manage risks. Research competitors to understand what they’re doing, and more importantly what they’re not doing. Game plan for how you will leverage your competitive advantage to meet a new market need or shifting consumer preferences.

Importantly, strategy is not static. It needs to be constantly updated and fine-tuned to keep your business on track to achieve changing marketing objectives.

How to create a marketing plan

Returning to the question of “how” shows us the best way to create a marketing plan that works. Ask yourself these questions as you set out to develop your plan of action:

  • How will we reach consumers? The answer to this question will help you define your marketing mix. That is, what types of marketing you will utilize to reach leads, prospects and existing customers? Direct marketing, digital marketing, search marketing, content marketing, event marketing (once the pandemic has passed, that is) and all other types of marketing are in play here.
  • How will we create marketing materials? Clearly defined workflows and processes will support the creation of high-quality marketing materials. You need to suss out who owns which project phases, how cross-functional teams will collaborate and what quality controls are in place (like checking for adherence to brand guidelines).
  • How will we share content and collateral? Not only must you choose your marketing mix, but also your selection of marketing channels. Once again, there are many types to consider: direct mail, social media, email, your website, pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, organic search. Each distribution channel will have its place in planning.
  • How will we track campaigns and measure results? Data is the lifeblood of strategic marketing. You will need to cull a list of key performance indicators (KPIs) with which to track campaigns. These may be include anything from conversion rates to cost per lead.

Some examples of strategy and plan in action

Let’s look at some examples of how the waterfall of business objectives to marketing strategy to marketing plan works in real life:

  1. Business goal: To pivot or reinvent the business, whether due to a merger, new market need or a modernization effort.
  2. Marketing strategy: Launch a rebranding campaign; craft new messaging to align marketing with the business’s new direction; create new brand guidelines.
  3. Marketing plan: Pursue a website redevelopment; create a marketing plan template to ensure all new efforts adhere to guidelines; reoptimize website content and copy; coordinate a roll out of new colors, logos and fonts to all social media platforms; hire a content strategist to consult on best practices.

It’s much easier to see the differences between marketing strategy vs. marketing plan in such a scenario, but also easier to grasp how they work in conjunction. Let’s consider another:

  • Business goal: To launch a new service or product line.
  • Marketing strategy: Research competitors and the existing market; develop a new set of buyer personas; outline the marketing funnel and customer journey; generate leads for the proposed expansion.
  • Marketing plan: Create content around the new product for outreach (e.g., blogs, emails, white paper, one-pagers, etc.); decide which assets to gate in exchange for a name and email address; balance customer acquisition with retention by creating a loyalty program.

Getting the picture?

  • Business goal: To increase revenue or raise sales by a certain percentage.
  • Marketing strategy: Support sales enablement with high-quality marketing content and collateral; revitalize or refine the value proposition; reach out to new customer segments.
  • Marketing plan: Track KPIs related to conversions; focus on high-performing channels; leverage customer data to make upsell or cross-sell recommendations; start a retargeting campaign.

One more for good measure.

  • Business goal: To become an industry leader.
  • Marketing strategy: Highlight brand strengths and competitive advantages; present the brand as friendly, knowledgeable and authoritative; raise brand awareness and cultivate brand evangelists.
  • Marketing plan: Build influencer marketing relationships; publish thought leadership content and/or guest blogs; use social media for customer service and conversations; conduct webinars.

When a marketing strategy and marketing plan are in harmony, what they create is music to your business’ ears. Alignment between the two gives your brand its best chance to impact consumers, raise its profile and succeed in its key business objectives.