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The analogical potential of sports and business will serve us nicely again for this column. So let me offer the following:   Running a business without a strategic marketing plan is like playing football without a game plan. You can have talented players in snappy uniforms and send them out on the field, where, by using their experience, intelligence and impromptu communication, they might manage to stay in the game. Perhaps they will even score and win depending on the skill (and game plan) of their opponents. But lacking a game plan, success will be very difficult to achieve, and consistent success virtually impossible.

Contrast that scenario with the team that does its homework and preparation before the game, analyzing their competitor's strengths and weaknesses, developing plays that capitalize on their own assets and minimize their weaknesses, agreeing in advance on the most promising plays to use, and revising that plan throughout the game as the situation changes. Assuming relatively equal talent levels, this team will consistently thrash the team above, and even with inferior talent, it will likely win far more than it could otherwise expect.

Shifting to the business arena, a strategic marketing plan is the foundation for the other operating plans that drive the daily activities of your company. It defines the marketing goals, strategies and methods that will help determine your company's success. It identifies the most promising marketing opportunities for your company and outlines how to pursue and maintain desirable positions in your chosen target markets. It identifies research that may be needed, analyzes the competition, and addresses pricing strategies and the most promising forms of promotion.

The benefits of a strategic marketing plan include the fact that by working together to develop a plan, you have the opportunity to stimulate a higher level of strategic, critical and creative thinking than you do when merely reacting to the events of the day. It is also an internal communication tool that integrates all elements of the marketing mix into a comprehensive program of coordinated actions.

Responsibilities are assigned and tasks and activities are scheduled. Strategic marketing coordinates and unifies your efforts. It provides a forum to evaluate your current marketing activities, creates awareness of obstacles and threats, and identifies new opportunities. In sum, it enhances your decision-making, increases the probability of achieving your goals, and improves sales, profitability and customer service.

So, what's the price for all of these highly desirable benefits? It will require an investment of time and discipline, and a commitment of resources. In effect, it involves choosing to spend the time and energy required to develop a game plan vs. sending your team out on the field and hoping for the best.

There is no absolute formula for how much time, money or effort a company needs to dedicate to developing a marketing plan. The simple answer is "whatever it takes to be successful." In some industries, the marketing landscape changes so rapidly that an almost constant revisiting of strategies and tactics is necessary. For other companies, the business cycle is longer, or their market is more stable, so the planning needs may be less intense.

Suffice it to say that a sound strategic marketing plan will help your company be more successful at whatever you are trying to do. How do you recognize a good plan? Here are some characteristics: 1) it is simple, easy to understand and use. 2) It is clear, precise and detailed enough to avoid confusion and ambiguity. 3) It is practical and realistic in its goals and application. 4) It is flexible, adaptable to changes and new information. 5) It is complete and workable, addressing all the significant factors of marketing, and identifying the distribution of authority and responsibilities.

In short, it makes the "game plan" of marketing your business accessible and intelligible, and it serves as the reference point for key decisions.

Of course, a strategic marketing plan will be effective to the degree that it involves a commitment by everyone who must contribute to its success, and to the degree that it is updated and revised as needed, given the ever-changing marketplace and business environment.

Here's an example I recently observed, profound in its simplicity, of the value of developing a marketing plan:  The current economic downturn has required a long-established, successful company to go beyond what the owners describe, tongue in cheek, as their traditional marketing strategy of "answering the phone and taking orders."

As part of the research phase in developing their first comprehensive marketing plan, the company discovered that they were the local industry leader in an important public and customer satisfaction metric. This key fact has been incorporated nicely into their marketing messages. Although in this case the research itself took only a few hours, it would likely never had happened if the structured and disciplined process of planning had not provided the opportunity to ask new questions and search for new opportunities.

Creating a strategic marketing plan is in and of itself an extremely valuable process, as the example above illustrates. It provides an opportunity for resolution of differing viewpoints, the thoughtful articulation of important values and messages, and the selection of specific priorities and strategies. To my mind, that sounds like a much better place to be when the whistle blows and the game begins.

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Mary Luttrell is a business strategy advisor who helps companies turn challenges into opportunities and resolve complicated problems and dilemmas. She is known for her ability to create inspired, yet practical, plans of action. She is a specialist in strategic planning, marketing, performance management, leadership coaching and mentoring. With over 25 years of consulting experience, Ms. Luttrell is a Certified Management Consultant whose firm was named one of the 100 Leading Management Consulting Firms in North America by industry analyst James Kennedy. To receive a complimentary copy of her whitepaper, The Four Cornerstones of Business Success, contact Ms. Luttrell:  the coach@sonic.net or (707) 887-2256.