Strategy and Tactics: The Law of Unintended Consequences

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At the beginning of World War I, it was an unwritten, but generally accepted, rule that combatants would not sink the non-combatant ships of their adversaries.

Then the British First Lord of the Admiralty – Winston Churchill – spotted a way to capitalize on this convention to the benefit of his side. He started shipping munitions as cargo on passenger liners. It didn’t take long for the Germans to figure out what was happening. And, among other shipping, they sank the Lusitania.

The world was in an uproar. The Germans were blamed, of course, for being totally uncivilized, bloodthirsty, and inhumane. The British, of course, took the high moral ground.

But no matter who was right or who was wrong, naval warfare was changed forever. And a short-term advantage became a long-term cost.

There is a lesson here for business: Not every apparent advantage yields a long-term good.

For example, aspirin has been around as a general pain reliever for generations. Just about everyone took it for headaches, backaches, a slight fever, etc. It was ubiquitous enough that jokes were built around it. (“Take 2 aspirin and call me in the morning.”)

Then Bayer decided to differentiate its product and capitalize on the finding that an aspirin was helpful in preventing and alleviating (minor) heart attacks. Suddenly there was a long-term marketing campaign touting the benefits of Bayer aspirin for heart attacks; packaging was changed; positioning was developed; even new, smaller dose tablets were introduced – all on this basis.

Have you noticed Bayer’s most recent campaign? Guess what? Aspirin is not just for your heart; it is good for headaches, backaches, fever, etc.

As sadly amusing as these examples might be, I think they bring into focus the danger of confusing tactics with strategy.

Tactics aim for a short-term advantage. Strategy has both a wider and longer-term view. It harnesses a variety of tactics to achieve a long-term good – sustained and growing market share and revenues.

So it might be wise, as we are creating our mobile marketing strategies, our social media strategies, our customer engagement strategies, etc. to remember that we are not really creating strategies. We are creating tactics that should be supporting our organization’s long-term business strategy.

It does make a difference.

Emily R. Coleman
Dr. Emily R. Coleman is President of Competitive Advantage Marketing, Inc., a firm that specializes in helping companies expand their reach and revenues through strategy and implementation. Dr. Coleman has more than 30 years of hands-on executive management experience working with companies, from Fortune 500 firms to entrepreneurial enterprises. Dr. Coleman's expertise extends from the integration of corporate-wide marketing operations and communications to the development and implementation of strategy into product development and branding.

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