Marketing Strategy vs. Marketing Plan: The How and Why of Successful Marketing

One of the questions I’m most commonly asked when visiting with small-business owners is, “What marketing should I do to grow my business?” For starters, it’s important to understand what the term “marketing” really means. It also is important to understand the difference between a marketing strategy and a marketing plan.

First you need a marketing strategy, then you need a marketing plan. Graphic courtesy of

Simply put, the marketing strategy is the why and the marketing plan is the how. For example, let’s say you want to build your brand awareness within a 20-mile radius of your shop, generate 20 leads per week per sales rep and diversify the business with add-on services. The “why,” or strategy, requires thoughtful planning and touches on another point: you’re working “on” your business.

Next, how will you get these things done? What tactics will you use to generate brand awareness, leads and add-on sales? The answer could be an integrated marketing plan of digital marketing, direct mail, customer referrals, etc. All these tactics are how you will get it done.

A quick story

One of my first jobs in the industry was as an outside sales representative for a large, regional company in the Mid-Atlantic. The company served high-end residential and commercial clients with lawn and tree maintenance and tree-surgery services. I was hired to build a new territory where the company had no name recognition, and the office and shop were 45 minutes away. Ready? Go sell.

With the office being so far away, trucks were not rolling through the towns in my territory. This was the mid-1990s. There was no social media, internet or other quick way to gain awareness in the territory. Before I made the first sale, it was apparent that a marketing strategy had to be developed to generate awareness and leads.

To add to my challenge, the company was very frugal with their marketing dollars. I can thank that company today. It forced me to sharpen my guerrilla-marketing tactics, develop focus, learn how to market efficiently and generate a profitable return.

Upon reviewing the territory, I first needed to understand my ideal customer. This was the first step of the marketing strategy. Who was most likely to purchase our high-end tree-pruning services and the opportunities for ongoing renewable services? Where did they live, work and play? Those were areas I wanted our trucks driving through, signs posted, youth sports teams we’d sponsor and so forth.

Even though we only had one truck to start, with the crisp branding and a targeted strategy in specific areas, it seemed like we had a fleet running all through the area every day. The prospects we were looking to target saw our trucks nearly every day as they were out and about. This helped drive visibility and awareness.

Executing the marketing plan

Next, following the strategy, we executed the marketing plan, the tactics we’d use to reach prospects. When prospects received a postcard or saw our sign in a yard or we reached out with a cold call, they were already familiar with our company, even though it was the first time we had reached out.

Today, an integrated marketing plan can be much more robust, to include a digital marketing campaign, website strategy, search engine optimization (SEO) and social media. It also can include traditional tactics such as billboards, signage and direct mail. (Table 1) An “integrated” approach ensures your marketing plan is diverse. However, it’s important to track your lead sources to determine your return on investment (ROI) and whether you’re reaching your ideal customer.

Table 1: Simply put, the marketing strategy is the why and the marketing plan is the how. TCIA graphic by Susan Stehfest.

By developing a marketing strategy and then executing the marketing plan, I ultimately changed a desolate, remote territory into one with great route density and profitable sales. It was coveted by arborists and technicians, because they were able to efficiently service properties and make a great wage. Word of my guerrilla-marketing plan began to leak out to the other regional offices. Two years later, I was training new sales reps with brand-new territories on how to develop a marketing strategy, execute the marketing plan and close sales.

As you create your marketing plan, understand it is a living document. It is the GPS that tells you where you want your business to go. If you make a wrong turn or the unexpected happens, adjust your plan to reflect the situation. Finally, be sure to put the “why” you do something before the “how” you get it done.

Business consultant or fractional marketing vice president

As a small-business owner in the tree care industry, it’s completely understandable if marketing is something you seek guidance for and choose to outsource. While I have seen many contractors look for marketing help, many times they hire someone to help with tactics before ever developing the marketing strategy. For example, they will hire a company or person to help build their social-media campaign, develop brochures or build their website without ever thinking through the marketing strategy first. Strategy before structure, as the saying goes.

Table 2: In some cases, you may engage both a business consultant and a fractional marketing VP. TCIA graphic by Susan Stehfest.

Your marketing strategy helps define how you will differentiate your company, how to stand out from your top competitors. The strategy also provides the messaging to include on your website, brochure or direct-mail pieces. It’s how you will define your company to your prospects. This is exactly why it’s best to start with your strategy in order to help get the most out of your marketing plan.

Many small-business owners choose to work with a business consultant. Consultants can provide valuable insight into your business. There are many who specialize in the service industry and specifically within the lawn, tree and landscaping industry. Business consultants, quite simply, are typically business focused. They can provide perspective on business functions and improve operations, analyze your financials and P&L statement and assess the organizational structure of your company to optimize it for growth, to name a few.

A new option

However, if you’re seeking high-level marketing leadership, there’s also a fairly new option known as a fractional marketing VP. This is an experienced marketing executive who provides vice-president or director-level marketing leadership on a part-time (or fractional) basis. Most small businesses do not have the resources or enough work to justify a full-time marketing VP. The great part about hiring a fractional marketing VP is that you gain the insight and leadership of an experienced marketer at a fraction of the cost, which makes a marketing executive affordable for a small business.

A fractional marketing VP can help clients plan, develop and launch marketing campaigns that align with their business strategy. In addition to crafting strategy, they can:

  • Select and train an in-house marketing department.
  • Develop structure for your marketing and sales campaigns.
  • Foster collaboration with your sales, operations and administrative teams.
  • Mentor marketing employees for growth.
  • Analyze marketing data to improve lead flow and sales conversion.

In some cases, you may engage both a business consultant and a fractional marketing VP. Fractional marketing is an evolving trend that small businesses are tapping into. (Table 2) You can check with your trade associations or local Small Business Development Centers (SBDC) for ways to locate resources.

Putting it all together

While a business plan is a vital tool to help provide direction for your business each year, the marketing plan is equally vital for executing your marketing strategy. The marketing strategy is the foundation of any successful business. It permeates all other aspects of your business, from sales to operations to your administrative teams. It is dynamic just as your business plan is dynamic, and adjusts based upon how your business is performing, as well as upon factors in the external environment outside of your business.

Developing a marketing strategy prior to executing your marketing plan offers a focused, calculated approach for sales representatives and small-business owners who are ready to reach the next level of growth. This will help align all areas of your business so it’s clear to your customers, prospects and employees exactly what makes your business so great and why they should be a part of it.

Mike Sisti is North America marketing manager, Global Specialty Solutions, at FMC Corporation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click to listen highlighted text!