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A collection of thoughts, opinions and analysis on the insights, tech & marketing topics that inspire me.

  • Writer's pictureChris Martin

All Strategy, No Personality - A Cautionary Tale

Marketing is a strange practice. It’s a field which thrives on deeply complex insight and strategy yet razor-sharp simplicity in execution. Boiled down to basics, the process involves understanding the needs of a market and delivering a solution that both fulfils those needs and communicates value better than the alternatives. It’s the most visible part of that process which usually receives the most attention - communicating value.

The myriad of ways in which advertisers and marketers have developed to communicate with people has immensely complicated the choice of tactical execution. But it is still that. A choice.

And it’s what happens when choices aren’t made where our cautionary tale begins. It started on a crisp January morning, with the ping of a new email arriving in my inbox. “Marketing help” the subject line read. An unremarkable start. And, sure enough, the email continued in the same fashion - a struggling SaaS company was struggling to grow revenues in line with expectations and marketing was underperforming. They wanted help. But then, just as I thought I understood the entire story, one line caught my attention. My heart sunk.

We have implemented all of the marketing strategies.

Hmm. An odd choice of words, that gave me a sense of almost morbid curiosity. Up until now, I had avoided clicking on the attached link to the company homepage. But, of course, I had to know. What were all the strategies? So I clicked.

What opened in my browser was possibly one of the most bloated and bland websites I have ever set eyes on. There was no doubt about it. This poor company had indeed attempted to follow every single piece of performance marketing advice on the internet. The website was optimised (and I use that term loosely) within an inch of its life. There were interactive videos, long-scrollable comparison tables, hundreds of listed features, CTAs to sector-based demos, sub-communities, in-platform marketplaces and marketing content libraries. That was just the homepage.

Scratch beneath the surface and there was a whole new world to explore of keyword-optimised comparisons, blog posts built using the skyscraper technique, pop-up gated content, partner pages, event listings, webinar recordings, support articles, knowledge bases, community Q&As, consumer benchmarks, glossaries and demand-gen landing pages. It was impressive, almost. There was just one problem - the entire site was dull.

Attention Isn’t Bought, It’s Earned

Over the past century, the barrier to entry in most markets has drastically lowered. The net result is that there are a lot more businesses competing for our attention than there ever have been at any other point in human history. In that context, it’s not enough to follow a strategy laid out by someone else. Implementing marketing tactics simply because they work for other businesses is worse than having no strategy at all. It’s a bad, and actively harmful one.

Here’s the thing. Creating a comparison table to show how you stack up against other companies doesn’t guarantee anyone will care. Creating content that ranks high in popular Google searches doesn’t mean anyone owes you their interest. Offering gated content doesn’t inherently make it valuable enough for someone to hand over their personal details.

Copying the tactics of others ignores two of the most fundamental drivers of marketing success. Diagnosis and creativity. Let’s break each of those down.

Why Good Strategy Starts with Diagnosis

It’s a common misconception to believe good marketing starts with good strategy. As you may have guessed from the title of this section, it really begins with an accurate diagnosis. This is the stage of the process that occurs before all else. It involves gathering information about your target market - who they are, what media they consumer, how they prefer to purchase, what they want (and much more). With that information, marketers must identify the goals that can be achieved. For a new brand that might include deciding which of the many marketing KPIs will have the largest and most immediate impact. For an established brand, that likely involves reviewing such information against existing datapoints and identifying which wins the tradeoff of investment & impact.

At this stage, we’re already making I’m key choices - ruling in and out what our priorities are going to be. We’re using information and insight to make wise investment decisions. And whilst what others are doing might be a mediating factor, the core of this step is establishing the relationship between our own brand and the target market. Get that right and strategy - the plan of action we’ll implement to get there - will come easier.

Being Creative, Distinctive and Memorable

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re about to launch a carbonated soft beverage. Probably of the cola variety. The exist to which your product will rely on branding to sell on supermarket shelves will differ depending on who you are. If you’re a supermarket distributor offering an own-brand alternative then, as a general rule-of-thumb, purchase behaviour is driven by price and comparative value. There’s little need to be creative or memorable - because there are established patterns of engagement in play.

But, if you represent an independent food & drink manufacturer directly competing against the juggernauts of cola, then you’ll need to make wise decisions on all 4Ps and build a distinctive, memorable brand for a shot of success. Without an established pattern of behaviour to rely on, new market entrants must find ways to capture and hold the attention of their market.

That involves developing a unique brand position, tone of voice, visual identity and communications strategy that expresses it. No amount of templated adverts, website designs or SEO friendly content will ever be able to replicate that. In fact, without it, you’ll simply end up like the subject of our cautionary tale - a hollow shell, lacking personality and slowly ceding any market share.

Focus - The Ultimate Marketing Antidote

Let’s not end on such a depressing note. Instead, I’m going to share the same advice that I sent in my reply. It’s all about focus and maximising the resources you have. So, if you ever find yourself in a similar position, don’t despair. Get real.

Take a hard look at all of the marketing tactics you’ve implemented (list them on paper if it helps) and rate their effectiveness. Consider impact on brand awareness and conversion through each stage of the marketing funnel. From this basic analysis, choose your top three. For the next twelve months, focus your marketing resource only on:

  1. Understanding your market and customers in extreme detail

  2. Building a distinctive and memorable brand that appeals to your market

  3. The three performance-marketing tactics you’ve narrowed down

And that’s it. While it might be tempting to just add another media channel, or try something different - resist that urge. Sure, competitors might be doing it. They may have more resources than you. They may deliberately be positioning against your approach. Their actions might even be the result of the same process. But if you stick to your journey and master your chosen communication channels - you’ll set a high bar to beat, whilst delivering a streamlined path to purchase and learnt a lot about your customers to help you decide on the next steps when the time comes.

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