What’s Covered in this Article

As with many things in life, you don’t know — until you know! As you gain more experience, your eyes begin to open up to the additional layers of understanding that you just couldn’t see before. At 16, I KNEW what love was when I started “going out” with my first legitimate girlfriend. Now having been married for nearly 8 years and having two young children, my understanding of what love is looks a little different. More mature, I hope!

Professionally, having started a business very early in my career, one of the things I “didn’t know until I knew,” was that my definition of marketing strategy at 25 was pretty limited. At that stage, marketing strategy focused squarely on what I’d now call “marketing channel strategy” – such as defining how to win in email marketing for an e-commerce company. Now eight years in and 60+ clients later, I’ve come to appreciate the additional layers of marketing strategy and how to leverage that understanding to amplify the results we drive for our clients and our owned & operated brands at Grit.

For the purposes of this blog, I thought I’d spend a few minutes walking you through how I think about the different levels of marketing strategy & how you can leverage that understanding to improve your marketing.

Recognizing the layers of marketing strategy

When you start to peel back the onion on marketing strategy, it becomes pretty easy to understand how you might hear a different definition depending on who you talk to. For example, imagine you ask an SEO specialist in your department what their strategy is. Which of these three responses would you define as the MOST strategic?

  • Our SEO strategy is to write 300 articles and build 100 links over the next year. (Tactical)
  • Our SEO strategy is to be the best-in-class at E-A-T within our industry. (Operational)
  • Our SEO strategy is to beat our competition by playing the long game and investing in the most white hat tactics possible. (Philosophical)

The answer? All of them qualify as strategic statements. So, while there might not be a black and white answer to which of these statements was the MOST strategic, the more important thing to recognize is that there is so much more to marketing strategy when you think about it in layers.

What are the layers of marketing strategy?

I’m not a Harvard MBA, so I’ve never been the type of business leader who uses the perfect language to describe business structures and principles, etc. So, imperfections included, here is how I like to think about the levels of marketing strategy.

Leadership Level Marketing Strategy

Within this layer, marketing strategy can almost sound like business strategy. My dad recommended the book “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing” to me a number of years ago. My initial thought was “This is going to be too old school to apply to my world.” A classic example of you don’t know until you know. 

In the book, they walk through 22 timeless marketing principles and this opened my eyes to how marketing leadership at the highest level impacts everything beneath it. Some examples of the principles in the book include:

  1. The Law of Leadership:  It is better to be first than to be better
  2. The Law of the Category: If you can’t be first, create a new category
  3. The Law of the Mind: It is better to be first in the mind, than first in the marketplace

These are examples of marketing strategy that establish the foundation from which everything else is built. As a leader of a digital marketing team and an agency business, learning how this Leadership Level Marketing Strategy looked enabled me to zoom out the right questions to diagnose an issue. For example, if SEO traffic is degrading, if we ask leadership level strategy questions, it may be that problem wasn’t the quality of the SEO strategy, but rather we had set ourselves up for an uphill battle by failing to pick a category that we could be first in (Law of the Category). This isn’t to deflect responsibility for delivering SEO results, but it does mean that on the front end of pursuing partnerships, we evaluate more than just your SEO to help determine if we can deliver a win or not. We want to know how sound your up stream marketing strategy is to better understand how that will amplify or depress our efforts.

In our own work, these three immutable laws of marketing are also principles that help us select the right industries to pursue as we build our Owned & Operated brands. It is generally hard to find a niche that lacks competition, so being able to discern how to differentiate within a niche so that we can create a new category is a good way for us to build a foundation from which we can be successful.

There is likely far more I could say about this layer, but hopefully that resonates or at least gives you a taste of what that type of strategic thinking sounds/looks like.

Operations Level Marketing Strategy

Once the Leadership Level Marketing Strategy is set, you have to move into operations. I generally think about marketing strategy at this level as building the system and understanding where to allocate your resources. After all, many can craft a strategy and a plan, but what really matters is operationalizing the plan and executing.

I know I’m stating the obvious here, but not every channel is going to work for every brand. Although this does seem like common sense, you’d be surprised how many times people have come to Grit asking for paid social, when what they really need is stronger PPC and SEO. In today’s age of information access and social sharing, it is easy to be swayed by the influencers and case studies that make you feel like you’re missing out on a silver bullet. Even seasoned professionals aren’t impervious to it.

This is also the layer, in my opinion, that establishes the funnel and the economics around winning. The best Operational Marketing Strategists are diligent about knowing their funnel and disciplined about measuring it. Two of the biggest questions to answer in this area are:

  1. What is a customer worth to you?
  2. What are you willing to pay to acquire a customer?

Once you know the answer to these two questions, you can provide your Channel Level Marketing Strategists with the guidelines they need to craft their plans for growth.

Channel Level Marketing Strategy

For most agencies, this is where you spend the majority of your time. Channel strategy. The channel strategy layer is where the rubber meets the road, and you have to develop specific plans to inform and direct execution.

I love spending time in this arena because it is what I grew up in the early part of my career doing. As an analyst at Red Ventures, I was constantly trying to identify and execute on new things within SEO to drive performance. SEO Channel Strategy included thinking of things such as:

  1. Testing the buildout of resource-style backlinks to increase DA and drive traffic.
  2. Pivoting from targeting head term search queries to pursuing a long-tail strategy to attack smaller geos.
  3. Rebuilding a page’s content template to incorporate more EAT principles (although this wasn’t around back in the day).

Channel strategy can be really fun. As you get closer to the execution of work, creativity flows and you get to find new ways to deliver a message or package an offer. But, as I alluded to earlier, a risk of falling too deeply in love with channel strategy, is that you lose track of the bigger picture.

So, no matter where you are in your career, early or late, if you’re spending time on Channel Level Marketing Strategy, make sure you are coming up for air to ask the bigger questions: (1) Are the economics of our funnel where they need to be? (2) Is the company targeting the right category, one where we can be first, or are we too broad?

There are many other ways to demonstrate the different levels of marketing strategy, but I promise, the more time you spend forcing yourself to think about each level, the more well-rounded you will be as a professional, and most likely you will find your work yielding stronger results.

The importance of connecting the dots

When I started to recognize and appreciate these different levels of marketing strategy, it began to help me interact with people in a different way. Even for small companies, it’s easy for teams to get knocked off course when your leadership level strategy isn’t understood or leveraged by the various channels. The more removed your front-line technicians are from the higher level strategy, the more likely it is that your marketing will be less effective.

At Grit, we have SEOs, email specialists, designers etc, but I always make an effort to emphasize that we are all marketers! Don’t get me wrong, specialization is important and valuable, but I personally believe that the best specialists also tend to be those who are able to connect the dots the fastest through all levels of marketing.

So, if you want to add value, focus on being a teammate who knows how to zoom in and zoom out to be effective. Channel leaders, ask questions to the Leadership Level Marketers to help contextualize your priorities to what they are focused on. Leadership Level Marketers, spend time with your Channel Marketers to emphasize the vision and reinforce how your company wins at the highest level. You have to be intentional about having these conversations. Otherwise, it’s far too easy to wander off course.

Hopefully this was helpful! Stay tuned for more on this topic as I’ll dig into understanding the dynamics of who does what for companies large and small. Titles can be deceiving — so I’ll look to provide some guidance on knowing how to approach VPs or CMOs for different size companies, with an understanding of what marketing strategy means to them.


Alex Johnson Founder, CEO

Alex has been leading The Grit Group for 9 years to consecutive years of growth and transformation. He writes about digital marketing, leadership, and culture, with a passion for connecting mission & vision to your day-to-day work.

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