Marketing – The Important Distinction Between Strategic Thinking & Tactical Acting


Tactical people jump right into answers. Creative people jump right into execution, because that’s where they live. That’s the fun part.

I’ve been writing the Brand Insight Blog since 2008 and the single most popular post focuses on the difference between marketing strategy and marketing tactics. Thinking and planning vs. doing.

Seems there’s bit of confusion there, even among marketing professionals.

For example, a list of your target audiences does not belong under the header of “Strategy.”

Launching a FaceBook contest is not a strategy. It’s a tactic.

Content Marketing is not a strategy. It’s a tactic.

I recently saw a blog post titled “Top 10 Social Media Strategies.” But it was nothing more than a tactical to-do list. Not a strategy to be seen.

Here’s a quick tip: If you see the word “strategieS” it’s probably not really a marketing strategy. Strategy is singular. Focused. Unique. Tactics are done by everyone, including your competitors.

Think about Insight vs. Execution. Insight is the crucial strategic thinking that has to happen before you execute the everyday tactics like Facebook posts. Think, then act.
My friend Graham Robertson was a Brand Manager in consumer packaged goods for 25 years. He talks about the difference between strategic thinkers and tactical implementers.

“To me, the difference between a strategic thinker and a non-strategic thinker is whether you see questions first or answers first.”

Whoever wrote that blog post titled “10 Social Media Strategies” definitely sees answers first. And social media is it.

“Strategic thinkers ask a lot of “what if” questions before they begin to develop solutions. They study, they think, they reflect, they plan and they stew on things before they act,” Robertson said.

Many business owners fall into the category of non-strategic implementers. They believe that doing something is better than doing nothing at all. They opt for action over thinking, so it often turns into a “ready, fire, aim” scenario. They do a lot, but without clear direction they often do a lot of the wrong things. They’re all over the place and they get frustrated with strategic thinkers.

It’s like Captain Kirk in an old StarTrek episode: “What we need now, Spock, is a little less analysis and lot more action!”

Spock was the strategy guy. Captain Kirk was the execution guy.

Strategists will sometimes think themselves to death and never get anywhere.

“While pure strategy people make great consultants, I wouldn’t want them running my brand, Robertson said. “They’d keep analyzing things to death, without ever taking action.  And while tactical people get stuff done, it might not be the stuff you actually need done.  I want someone running my brand who is both strategic and tactical, almost equally so.”

In other words, the best marketing people wear both hats. We are shape shifters, but it’s a rare breed these days.

In fact, Robertson estimates that only 15 to 25 percent of all marketing people are legitimately “strategic” in their approach to their jobs. There are far more tactical marketing implementers than there are strategic thinkers, especially in small markets like Bend.

My firm is often brought in for tactical projects because most clients don’t see a need for strategy. But in almostevery case we have to work our way back “upstream” to answer key, strategic questions before we jump into creative execution.

The website, ad campaign, social media effort or whatever has to wait until the bigger, strategic questions are answered.It’s the only way to stay on target and produce results.

Tactical implementers never paddle back upstream. They don’t stop to think about the bigger strategic issues, they just go with the flow and crank out the Tweets or whatever’s on the list.

If you’re a typical business owner, manager, organizer and list-making delegator, you’ll probably want to find someone for your marketing team who can fill in the strategy gap.

You can’t just suddenly decide to “be strategic.”

Being strategic means reading between the lines, delving deeper than just factual data, and trusting your instincts. That takes years of practice and a certain personality type.
There are plenty of successful design firms and small ad agencies that have no strategic thinkers at all. The account executives coordinate the list of tactics they’re given. The creative specialists — writers, graphic designers, web programmers, SEO guys, photographers, and social media specialists execute those tactical projects.

There’s nothing wrong with being a good tactical implementer who gets a lot of stuff done. Just don’t pretend that it’s “strategic.”

Companies that already have a well-defined brand and a clear-cut marketing strategy can do well with tactical agencies or freelancers. But it doesn’t work if the business owner doesn’t have her story spelled out on paper.

If no one has done that strategic thinking, the tactical implementers will spin their wheels and go through a lot of costly false starts before they hit on something that strikes a chord with the client and with consumers.

The most common mistake is a lack of focus. A strong strategy demands focus, but most business owners want to be all things to all people.

I met with the owners of a real estate firm recently who were thinking of rebranding their company. They had all their “specialties” listed on their website; First time home buyers. Second time home buyers. Golf homes. Down-sizers. Upscale, low scale, middle of the road scale.Nothing was left out, which made the whole idea of specialization ridiculous.

Time to start swimming back upstream.

But strategic thinking is tough. It involves hard decisions and thoughtful contemplation that many business owners simply don’t have time for.

One of the biggest strategic “what-if” questions is this: What are you going to hang your hat on? What’s the ONE thing that you can shout from the rooftops? What if it’s this? What if it’s that?

The strategic considerations are considerable… You have to think about relevance, credibility and differentiation for every option.

Here’s an example… Imagine that you’ve decided on outdoor advertising as an advertising tactic. You’ve chosen several billboards along the highway that will ensure high visibility and you’ve allocated the budget to maintain those for at least a full year. That’s a tactical decision. One small piece of your media buy.

The strategic question is, what are you going to say on those billboards? You get one idea and one idea only. Five words max. Otherwise, everyone whizzing by at 65 will miss it.

Figuring out What To Say is a strategic decision.

How To Say It is the creative piece of the puzzle.

Putting those two things together is what makesexceptional advertising. The wording will be different for a billboard than it will be for a TV spot, but the strategy stays the same.

Think strategically. Act tactically.


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John Furgurson

John Furgurson is the owner of BNBranding. Want to learn more about the difference between marketing strategy and tactics? Visit If you need help thinking strategically, or executing any of your marketing tactics, let’s talk. John Furgurson, 541-815-0075,,

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