All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved. - Sun Tau 

When you approach a problem, do you approach it strategically or tactically?

The difference is critical.

Strategies are long term. They are bigger-picture plans. Tactics are best understood by getting to the root of the word: tactic. It’s a one-off. It’s a small-scale action serving a larger purpose (Merriam Webster).

I think it’s fair to say that one of the contexts that pops to mind immediately when you hear these words is the military. You can understand military strategies to combat an enemy or defend a position as larger-scale plans that are comprised of tactics. Said differently, strategy is concerned with winning the war, while tactics are focused on winning the battle. This is affirmed by influential military theorist, Carl con Clausewitz : ”Tactics is the art of using troops in battle; strategy is the art of using battles to win the war."

In advertising, strategy equals brand development. It’s bigger picture, and as a result, it has lasting impact. Tactical efforts are ‘quick hitters’ - for instance, a campaign to bump up sales in a specific window of time.

But tactical advertising is often misused. It’s often done on it’s own, outside the confines of a larger strategy. We see a need and we advertise to answer that need (again, bumping up sales for a certain product or service is a good example here).

But imagine an army that functioned that way - a general in the heat of the moment employing numerous tactics to try and deal with the most pressing needs - responding, instead of directing and taking charge of the flow of the war. I trust it’s easy to understand that an approach like that would be disjointed, expensive, wasteful, and ultimately ineffective. They might win a battle or two. They might even win the majority of the battles, but did they advance the overall war effort? How would they know, and if they did win, how much unnecessary cost did it take to get there? In other words, IF they won, they got lucky.

Sadly, this is how too many organizations advertise. They are tactical, not strategic. It feels like they are being strategic when they plan their individual tactics, but without a broader plan that includes goals and directives for all advertising, they are merely hoping for the right result - leaving success to chance.

But the results in that context are the same as with an army. The only way to effectively and meaningfully move forward with your tactics, is to understand them in context of your strategy.

It’s also the only way to truly measure success. And isn't it nice to know whether you've succeeded or not?

Andrew VanderPloeg
Andrew VanderPloeg Guest Blogger, Consultant

Andrew served at Bark for over 20 years before recently taking over the role of Vice President of Marketing & Communications at ShareWord, one of our favorite organizations.