Breaking down the term 'strategy' for B2B growth with CMO, Colin Lewis
Behind every fast-growing B2B tech company is the perfect marketing strategy. Most B2B marketers rush into executing products and services to the market instead of thinking through the holistic strategy first.
Colin Lewis has been a professional marketer for 25 years and has worked in different countries worldwide. He is also a coach/advisor and holds workshops for world-leading companies.
On this episode of the FINITE Podcast, Colin explained the proper definition of 'strategy' and not be intimidated by it by fully understanding it.
For Colin's full strategic framework, head here.
This episode covers:
- Who is Colin?
- What is 'strategy'?
- Why is 'strategy' hard?
- Is there a difference between tactics and strategies?
- Is the term 'strategy' overused?
- What is the next step after diagnosis?
- What is positioning?
- What is Colin's favourite Martech tool?
- What is Colin's current biggest challenge?
- What is Colin excited about in the B2B marketing world?
Listen to the full episode here:
And check out more of the FINITE B2B marketing podcast here!
Hi everyone, and welcome to this FINITE Podcast episode, where today we'll hear from Colin Lewis. Colin is currently chief marketing officer at a B2B technology business. He's a frequent marketing week columnist, a researcher E-consultancy, the founder of DMX Dublin. Ireland's largest marketing conference, but he has a vast amount of B2B marketing experience. And Colin has a great strategy framework for B2B growth. The word strategy often can be intimidating and fluffy, but Colin has a way of breaking it down, making it make sense and making it tangible. So I know you'll enjoy this episode. Happy listening.
The FINITE community is kindly supported by the marketing practice, a global integrated B2B marketing agency that brings together all the skills you need to design and run account-based marketing, demand generation channel, and customer marketing programs. Head to themarketingpractice.com to learn more.
Hello Colin, and welcome to the FINITE Podcast. Thank you for joining.
Thank you very much for having me on Alex. Looking forward to talking.
I think we are diving deep into B2B strategy and strategy for B2B growth today, which I'm looking forward to because I think it's a subject that often is intimidating and difficult and one that often people struggle with.
And I know you've got a lot of clarity to add. So before we get there, I will let you introduce yourself. Tell us a bit about your background and current role.
Who is Colin?
Great. Well, I'm a professional marketer, you know, I've been working maybe 25 years in marketing, Australia, Asia, UK, and across Europe. So I worked with some big brands, most recent with an enterprise software B2B business that sells technology, software, travel tech technology software. But aside from my sort of what I do on a day to day basis, I'm also an active writer. I'm a columnist for Marketing Week Magazine.
I've been teaching for 11 years, which is kind some of the stuff we're going to talk about when we talk about strategy. And I've written three best practice support in the last two years. One on best practice in eCommerce, the second one best practice in marketplaces. And the third one about retail media and people regularly get in touch with me to kind of talk about strategy, you know, build it all out for them.
So it's a mixture of the theoretical and the practical. The theoretical coming from my sort of MBA background, but the practical and reality of doing stuff coming from my day job.
Cool. And you touched on MBA just then, was that marketing focused? I'm always fascinated by marketing education and how formal it was in your case?
Well, that's a good question. Because there was more to this ETI I had done an undergraduate degree with a specialisation in marketing and then a masters in specialisation in marketing. And it was a decision then about 15 years after that to go and say: Well, maybe I should do an MBA. And to be honest with you, a little bit of it was me saying maybe I'll do something different, you know, maybe I'll take this MBA and kind of leverage it into a completely different career course.
But actually what happened was I realised that I had been sort of surface skimming if you will, on some of my marketing thinking. And I actually doubled down on the marketing stuff, particularly in the latter half, I took the marketing specialisations and just really read everything.
And people asked me and say: Colin, what did you get outta the MBA? And I said: Well, I remortgage my house for 30 grand. And what I got was a realisation of a love of reading and that was it. You know, everything else plays into comparison with that. And there's a direct line between you and me chatting today and that realisation I love reading and studying.
