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The elephants that crossed the Alps or the difference between goal, strategy and tactic

Oct 09, 2020 | 4 min read

Even if many of the 2020 marketing plans have been scraped because of the pandemic we experienced a normal start of the year with many marketing briefs being sent for this year’s upcoming projects. Nothing unusual as the brief is the #1 working document between a client and its agency.

Words that cause endless confusion

Because a brief is a written document it is of outmost importance to speak the same language and to have the same definition for words. But three words seem to cause endless confusion: goal, strategy and tactic.

People use the terms interchangeably and it feels, almost at random. Strategy is commonly used to label tactics. You might recognize hearing ”Oh, that’s a good strategy” when you just presented the tactics of a campaign?

Why does it matter?

There is a clear hierarchy between the words, the goal flowing into the strategy, which in its turn flows into the tactics. Knowing the difference will help you with the logic of your plan and will logically get you from where you are to where you want to go. Tactics can only be successful and achieve any targeted ROI if they are aligned with the business strategy and have a direct connection with the larger goals.

A visualisation of the hierarchy between words.

Tactics always depend on strategies and goals

As professional marketers we are constantly bombarded with the latest and hotest new tactics that we absolutely must be doing (and of course they need to be insatiably clickable). That’s why LinkedIn and Twitter are full of posts like ”The 10 easy ways to…”, ”The 5 things to do to…”. Those lists can often have the word strategy in their title to attract readers, while the content turns out to be merely a list of tactics.

Loosing track of the hierarchical connection between the three words might start with someone saying something like ”Why not do a targeted campaign on LinkedIn?”, and only then trying to find a reason for it. The resulting tactical plan looks more like a shopping- or wishlist filled with buzzwords than a list of actions leading to a targeted result.

Being clear with your goals and strategies brings the ability to decide if a shiny new tactics will help you reach your specific goal.

Hannibal crossing the Alps on elephants
  • Hannibal’s goal was to defeat the Roman
  • His strategy was to cross the Alps
  • His tactic was to use elephants to do it (not historically 100% correct but for the sake of this argument)

Simply put goal, strategy and tactic are:

Goal: The goal is the Big Picture and where you ultimately want to be. Goals are the ends toward which all efforts and actions are directed to.

Strategy: A strategy is the approach you take to achieve a goal. It’s a conceptualization of how the goal could be achieved. Any number of strategies can be used to achieve a goal.

Tactic: The tactics are the actions you take to execute the strategy. It’s a means to an end. It usually takes several tactics to reach one strategy.

  • The team’s goal is to win the football game.
  • The team’s strategy is to attack on the wings where their opponents are famously slow.
  • The team’s tactic is to quickly get the ball to their fastest players on the wings.
  • The company’s goal is to have the largest market share.
  • The company’s strategy is to engage with existing customers
  • The company’s tactic is to offer discount to existing customers who refers new ones.
  • The company’s tactic is to use CRM data to personalize communication with existing customers

Keep in mind the difference between the three words and the briefs you’ll send to your favorite agency will culminate in a brilliant piece of creative tactics that will achieve your goals.