What is a Vanilla Strategy?

A vanilla strategy is a common or popular approach to investing or decision making in business. Although the concept is relatively basic, many investors succeed by sticking with a simple, proven strategy such as passive investing through broad exchange traded funds. Similarly, businesses can succeed through plain vanilla strategies such as focusing business lines in areas where there is a clear competitive advantage. In business, however, a vanilla strategy must allow for some innovation as competitive advantage can weaken over time for many products and services.

Understanding Vanilla Strategy

Vanilla strategies tend to be simple, practical and conservative. Generally a vanilla strategy makes sense when explained in a few short sentences. For example, to build an income portfolio, buy and hold dividend paying stocks with a history of paying dividends for 10 years or more. Compare this relatively simple explanation to something like an iron condor options strategy, and you can see why it is considered to be a vanilla strategy.

Vanilla strategies are not diminished by their simplicity - they are simply not as flashy or aggressive as other approaches. More importantly, it can actually be difficult to implement and stick to a vanilla strategy long term. When speaking about investment strategies, a vanilla strategy can often be outperformed by any number of short-term strategies. Over the long-term, however, a vanilla strategy will generally see less under-performance than more aggressive strategies do in challenging markets.

Similarly, a simple, conservative approach in business may not catch the attention of the financial media compared to highly-leveraged tech start-up, but investors will eventually appreciate the strong balance sheet that these companies employing vanilla strategies usually have. Elements of vanilla strategies in business include things like focusing resources where the competitive advantage is strongest, using only moderate debt financing to fund growth and avoiding over dependency on a single client or product.

A Vanilla Strategy for Retirement

There are many strategies in the world of finance that fit the definition of a vanilla strategy, but one of the most popular is the basic advice for retirement planning. A vanilla strategy for retirement savings includes saving at least 10% of one's annual income, investing in diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds through tax-advantaged savings accounts like a 401(k) and Roth IRA, and buying a home with a plan to pay off the mortgage before reaching retirement. There is nothing interesting or unique about this strategy; it is "vanilla," because it is ordinary and many people find success with it.

A higher-risk portfolio approach to retirement, by contrast, would include a focus on momentum, concentration, penny stocks, emerging countries or technologies, currencies, futures, and/or options. It may work, but there are not many people who have had success with such an aggressive approach to their retirement portfolio. Part of the reason for that is the fact that a higher-risk portfolio requires skill and constant attention. The vanilla strategy is much less work.