So let's set the scene on talking strategy. I feel like it's a big word. I'm sure that when people get in touch with you, you hear people talking about and looking at strategy from all kinds of different directions, some of which may be way way out, some of which may be, you know, not far off, I guess it's a big question, but when we say strategy, what are we talking about? What is strategy from your perspective?
What is ‘strategy’?
Well, it's a great question. The answer I use is Richard Rumelt answer from Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, which is strategy is designing a way to deal with the challenge. Now I'm very familiar with the complexity that when we ask this question: What is strategy? Let me explain why.
So having studied strategy in detail, in my MBA. You start coming across all these different concepts. And part of the problem is strategy is an abstraction. It's a word that can mean lots of different things to lots of different people. So I like to kind of make it straightforward.
So Richard Rumelt's version of a strategy is designing a way to deal with challenges amongst the simplest, but within that. And part of the reason for the complexity is the difference between what's called emergent strategy and a planned strategy. And a planned strategy is typically what we think of. Say we're an army and we've got to attack particular targets.
That's called a planned strategy, but an emergent strategy, which sounds like, you know, you're making to go along. That's not an emergent strategy is, but it's a good frame to reference for, which is you learn by doing it. And that strategy itself emerges by you doing it.
So that's kind of the starting point strategy designing a way to deal with the challenge, is to major forms strategy emergent and planned. There're real subtleties in here, and you have a pen of paper, what I would suggest you to write these two words down, at these two statements down to kind of show you the subtlety. And the first one is what is a strategy? And what's in a strategy.
In fact, let me make that three in a row. What is strategy? What is our strategy? What's in a strategy and what is their strategy? And you'll see that addition of a definite and indefinite article changes the whole complexity of the discuss.
So when I start with that, I just go and say, as I said, a second ago, strategy is designing a way of dealing with a challenge. But as strategy is a coherent set of analysis and concepts or policies that respond to that particular challenge.
Absolutely. Yeah. It makes sense. And I think as you say the subtlety is pretty key, but I think this is why I'm sure so many people that you teach and who get in touch with you struggle. Because I think strategy is a word can be pretty intimidating at the best of times, but I think the way you're beginning to break it down is clear in terms of what strategy is, what is a strategy. I guess that leads into the kind of what's in a strategy, unless you want to add anything else to the kind of what is a strategy piece?
Why is ‘strategy’ hard?
Well, actually, just to take your cue there, Alex. It's just doesn't side for everybody here. Don't get intimidated by people when talking about strategy, because a lot of people use a lot of buzzwords and it's very confusing. If you read, say McKinsey piece online or Harvard Business Review online, your head will start buzzing with all these things and you'll start lot thinking. Do I actually know what I'm talking about?
So what I always do at the start of everything is deconstructed its core definition. And that's I say what a strategy. It's coherent, the coherent set of analysis and concepts and policies that respond to this challenge. So once we say, we know what it is, well, what's in this particular thing, if it was the document or whatever, but all strategy starts with diagnosis, which is kind of a framing of the nature of the challenge and actually going to come back to diagnosis.
Cause that's the hardest bit. So we've got a diagnosis and then we create an approach based on the insights that come from that diagnosis. So I'll say that again, we've got a diagnosis and we're creating an approach based on the insights learned from that diagnosis. So this kind of idea of approach and insights give us guidance for the actions we're going to take and this is super important and this is where the confusion occurs.
By the way, I was that confused person. So that's why I've dig deep inside of this. So anybody listen to this shouldn't be feeling intimidated by this. So we got our diagnosis. We're looking at the situation, we're framing it. We create a couple of approaches on how we could address that particular insights that we've come from this diagnosis. Then we create the tactics.
This is really at the core of why we get confused, which is this idea of confused tactics with strategy, or we go straight to tactics and we don't need any diagnosis to impress us. So that's really right there. That's what all our challenges wrapped up in.
