Richard Croucher says planning is key to a marketing strategy

According to business guru Sir John Harvey Jones: "Planning is an unnatural process, it is much more fun to do something." That illustrates that planning is often a neglected area, even though it is vital for marketing success.

The Nike call to action of "Just do it" is a powerful and invigorating one. It also exemplifies the frequent desire to launch straight into marketing activity without too much considered thought.

This creates the initial frenzy and buzz that gives a feeling of positive action. But the results often ultimately disappoint.

It is easy to argue that in the aggressive, uncertain and dynamic environment we all live and work in, that there is no value to planning. In reality the reverse is true.

First, so much of the volatility is at a day-to-day level - the long-term trends, by definition, do not change quickly. Second, the higher the number of potential variables, the more important it is to understand how to find a profitable way through.

The first step in considering a more planned approach is to look at the very long-term. Most people will come up with a similar view of this future, which will probably include:

  • Fewer insurers
  • Fewer brokers
  • Competition from outside UK
  • Greater market segmentation
  • Greater commoditisation of certain segments
  • Higher costs through compliance
  • Opportunity to lower costs through electronic trading
  • Reduced commission levels.
  • Then consider how well placed the company is to survive and thrive in this environment. In most cases, it becomes clear that to do so changes will need to be made. It is also usually clear that these changes are unlikely to happen by chance.

    Before starting on a marketing plan it is essential to fully appreciate that marketing is entirely about creation and change. It involves understanding what needs to be changed and then making it happen. As the marketing planning process unfolds, the amount of change visibly required increases.

    If a business has operated for some time without a particular marketing focus there will be more to uncover. Tough decisions then have to be made as to how much upheaval the business can sustain in making these required changes. This will largely depend on the future ownership plans for the business.

    The marketing planning process should not be conducted in isolation. It should drive planning for other elements of the business. A company with a market strategy competing on price has to have solid strategies across its business including sourcing, supplier agreements, distribution and IT. Without these its strategy will be unsustainable.

    The approach to planning should be different depending on company size. For larger companies, planning can be longer-term and focused to a large extent on how the company can both benefit from and actually drive change in a direction that suits their competencies.

    Consequently, there is less focus on the short-term aspects of planning. As long as it's broadly in the right territory, it will usually have enough market clout and operational marketing resource to make the necessary adjustments.

    Smaller companies, however, are more exposed to short and medium-term market changes. The right strategic and operational plans can help address this and increase the odds of a medium-term future which is stable and profitable.

    Planning for smaller companies, therefore, needs to focus more on the short-term and into the medium-term, with an occasional eye on the longer-term future. The long-term position should be planned and reviewed, but with fewer resources there is more need for a structured, efficient operational plan to achieve the steps along the way.

    Dwight D Eisenhower once said; "Plans are nothing; planning is everything."

    He had highlighted a key aspect of the planning process. The key to planning is the appreciation that the end plan is not the main driver, as this will inevitably change.

    However, it is also possible to remain forever in planning mode. By its nature, planning is a never-ending process. Consequently, there is a danger that there is always another thing to investigate before activity can start. This can result in a loss of momentum and missed opportunities.

    As usual, the answer lies in balance. Smaller companies need a planning method that is quick, simple and which identifies some initially appropriate tactical activities. These tactical activities can then refined or replaced over time as the ongoing more detailed planning process identifies a better approach. In broad terms the planning process should consider:

  • Assessing the position and performance of your business in the markets in which you operate
  • Evaluating your strengths and weaknesses and looking for opportunities and threats
  • Establishing relevant marketing objectives, allocating resources to meet these and setting out a clear action plan to achieve them
  • Setting out ways of evaluating performance against marketing objectives.
  • For many smaller companies there are typically constraints on marketing in terms of:

  • Time: for planning and doing, consistently
  • Skills: for planning and doing
  • Practical issues: for doing.
  • These need to be factored into the marketing planning process and activity. This means the plan cannot initially be too complicated or too time consuming.

    This is particularly relevant where an organisation does not have specific marketing experience or resource. Experienced marketing professionals can help bring a different perspective and a focus to an organisation's activities, and ideally should be brought in prior to activity starting.

    But this is not always a pragmatic solution. Many businesses that have thrived through a growing market, expect marketing to quickly generate additional growth in less profitable times. This also makes it difficult to justify extra expenditure on marketing that is borne for a significant period before the benefits are reaped.

    For smaller organisations, it may be more practical financially to get some simple test marketing activity going, before bringing in dedicated professional support. This approach also gives the opportunity to understand more about the type of marketing support ultimately required.

    Marketing support
    To help with this, there are a number of organisations that will potentially provide varying degrees of marketing support for smaller companies, including: banks; government agencies, such as Business Link; and marketing agencies. Brokers may also be able to obtain additional support from insurers and networks or alliances.

    Your own situation will determine whether you have access to these, how relevant they are and to what extent you get support in utilising them.

    If the planning process is properly undertaken and built on as extra experience and resource is brought to bear, any time spent planning should be well rewarded.

    Having built the perfect plan it is essential to regularly review progress against the plan and recognise that planning is an ongoing, organic process. And that the best plans are not the longest or most complicated, but the most effective. IT

    ' Richard Croucher is head of marketing for Broker Network