What Is Strategy?

I was recently asked by a colleague of mine if I could write something about strategy. “Keep it short. And try to make it stand out a little bit.” he said. “We’ll see about that.” was my initial thought.

Over the years, the term and meaning of strategy is not what it used to be. The time has come to stop watering down the art of being strategical and mistaking strategy for pure tactics. This is my war cry for everything that’s supposed to survive trends and the latest buzzwords. In this post I will try to describe what the true essence of strategy work is and what is not. Hope you will enjoy it.

Bobby Fischer knew all about it.

So here goes. Let’s start with the most obvious, shall we?
The last thing the world needs is another definition on what strategy is. I feel that I am still obliged to give you my definition. Just to set the record straight from the beginning.
Let’s be clear on the following. Strategy is NOT something that you do on a everyday basis. That’s tactics and operations supporting the day to day operations making the strategy work. But strategy should definitely be hard at work every day for your brand and business. Sounds contradictionary eh? Bear with me a little bit longer.
Strategy is NOT something that should be added to a business or a brand in some hypothetical layering system. If you do that you will only be confused. 
Strategy is NOT about effectivising your organisation or a quick fix to correct something slightly out of tune. It is neither something to be taken lightly or something that you can afford to be without.
No, strategy is simply put a game plan you create to win the war you and your brand and/or your business is currently engaged in. Everything else is just about winning the battles. 
Strategy is supposed be about one thing and one thing only. What makes your brand stand out of the crowd and to create the means, the tools and the conditions for it to thrive in that environment.
Strategy is 1 % brainpower and 99 % implementation. How many great strategies left the presentation stage only to fail miserably when it was time to change things in the real world?
Yep, you’ve guessed it. Thousands. Millions. Gazillions. Your guess is as good as mine. All wasted and left to die a miserable death on hard drives, office cupboards and in desk drawers.
Think Clausewitz, Sun Tzu etc. These guys knew what it was all about. How to win a battle on your terms, not your competitors. Or, frankly spoken, how do you tell your troops to march in a certain direction via a Powerpoint presentation or a keynote speech on a yearly conference? You don’t.
No, work for it. You create it, you sell it, you implement it and your follow it up. Over and over again. Does it work? Maybe not perfect the first time. But you polish that cannonball until it flies a million miles further and strike at the heart of your opponent. 
Every time. That’s what it’s all about. Not to score the best goal in a match but to win the championship. Choose your battles. Pick the fight on your conditions. Select the team. Man the barricades. Win ugly if it’s necessary but never lose sight of the goalposts at the end of the pitch.
If you cannot win the fight on the battlefield under the current circumstances, create your own place where you can thrive and find some comfort in. Some people call this “disruption”. I call it to play the game according to your best means of winning it. Kick your competition where it hurts and kick him again when he’s down if necessary.

Carl Phillip Gottlieb von Clausewitz, 1780–1831. Read his “On War”. That’s an order.

This means war!

The war and battle for the consumer’s mind and attention is ever ongoing and present. This much we know. In order to grasp this, you need to think long-term to r e a l l y understand what strategy is all about.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither will your brand or your successful enterprise. I’m really stating the obvious here, but given how many times longevity fails, I don’t see a good reason to stop repeating myself.
When it comes to business titles and work task, if you call yourself a [any prefix you can think of] strategist you are most likely a tactician on the battlefield, not the general you aspire to be who draws up the plan to ultimately succeed. 
As soon as you hear this, run in the other direction. No serious strategist would ever think short-term. Let alone consider to give you a turn-key solution.
Anyway, let finish off the war and battle metaphors by quoting the great Jack Trout and Al Ries (The guys behind “Positioning — The Battle For Your Mind”. You should read it. Its great.) by saying the following:

“The battle for the consumer’s mind is all about perception. Truth is irrelevant.”

Remember that.

Why you need to get your hands dirty.

So what do we know? You cannot afford not to have a strategy, that’s for sure. You either create one based on your business credo and the reason you are here in the first place, or you’re just following the leader.

If you follow the leader you will forever be in second place. And you will most likely end up lower down the ranks rather than overtake the leader sooner than you think. You will be a pawn on the chessboard, ready to be sacrificed at any moment’s notice. Never confront the leader. Unless you have a super weapon or if their leadership forgets about strategy. The case of the iPhone and Nokia was one such super weapon situation when it was launched back in 2007.

Now you understand how hard it is to win against the leader unless you play the game on your terms.

The world’s best strategies are often the ones that never leave the Powerpoint stage. A 100+ slides later, you’re done presenting it to your client or management team. The warm and fuzy feeling in the belly is slowly passing. You looking forward to a well deserved drink. Now all that’s left is to get the seal of approval and someone else will start executing on your great thoughts.

Wrong. Utterly wrong. Hashtag fail.

