A Fresh Look at Strategic Thinking

Success in marketing relies on contrarian thinking. Put another way, the most successful marketing campaigns are ones that break from tradition to bring attention to the brand or product, in a way that seems different from other campaigns.

For example, Apple’s successful “Think Different” campaign not only launched a new line of computers, but it also expressed the heart and soul of the company’s approach to products and branding.

But, if not approached correctly, contrarian thinking can also be dangerous, and hurt a brand more than it helps. Some guerrilla marketing campaigns are this way. They seek to shock and/or surprise without much attention to the real purpose of a marketing campaign – to sell products or gain greater awareness. This is not what I mean by contrarian thinking.

More and more today contrarian thinking as a fresh approach is challenging the conventional wisdom of top-down strategic marketing theory.

Case in point: what should come first, the strategy, or the tactics? Conventional wisdom says strategy. For what seems like ages, we’ve been taught to set the strategy first in our marketing campaigns – especially the long-term strategy – and then develop tactics to support the predetermined direction.

Perhaps that worked well in a past world where the dynamics of real-time news and publishing and instant commerce via the Web didn’t exist. Today, with e-commerce and online portals, a sales strategy that was set six months ago could be out-of-date even before it launches.

More and more today, it’s becoming widely accepted to break the rules of strategic marketing thinking and start with tactics. And then build the strategy from there.

Let’s illustrate why this makes sense using an example from history. Christopher Columbus set out to find a shortcut to India (the strategy) by sailing west instead of east (the tactic). Columbus died thinking himself a failure because he never discovered the Indian continent he set out to find.

Columbus was an excellent sailor. If we think of his voyage from a contrarian marketing campaign perspective, Columbus chose to sail west precisely because everyone else was sailing east. Had he set out with the strategy of “discover new lands” with the tactic of sailing west, Columbus would have died much happier – knowing he had achieved his goal because of his different approach to the journey.

In marketing, when we put so much emphasis on strategy, such as where we expect to be in five years, two dangerous things can happen. First, the refusal to accept failure. We “stay the course” even though the results aren’t supporting that we should. And in today’s dynamic e-commerce driven environment, this reality is more the rule than it is the exception.

The second drawback to long-term strategic thinking is the reluctance to exploit success, even if it was accidental. In his search for India, Columbus stumbled onto a new land — America. Rather than celebrate this historic discovery and exploit it, Columbus fell into deep depression over the fact that he had not discovered the route to India he set out to. He kept his eyes set on his goal and wasn’t able to see that he had made a breakthrough discovery by taking action.

Top-down thinking when it comes to marketing is less and less effective in today’s dynamic marketplace. This is partly due to the fact that in business, we tend to see what we expect to see. Put another way, we tend to overlook any factors – especially successes – that aren’t related to a set plan or strategy.

There are a handful of companies who can be used as examples of contrarian thinking when it comes to marketing. Not coincidentally, these companies tend to be the leaders in their categories. Companies such as Nike, Apple, Tesla, Starbucks.

And this one. A perhaps lesser-known example, but one that clearly illustrates the contrarian approach to marketing success. Years ago, the research team at Vicks came up with a new liquid cold remedy which cleared up scratchy throat and runny eyes, but unfortunately also put you to sleep. That was a real problem if you wanted to go to work or drive a car.

Instead of writing off the research, and ditching the results that didn’t support its original strategy, the team came up with a brilliant idea. If the product puts people to sleep, why not position it as a nighttime cold remedy? And guess what? Vicks became the first nighttime cold remedy company and today, NyQuil remains as the number one cold remedy, despite fierce competition and spending by other companies.

Read more about positioning in this blog post.

I will continue to explore this contrarian thinking approach to marketing in future blog posts. If you would like to discuss how a contrarian approach to marketing may work for your brand or product, please give me a call at (310) 684-3552 or send me an email. Also, read this blog post on Pirate Marketing.

Bill Threlkeld
President Threlkeld Communications

Bill Threlkeld is the president of Threlkeld Communications, a marketing communications and public relations firm that helps businesses develop the right marketing strategies to grow their businesses and meet financial goals. He can be reached at [email protected]

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