Can you imagine what it looks like if you row a boat with both oars going in opposite directions? I think you would find that your boat is going around in circles. Instead you need all crew-members going in the same direction and you need a rudder to steer the boat in the direction you want to head. Your company is similar in that you need all of the employees working toward the same goals and mission. You also need a rudder to steer your company in the right direction. That’s where a marketing strategy comes in. It will help you to keep your company progressing toward your goals.

Now I know what you are thinking. But, it just takes too much time and research to put my marketing plan on paper. I know some of you (and you know who you are) will just meet for cocktails once a year and write your marketing tactics on a napkin. That’s okay, but if you really want to be an industry leader, it’s far more beneficial for you to really analyze your products, markets, and distribution channels to come up with a cohesive marketing plan. You should do this at least annually. And before you prepare next year’s plan, may I suggest that you also evaluate last year’s plan insofar as its success in meeting your goals.
Don’t have any marketing goals, sales revenue targets, or company goals? Well, that’s a good place to start. What is your company all about? Do you have a mission statement or company philosophy? Where do you want your company to be in one year? Five years? Ten years? Do you want to be No. 1 in your market or industry? If so, what will you need to do to get there?

Next you should analyze your company, customers, and competitors. For your company, focus on your strengths and weaknesses. What market share do you have for your products or services? Next, take a look at your customer base. Are you reaching the people you want to reach? Could you expand your product line or apply it to another market to increase market share? What do your customers think about your product? Have you thought about doing some focus groups or other marketing research to really understand your customers’ purchasing motivations, decision process, or the likes and dislikes they have for your products?

Concentrate on your competition. Yes. We all have competitors. And, expand your range of thought to not just the companies who sell the same product you do. For example, if you sell cars, your competition may be other companies in the transportation field, rather than just other car companies. Look at the competition’s market share, their strengths, weaknesses and how you stand out from the competition.
You’ve probably heard of SWOT analysis. That is Strengths/Weaknesses and Opportunities/Threats. Not only look at your company, but your products, and your competition when doing a SWOT analysis. For example, you may have a weakness in the distribution of your product line. So, that may call for evaluating the feasibility of working with other companies who can better distribute your products.

Perhaps your weakness is in the development of a marketing plan. Consider hiring an outside professional to help you formulate your plan. Marketing consultants can also gather competitive data for you as well as interview your employees to clearly understand your company’s strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes it’s a good idea to hire a third party since they have no emotional equity in your company and can provide an independent view. Also, employees may be more willing to be brutally honest with an outside party if they know their comments will be confidential.

Then consider all of the market segments in which your products are sold. Look at the percentage of total sales, price sensitivities your customers may have, declining segments from which you may want to retreat, or emerging market segments that you might want to gain a foothold. Also look at how you position your products in each segment. Is it time to rebrand or reposition your products in comparison to your competition?

And, finally, look at the four P’s of marketing: Product, Price, Place, and Promotion. Look at your product name. Should you rename it, reposition it, repackage it, upgrade the quality? Is the price right? Have you priced yourself out of the market? Or is your product too inexpensive that it appears to be an inferior quality product? What are the price barriers in your market? Are there any external factors such as economic issues that might affect your current pricing structure?

Place is a way to describe your distribution channels. Do you have a sales force? Do you sell via the Internet only? Does your product require face-to-face selling or does the product sell itself? Do you need highly-skilled technical personnel to sell your product? Or can you lower your sales force costs by automating your sales force activities or by working with distributors? Also look at how you ship the product. Can you drop ship? Where do you warehouse your product? What are the logistics of your shipping process? Does this add cost to your pricing? For example, with the price of gas increasing, you may need to increase your pricing to keep up with the additional shipping costs or you may need to find alternative distribution channels.

Promotion is the final P, but probably one of the most important. Most companies skimp on this portion of the plan assuming that their products will just sell themselves. You know the proverbial school of thought “Build it and they will come.” They assume that if they have an aggressive sales force, they will significantly increase their sales revenue. We all know that’s not true. Why not generate qualified leads for your sales force so they spend more time on demos and selling than on finding the customers.

Promotion is more than just advertising. It includes public relations, direct marketing, sales tools, catalogs and brochures, print and online ads, trades shows, tchotchkes, your Website and many other types of promotions. With the advent of the Internet many companies think that all they need to do is advertise online. However, the experience for most companies has been dismal unless they use traditional marketing tactics in addition to their online advertising. Feedback that we’ve received is that the Internet is passive. That is, you place a banner ad on a Website and then hope and pray that someone clicks on it. That is why you also need print advertising, direct marketing, trade shows, face-to-face marketing and other more traditional marketing tactics to steer your customers toward that Website. It is much better to draw customers toward you rather than having to cold call and literally beat the bushes to find potential customers. The key to successful promotional tactics is repetition, which is a very common problem for most companies. Many start-up companies who finally bite the bullet and decide to spend money on promotions, will produce one ad, or one direct mailer, or attend one trade show, and hope and pray that they get results. Instead you should create a coherent image and message and repeat it throughout all of your marketing programs.

Another time-tested way to promote your company is through public relations. Make sure you produce high-quality press releases. Develop relationships with the editors of the trade journals in your industry. Offer to write technical articles that can be placed in those magazines. But, also realize the importance of urgency. When an editor calls you, respond quickly and make sure you fulfill your commitment to writing that article. Editors are on tight deadlines. If you don’t respond quickly and professionally, they will politely forget to call you the next time they need an article.

Trade shows are still an excellent way to get your product in front of your customers. You’ll have up close and personal contact with your customers. But, make sure that you follow a few basic rules to make sure your trade shows are effective. Be sure you promote that you will be exhibiting at the upcoming show. You can place this information on your website, send out a press release, place a snipe with your booth number and trade show name on a print ad that is placed in a show issue of a trade journal, or a direct mailer sent to the pre-show registration list. When you are at the show, try to sponsor an industry workshop or other type of seminar or demo to get your company name recognized and draw customers to your booth. Some of your technical personnel can also present a poster or lead a course. You can even collaborate with another exhibitor if there is synergy with your product lines.

To sum up, you need a marketing strategy, which includes an audit of your existing plan, if you have one, updating and refining your marketing strategy, formalizing your plan into a written format, and then developing a tactical promotional plan. And don’t forget to analyze and review your plan at the end of this year before you start on next year’s planning. Analyze the failures and the successes you had and then refine your plan for the following year.