Strategy versus Tactics, or, The Chicken or the Egg, 2015 Valentine’s Day edition

If you’re ever been cornered by an MBA at a cocktail party—trust us, it can happen—you know the uncomfortable feeling that rises in your throat when she broaches the topic of “Strategy versus Tactics.” And yes, it’s always spoken with initial caps. Usually it’s something she just read in Harvard Business Review, and sounds something like, “Can you believe ________ is trying to _________? Not so sure how that tactic aligns with their global strategy.“

Mostly, you’re thinking: Both words come from the Greek, they sort of have to do with armies and wars, originally, you once watched 300, you know social media gets thrown in there now. . .


The truth is, almost everyone in “business” loves to bandy about the strategy/tactics dialectic without ever really defining what it means and how it applies to real life. Some people get closer than others, like everyone’s favorite marketing guru, Seth Godin:

The right strategy makes any tactic work better.
The right strategy puts less pressure on executing your tactics perfectly.

Here's the obligatory January skiing analogy:
Carving your turns better is a tactic.
Choosing the right ski area in the first place is a strategy.
Everyone skis better in Utah, it turns out.


We like Seth, and we like analogies, but this still leaves things a little nebulous. What does “Choosing the right ski area” mean in terms of your business? Or any business, for that matter?


In terms of Treebird, when we deliver each client’s Positioning Statement, we’re encapsulating their strategy in a single page. That statement covers the essentials that must be defined in order to actually have a strategy:

       Your marketplace singularity (what you and only you deliver).

       Your core beliefs (the principles that undergird why you deliver what you deliver)

       Your unique practices (this is the most tactical grouping of the bunch…the specific things you do, services you offer, choices you make that embody your beliefs and add up to your singularity).

       Your brand promise (what you reliably deliver to every client plus the expectation you want them to have upon entering into a relationship with you).

For the small business with which Treebird works, strategy and identity are very much intertwined. For larger corporations with multiple arms and wings and subsidiaries and sub-brands, strategies give rise to sub-strategies and before you know it you’re trying to decipher an org chart. And nobody should have to decipher an org chart. Unless you’re an MBA, in which case you pretty much asked for it.

So for our purposes, let’s use a simple equation:
Strategy = Who you are (identity) + What you uniquely deliver (product) + Who you deliver it to (audience). If you unequivocally define those three variables, you have at least the basis of your strategy. However. . .

       Your strategy shouldn’t be static, and can be fluid.
The important thing is that your strategy should always remain authentic (align with identity), relevant (a product people desire), and empathetic (resonating with your target audiences). But it should be fluid enough to respond to changing times, attitudes, needs, and desires. As your overall goals as an enterprise change and adapt and evolve, your strategy to realize those goals should as well.

       Strategy is not simply a best practice.
That’s to say, “We’re going to make the best pizza in the Southeast” isn’t actually a strategy, because it’s something pretty much all pizzerias with any self-esteem and will to succeed strive for. Instead, something like “We’re going to introduce the concept of Hawaiian lava-stone pizza to the Southeast, and build popularity as a pizza chain by building affinity for this unique kind of pizza-making with customers looking for something different than the standard options” gets closer. That’s a little wordy, but you get the point. It includes differentiation, audience, and identity—and the strategic goals stem from those foundations.

       Tactics work to serve strategy, but shouldn’t be mistaken for strategy.
This is both the simple part and the hard part. We all know the basic idea of tactics—it’s what we do every day. Ad buys, email marketing, social media, announcements, public relations plans, staff training, policies and procedures, special programs and offerings, the list goes on. In the example above, it’d be sourcing the right Hawaiian lava stones, understanding the correct pH levels in the water you’re using to produce the most authentically Hawaiian crust, and then introducing the market to the as-yet-unknown benefits of eating this kind of pizza (benefits being a very relative terms here).

OR, to put it another way, because this is often the most misunderstood point. . .

       Because tactics subsume our day-to-day lives, sometimes we think they ARE the strategy. And because we’re all so busy doing tactics tactics tactics 40-60 hours a week, we often don’t stop to remember to remember that they are, in fact, only the turns of our skis, not the mountain we chose to go down in the first place.

       A simple question to ask yourself from time to time:
Is the point of my business this ad campaign? This brand guide? This presentation? Of course not. But does this ad campaign, this brand guide, this presentation need to align with and embody the values and value of my business so as to advance it? Yes.

       Tactics can often feel mundane, but they can also be an opportunity for creativity.
Instead of being a slave to social media, how can you make the type of interaction you’re trying to have actually work for you? Instead of attracting customers with a standard BOGO offer, why not create a more interactive experience that drives traffic to your store, to your website, to an event—whichever best serves your strategy? Instead of a simple e-blast, maybe an actual paper invite to an important, word-of-mouth-generating event might catalyze more interest and more results.


When we mail out our Valentine’s Day card to current clients, the card itself is the tactic to drive people to the blog, where this discussion of strategy is, well, our strategy. We’re meta like that. If that little card itself was the point, then why would it be worth it, for either of us? But now that you’re here, reading this blog, maybe even learning a thing or two, we’ve aligned our tactic with our strategy. And it was good.

Happy Valentine’s Day! And in the immortal words of Stephen Stills, Love the one you’re with!

Patrick Kelly