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Best Laid Plans

Sticking to Strategy When There Are Many Unknowns

COVID-19 is a teacher – and we have been reluctant students. 

The past year has taught us all the importance of being flexible and reminded us that despite our efforts to plan, we’re often required to shift direction quickly to adapt. 

If you are running a business, having an overall marketing strategy and implementing its underlying tactics often separates those who are seeing profit and growth from those that aren’t. But how do you stick to a strategy when the world has been turned upside down? How do you successfully compete in a market where there are so many unknowns?    

Here are some things to keep in mind: 

1. Keep anchored to your mission and vision

A mission statement is not just a branding gimmick. Your overall vision isn’t just a series of feel-good statements you think your customers want to hear. Your mission and vision should reflect what your business is all about.   

When the market shifts, impacting your day-to-day operations, returning to your mission and core values strengthens your resolve and becomes an important reminder as you consider your next steps. Why is this so important? Because you must always start with the big picture. 

Your mission statement will force you to answer the questions: Why be in business at all? Why should your customers choose you over your competitors? 

Your vision will prompt you to clarify what a company wants to become. 

If your mission statement and vision are not helpful tools to illuminate why you are in business, change them. Or, if they don’t exist, this is a great time to start drafting. These should communicate your business philosophy – what you want to bring to the marketplace and the impact that you want to make on your customers that will help you shape your brand. 

2. Challenge your status quo

One way to deal with unknowns is to begin by reassessing your day-to-day decisions. A good starting point is to look at each of the 4 P’s of your marketing mix: Product, Price, Place and Promotion. For each of these, ask tough questions. It’s critical to understand what aspects of your marketing profile and brand are truly fixed and set versus those that are flexible or subject to negotiation. Perhaps your business has more options to manoeuvre than you previously thought. 

Here are some examples: 

Product

  • Do your customers really understand what you are able to offer? 
  • How would they describe your company and your brand? 
  • Are there gaps in your service offerings that you could move to fill?
  • Are you happy with the service you are getting from your suppliers? 
  • Are there other providers that could deliver quicker, give you more flexibility or produce a custom product? 
  • Are there new competitors on the scene? What impact are they having on your business? 

Price

  • When is the last time you changed your prices? 
  • Do your prices need to change to reflect new costs? 
  • How competitive is your business on price? 

Place

  • Where do your customers connect with you?  
  • Does your business location work for you? 
  • Does it support you or is it constraining your potential growth? 

Promotion

  • How would you have described your customers 18 months ago? Has there been a shift? 
  • Are your sales staff equipped with the right tools? Do they have the right training? 
  • Do you have the right mix of people working for you? 
  • When did you last update your website? Are your social media posts stale? 
  • Does your online presence properly reflect your business’ best attributes? 
  • What needs to change in order to keep your current clients coming back and to attract new business? 

Depending on how you answer these questions, you may decide to take action to amend one or more of your 4 P’s to move your business forward. 

3. Commit to contingency planning

In our business and personal lives, the pandemic has made us adapt to many less-than-ideal options: conferences cancelled, in-person meetings shifted to video calls, product launches modified and countless transactions moved online. It’s not pleasant to contemplate the worst-case scenario. That said, putting yourself in this mindset can be empowering, too, as it forces you and your team to think through all possibilities. 

Here are some examples of how contingency planning can boost your overall market strategy: 

  • Update your business continuity plans: If key staff members are ill, who can step up and fill those roles? What training can you do now to ensure that your day-to-day operations can run smoothly and your customers can count on your business when you might lack bench strength?    
  • Update your CRM: Commit to reviewing your customer relationship management system or client database.  This isn’t administrative busywork – it’s a critical exercise to get deep knowledge on your current customer profile. Knowing precisely who your customers are can lead you to think of ways to reach out to and to identify business opportunities. 
  • Review all agreements: Do a line-by-line review of key documents: supplier contracts, rental agreements, insurance policies, bank and utilities statements and similar agreements. Make sure that you: 1) understand all the terms, 2) are currently getting everything that you are paying for and 3) know what will happen if you encounter the worst-case scenario. 

Contingency planning is not a “one-and-done” exercise, though. When it’s approached correctly, it’s an iterative process that pushes you and your team to stay current. 

4. Try a soft-launch

Thinking of offering a new product or service? Sometimes the path that makes the most sense is to offer it on a limited basis. Like any good pilot project, there are many benefits of a soft-launch: 

  • Creating an opportunity to connect with new and existing customers: You can use this new product or service as a good entry point to connect with your key market. It’s a means of attracting new customers and a way of reminding your long-standing customers of what you offer throughout the year.
  • Confirming your pricing model: It’s a means of determining if your pricing reflects your optimal margins and is in line with your brand. 
  • Testing your capacity for delivery: You are able to determine, within a set time period, whether your company has the expertise, workforce and supply chains to fully deliver a new product or service. 
  • Driving business to a specific location: A limited-time offer can drive traffic to a new or under-used location. 

5. Pause and gather more information

In 2020, we learned that snap decisions that satisfy an immediate need don’t always make the best business sense.  Hoarding toilet paper is a great metaphor for this mindset – it’s a quick decision in response to chaos, but given all the options, not the best use of time, money and shelf space. 

Years ago, as a business student examining case studies, I recall that our class was taught to always include “Do Nothing” amongst the list of options. It was drilled into us early to consider the pros and cons of not taking immediate action. However, I think that “do nothing” is the wrong term. Why? It can give you permission to take a less-than-strategic posture, such as avoidance, procrastination or denial. 

That said, don’t overlook the value of choosing to “pause and gather more information”, which can appear from some angles as a “do nothing” tactic. 

Here, at Tenato Strategy, our team believes that research is the foundation upon which a strong marketing strategy is built. In order to grow your business, you need to confirm your assumptions are correct. When there are many unknowns, you need insight that market research can provide. 

If you’re not sure of your next step for your business, ask yourself why. Is it because:  

  • Your sales are up or down from last year?
  • You are serving a new clientele, who are looking for a different mix of products and/or services?
  • You are not certain if the measures you’ve introduced due to Covid-19 restrictions represent the way forward for your business? 

Answering these questions can lead to a potential game-changing shift for your company. Make sure that you understand the full extent of what these changes mean before you commit to, and invest in, a course of action.

Remember:

“Plans are useless, but planning is everything.”

U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Planning is not a futile exercise. Even when things are chaotic, don’t dismiss the opportunities that planning can bring to your company and to your bottom line. 

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Ali Jakubec
About the Author - Ali Jakubec
Ali holds an MPA from Carleton University, as well as a Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Social Sciences from the University of Ottawa. She brings over 20 years’ experience in strategic planning, market research, policy development and project management. Starting her career in the federal public service, she has worked with many agencies in Calgary and in Ottawa. She has also led the planning and implementation of several ground-breaking projects with national scope, and drafted highly-complex, politically-sensitive documents where precision, discretion and attention to detail are essential. Her particular strength is tackling complex projects with tact and finesse.