The other day I was speaking with a prospective client about the need for a strategic plan and a marketing plan. They characterized the strategic planning process as important but not urgent; the marketing plan as urgent. They asked me for my thoughts. Here is the gist of my response.
The ideal approach to planning is a comprehensive, integrated one. That consists primarily of an ongoing cycle of strategic planning (why), program planning (what), and business planning, part of which is a marketing plan (how). Once launched, this cycle is easier to maintain than it might seem, and it offers synergy and secondary benefits, as well (see Why Plan?).
But the question I was asked, of course, was not how to keep the cycle going, but how to start it, and where.
Strategic planning is a deliberative process that requires sufficient time to play out. How long is sufficient depends on a number of things, but primarily on the nature of the organization and its constituencies. It could take as little as a few months or well over a year.
If you are in a strategic planning process or about to start one, you’ll want to avoid long term commitments to things that may be affected by the strategies that will emerge. But the stream of decision making doesn’t pause during a planning process. Rather than trying to hold your (metaphorical) breath for several months, you need to keep going on the basis of the knowledge you have at the time, incorporating on the fly anything that is learned from the strategic planning process as it unfolds.
So if you need to, you can do strategic and marketing planning at the same time. There is plenty of overlap between the two processes. In The Structure of Planning I described five phases of a strategic planning process: preparation, assessment, engagement, plan development, and implementation. If in the preparation phase you lay out processes of assessment and engagement that embrace marketing issues, you can gather the knowledge you need to put together a marketing plan in parallel with the strategic plan.
In all likelihood the marketing plan will be completed first. If you think of it as a work in progress, you can start implementing it and make adjustments if the strategic plan suggests they are needed.
In the simplest of terms, the job of a marketing plan is to establish how an audience will provide the means to get from a situation to a goal. The job of strategic planning is to develop consensus among stakeholders on what it will take to pursue mission most effectively. Each provides a kind of context for the other. In an existing organization you can start with either, but they will be most successful if they reflect and support each other.