Opinion: 3 ways of not doing strategy

As Twitter and Facebook allow advertising strategists to come together globally and pick each others' brains, and kinds souls such as Julian Cole and Mark Pollard help planners worldwide get better at their jobs, there is naturally plenty of conversation out there about the various definitions of strategy and its role in today’s environment.

As someone who has been a strategist for a while now, I have recently noticed a strange confusion over what strategy is, can be, and should be. Some of the confusion leads to exciting, enriching conversations - so it is more than welcome. Some of it, on the other hand, just adds to the overwhelming lack of clarity. And what is worse - it perpetuates incorrect definitions of strategy, misleading those who are just starting off, and creates wrong ideas about an already-murky topic.

There are plenty of people out there, men and women far more learned than me, who are busy defining what strategy is. Therefore, I am not even going to attempt that. However, I would like to take this opportunity to do the opposite - let us define what strategy is not. After all, defining what you are not is as essential as understanding what you are. And in the increasingly murky, opaque times we live in, sometimes defining the "not" can help us avoid plenty a knot. (Apologies. I am pathologically addicted to bad puns.)

1. Strategy is not fashion

A couple of years ago, brand purpose was the new flavour of the day. Every brand was trying to get in on it, sometimes finding a purpose they could organically espouse, and sometimes scratching the bottom of every barrel until they could find something to shout about. It became such an epidemic, that it eventually led to the coining of terms such as "virtue-washing" and "ethics-vertising", with the global advertising community declaring a vocal and solid distaste for it during the last Cannes. However, this was not a new phenomenon.

Every few years, advertising inherits a new buzzword, which becomes the fashion of the day, and every brand tries to ride that wagon. However, as strategists, it is essential that we do not fall in that trap. Strategic elements are classics - identifying the correct consumer problem, finding an insight that helps unlock it, and finding a solution that shows the way forward. It is important not to get carried away and start incorporating whichever buzzword is in fashion these days. If it organically goes there, if your brand finds a genuine way to use the latest trend to solve the consumer problem, then by all means, do it.

Adopt the fashion, and rock it. Otherwise, stick to the classics of brand-building. There is a reason blue jeans are blue jeans.

2. Strategy is not culture

This is a major pet peeve. As an expat working in country I am not entirely familiar with, I am often asked how I can create a brand strategy without understanding the culture it thrives in. The answer is simple - strategy is not culture, and vice versa. Undoubtedly, a better understanding of the culture helps in understanding the consumer, their aspirations and anxieties, and how we can affect motivations.

Culture can also help a strategist understand underlying values and beliefs - as well as extremely current, topical themes. However, to assume that understanding culture is understanding strategy, is a fallacy - and a dangerous one. Strategy can be of many different kinds - but at the most fundamental level, every kind of strategy is about solving a problem.

Culture can definitely help to understand which possible solution will be the most effective. However, you have to still know how to solve that problem in the first place.

I have seen many so-called strategists take refuge behind culture, but very often, it is to hide a lack of sound strategy, not to aid it. Strategy is knowing that in a world where fuel is expensive, a small car can flip its size-disadvantage into a strength by helping consumers save money and appear smart; and culture is knowing that in a country where young, mobile, DINK couples are the new-cool, a small car can tap into the zeitgeist and be the ultimate symbol of a modern family.

When you put it together, we can take a car from a "small vehicle that no one aspires for" to "the smart choice for the modern family". When strategy and culture work together, magical, effective and magical work can happen. When one is confused for the other, we end up with untethered nuances without a strong business solution to hold it together

3. Strategy is not technology

I hate the Whopper Detour. Passionately. And here is why - it is such a fantastic piece of tech-led work that its brilliance blinds people to the (less-glamourous?) thinking that went behind it. I have seen so many people celebrate it and justly so. However, the danger is that everyone sees it as a technological case study, and very few recognise that it is equally a smart strategic case study.

Yes, it was a great use of technology to get people to "detour" from McDonald’s to Burger King outlets, but how many of us have wondered why they did this? How many of us actually know the equally clever strategy behind this? Burger King has only 7,000 stores in the USA, compared to the 14,000 that MacDonald’s has, and therefore decided that, instead of doubling their stores, the strategic solution was to convert their competitor’s stress into their own! This is very sharp strategic thinking and an excellent technological execution that brought it brilliantly to life.

My fear is that, given that we live in a world where tech is king (as well as the shiny new object we love), our obsession for tech will blind us to the need for a solid, sound strategy to make the technology effective.

Undoubtedly, technology and data can help us in everything from better targeting to personalised communications and unbelievable executions - but for it to be an effective solution, strategy cannot be sacrificed. Strategy is the essential "what" - what can we do to solve the problem. Technology is a great "how".

There you go. These were three things about on-going conversations that bug me, and I thought I will use this platform to hopefully bring some semblance of light and clarity to this. After all, that is what a planner is for.

The writer is Siddhant Lahiri, senior planning director, Leo Burnett Malaysia.

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