The ratio of coming up with a strategy vs making it work is almost always 1 % — 99 % (As mentioned before). This is when and where the real work starts.
What’s your choice? Wanna be the guy with all the theory and graphs in the world behind you or the one who gets things done? The choice is yours but I’m pretty sure where i’ll be after the strategy is presented. In other words, don’t create plans that are too rigid and too over complicated. If you have to explain it a second time, it’s probably the wrong way forward.
Pro tip: if you’re going through all the hard work to create a viable strategy, remember that you have to implement it as well.

There’s no other way.

The way I see it, there should be ONE strategy. Yes, yes, I know this is wishful thinking but just the thought of having several strategies for sales, brand, marketing, communication, advertising, digital, human resources, social media etc makes my brain wants to give up and run away to a dark and cosy place.

Every part of your brand and business ending with the word “strategy” must end. Every initiative, discipline, channel, department, business card. That’s just tactics. Stop it. Now.

Social media, strategy, conversion, digital, engagement, marketing, sales. The list never ends. As I just said, my brain left the building and just took a long vacation.

The reason for everything needing a strategy is false and costly. It is also a way of the stakeholders behind these “strategies” to elevate themselves within the structure of the organisation to reach a higher place on the agenda and to get more budget.

Nothing wrong with getting your cause higher up the food chain. But is it strategy? No. Everyone knows strategy but very few people are strategists. Monkey see. Monkey do.

They should all fall in line under the strategy for your business and be regarded as tactical implications to get stuff done in the name of the bigger goal.

Hierarchies in strategy are a waste of time, money and the ink on the paper they are written on. As I wrote earlier, strategies wins wars. Tactics wins battles.

To create several strategies is more damaging than fruitful. Creating opportunities for politics, power mongers and backstabbers is not an environment you can afford to support over time.

My homeboy Sun Tzu.

A few tips along the way, perhaps?

So how do I go to work when I start looking at strategies for brands, companies and organisations? I tend to ask myself four simple questions. These four is most of the time more than enough to give the big picture and a direction forward.

1: Who are we?

What’s your position today? No really, don’t give me an old market map, with market share and sales figures. Find out who you and your brand really are and who are your fans and trusty buyers. Are you really that cool brand you’re longing to be are you just the average Joe no self-respecting brand can afford to be? Do your homework here.

2: Where are we? And where do we want to be?

If you’re looking for a way out of the woods then you should first try to vision yourself at another, more beautiful vista first. After that we break out the compass and try to draw the map that’s needed to get there. Is your goals realistic? Do we really need to take the shortest route? Sometimes a longer detour is necessary to get to best position for your brand and business.

3: What do we have to work with?

What’s our resources and how can we use them to the best circumstances? No-one ever made it around the world by hitch-hiking. Well, maybe someone did but you get the picture. Resources such as budget, manpower and time is of the essence here. It’s hard to reach for the stars without the right resources. You need to be realistic, creative and visionary at the same time.

4: Who do we need to fight and defeat?

KNOW your enemy. No, seriously, KNOW your enemy. I cannot say this too many times. Intelligence gathering about the situation for your brand and business is something you should dream about at night. L i s t e n to people.

After you’ve answered these four questions above you can start to chisel out your strategy. These are also some of the things to keep in your head and consider during your work.

  • Culture & Values — Who am I representing? Is this a progressive brand or a traditional one? What and who does it represent?
  • History & Future — What’s been done before you came onto the scene? Was it good? Was it bad? Any game changers coming up that can pull the rug from underneath an organisation? Any iPhones or Teslas that can destroy your brand’s income? Find out.
  • Organisation, Leadership & Staff — There’s no such thing more frustrating than groups of people not be able to grasp or execute on a well laid out strategy. Don’t overdo things. Speak and communicate to people on their terms.
  • Flexibility — Rigidness is almost never a good thing. You should create a strategy that can dance to a different tune if the music changes on the dance floor.
  • Single mindedness — Don’t be fooled in trying to be the best in more than one area. BMW makes the best driver’s cars in the world for a reason. They stick to their values. Own one word in the consumer’s mind. Not two.

Start with the target group, start with the strategy and stop being pathetic. Stop talk about tools and disciplines. That’s just tactics. Find out what you need to do. Where will you play and how will you win.

Finally, develop a strategy that is relevant, contemporary, easy to understand and avoid every buzzword you can think of. You should be timeless and classic. Your audience are people, not algorithms waiting to pick up the latest trend on the interwebz.

What are YOUR thoughts?

Now, did my words just screw up your mind and general view of what strategy is supposed to be? Do you agree with me or do you think i’m just another bland consultant in the communications industry? Either way, that’s good. Really good. Because I want to know what your thoughts are on the definitions and implications of strategy work. Large or small. It doesn’t matter.
You can contact me at martin.gustafsson@apegroup.com or you can reach out to me on Twitter at @martingustaf. I work at Apegroup, a digital product studio from Sweden. Want to know more about how we work with strategi, you’ll find what you need at our website.
Thanks for reading. Hope you liked it.