What Is Marketing Strategy?

A marketing strategy is a business's overall game plan for reaching people and turning them into customers of the product or service that the business provides. The marketing strategy of a company contains the company’s value proposition, key marketing messages, information on the target customer and other high-level elements.

The marketing strategy informs the marketing plan, which is a document that lays out the types and timing of marketing activities. A company’s marketing strategy should have a longer lifespan than any individual marketing plan as the strategy is where the value proposition and the key elements of a company’s brand reside. These things ideally do not shift very much over time.

Understanding Marketing Strategy

Marketing strategies are often confused with marketing plans. Because they do feed off one another, it is not unusual to find the marketing strategy and the marketing plan baked together into a single document. Although the transition between the two is blurry, a marketing strategy covers the big picture of what the business offers: the value proposition and related brand messaging. The marketing plan is how the business will get across the key message: the platforms, the creative, the timing and so on. The marketing strategy may also be absorbed upwards into the corporate value statements and other strategy documents.

Academics continue to debate the precise meaning of marketing strategy. Consequently, different definitions abound. On close examination, however, these varied definitions at least partially appear to emphasize the notion that marketing strategy refers to a broad statement of what is to be achieved under the umbrella of "marketing."

Here are a few quotes from marketing trade literature, which help crystallize the nuances of marketing strategy:

  • "The marketing strategy lays out target markets and the value proposition that will be offered based on an analysis of the best market opportunities." (Philip Kotler & Kevin Keller, Marketing Management, Pearson, 14th Edition)
  • “An over-riding directional concept that sets out the planned path.” (David Aaker and Michael K. Mills, Strategic Market Management, 2001, p. 11)
  • "Essentially, a formula for how a business is going to compete, what its goals should be and what policies will be needed to carry out these goals." (Michael Porter, Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors, NY, Free Press, 1980)
  • "The pattern of major objectives, purposes and goals and essential policies and plans for achieving those goals, stated in such a way as to define what business the company is in or is to be in." (S. Jain, Marketing Planning and Strategy, 1993)
  • "An explicit guide to future behavior.” (Henry Mintzberg, “ Crafting Strategy,” Harvard Business Review, July–August, 1987 pp. 66–74)
  • Strategy is "reserved for actions aimed directly at altering the strengths of the enterprise relative to that of its competitors... Perfect strategies are not called for. What counts is... performance relative to competitors.” (Kenichi Ohmae, The Mind of the Strategist, 1982, p. 37)
  • Strategy formulation is built on "the match between organisational resources and skills and environmental opportunities and risks it faces and the purposes it wishes to accomplish." (Dan Schendel and Charles W. Hofer, Strategy Formulation: Analytical Concepts, South-Western, 1978, p. 11)

The Creation of Marketing Strategy

Contrary to popular practice, marketing strategy is not pulled out of thin air. At least it shouldn't be. A marketing strategy should grow out of a company’s value proposition. The value proposition summarizes the competitive advantage a company has in its market. The value proposition usually provides the key message for all marketing.

Walmart, for example, is a discount retailer with “everyday low prices,” and its business operations and marketing revolve around that. A company should never create a marketing strategy from scratch. The correct recipe is to start with the value proposition and distill the key marketing message(s) from that.

Once the value proposition is succinctly stated, the hard work is done. Any marketing asset, from a print ad design to a social media campaign, can be judged by how well it communicates the value proposition. To further the efficiency of marketing efforts, market research can be added to the marketing strategy for the purpose of identifying untapped audiences or refining the target consumer. Finally, an overall goal for the marketing strategy can be set, with all the subsequent marketing plans inheriting the responsibility for delivering on it. These can be concrete, bottom-line goals such as increasing sales or something less direct like climbing the ranking of trusted providers within the industry.  

Marketing Strategy vs. Marketing Plans

Marketing plans are operational documents that get more attention because they are the day-to-day work that a company does to sell itself to the world. That said, a marketing plan would be meaningless without a message, a target market and a goal — the core of every marketing strategy.