There’s a lot of talk and confusion about strategy and tactics. Most people like to think strategy is Really Important Stuff (e.g. divide and conquer), while tactics are, well, just details (e.g. pay some of the Taliban to leave the fold). In some senses, it’s true. You can miss the boat on some tactics and still win the war if your strategy holds up. But if your strategy sucks, it doesn’t matter how good your tactics are — you lose.
One of the classic examples of this are the Alka Seltzer campaigns of the 60s. The first two ads (read: tactics) below were made to fulfill one strategy; the last one was built to fulfill another. The first two are some of the more memorable ads of the era. They won a bunch of awards. The last one, not so much. The first two didn’t increase sales. The last one, featuring our friend Speedy, did. The strategy it represented — of hammering home an easily remembered mnemonic — was followed successfully by Alka Seltzer for many years. (Note: If you think I’m using this as an example because the old Alka Seltzer commercials are awesome, you’re right. But it’s still a good example.)
OK, so this was an example in which strategy drove tactics. But recently, in one of the now-too-frequent social media discussions I find myself engaged in, someone pointed out that social media isn’t such a big deal, because it’s merely what used to be called “word-of-mouth” — that is, it’s just new tactics for an old strategy. While it’s true social media simply takes word-of-mouth to a new level, you can’t deny that the new tactics enable a whole new set of brand building strategies. Once upon a time, word-of-mouth was something that happened over backyard fences and water coolers, virtually invisible to the brand marketer. Not much strategy was really possible. Now that it’s out in plain view, everyone’s clamoring to develop strategies that put social media tactics to effective use.
I don’t want to get hung up on social media. This same principle is true for online video, product placement, SEO, and lots of other tactics that make new strategies possible. That’s why the business of building brands is undergoing such huge change — because the available tactics are morphing so rapidly. For someone involved in developing brand strategies to assume tactics are for other people is to miss the fact that — while strategies are what make tactics useful — tactics are what make strategies possible. Before architecture can be possible, we have to learn how to turn mud into bricks and bricks into buildings. It starts with the most tactical activity: playing in the mud.