Yeah. Makes sense. And when we talk about strategy, at least now in this part of the conversation, I see this is a kind of strategy applied across the entirety to the business. This isn't necessarily purely marketing strategy or go-to-market strategy. This is business-wide. And I guess maybe the question is it even worth separating them out or is strategy kind of all-encompassing across everything it's not really worth differentiating?
Is there a difference between tactics and strategies?
That's a really good question. So am I expecting a person who's a marketing assistant to be totally in tune with the strategy of the organisation when it comes down to the kind of maybe running, say a customer acquisition strategy? Well, let me try and integrate that for you a little bit more.
First of all, as a junior marketer, we are sort of told certain things and we learn certain things and that comes back to that point. We ourselves fall into the trap of tactics, confusing with strategy that’s number one. Number two, many organisations don't really have a strategy. They just veer from one thing to another.
So it's a double problem for the junior to midlevel marketer, which is their company doesn't have a strategy. Their boss doesn't understand strategy and they confused tactics with strategy. And to further compound it before I kind of bring us out of this particular sort of confusion is we also use I'll call lazy language.
And by the way, I do this, and I'm sure you do this as well, Alex. We go and say words like strategic. And what we really mean is very important or, you know, Alex, you're a strategic decision-maker, which really what I mean is you're a senior manager and then, you know, I'm strategically doing something means I'm just being clear. And you know, tied in with that.
We couldn't say I've created a strategy, Alex. Whereas in fact, all I've done is created maybe an ambition for the company or created a goal for the company, or I'm just showing I've got a vision. Now, a vision is not strategy. If I say I want our business to the most respected organisation in the world, I want it to be the most respected purpose-driven company in the world. I want it to be the most attractive business for people to join new employees to join.
They're essentially ambitions or goals or visions, but that's not a strategy. They're sort of inspirational things. So like my final point before I get into, I had to make it all this real for you is language is a challenge. Cause lazy language makes strategy hard.
Makes sense. And so do you, I guess, is the word strategy overused from your perspective?
Is the term ‘strategy’ overused?
It's overused by people like me who should know better as well. And most people don't stand a chance of that kind of thing. There's a great book by Lawrence Freedman, who's actually a lecture in one of the universities in London, but his background is in the military side and military end of things is really what actually does kind of create the real problem is that there's two outlets.
One is we people start using these military metaphors in strategy, which kind of turn a lot of people off and also they're not really kind of applicable. However, when you look at it, and this is particularly a massive doorstep book but it's incredibly well written, it's called Strategy by Lawrence Freedman.
You start realising that it's very much a concept that has changed a lot in the last 50 years. Because concept business strategy wasn't really started being taught since the 60s, and until then strategy was seen in the context of military or political and strategy from a business perspective only really came on stream with the advent of MBA classes and MBA courses gaining ahead of steam in the 1960s.
So it's actually quite a newish thing. Well, let me explain where I think you start now, if we have our imaginary piece of paper in front of us, Alex. What I would suggest if you have a landscape piece of paper in front of you and you draw a box at the top of this document, and you just write the word in a box saying diagnosis, and then underneath that you then draw a word in another box: strategy.
And then underneath that you draw a box that says brand positioning or just position, and underneath the positioning box, you draw two different other boxes, one that says product and proposition. And the other says that brand activation and your final box, box number five is just called execution in market. Let me just kind of flow through all that, the starting point as per Richard Rumelt is a decent diagnosis.
And let's just take a few seconds on diagnosis before I go back to the framework. I'd argue now I'm being a little bit subjective here. I'll tell you, but I would argue that the biggest problem I see across the board is poor diagnosis.
Now I was talking to a group last week with 20 marketing students in the class and they were doing a big project and the project was creating a digital marketing strategy and after the discussion around the digital marketing strategy. I'd say I spent 40% of it trying to talk to them about diagnosis because of their temptation.
Our temptation is always to talk about the bottom box, which is the execution, which is like creating the ideas, the creative, and getting it out into the market. There's a friend of mine. Who's great friend, and he's a great guy, but he's the sort of person when you're talking about something, he'll go and say: Well, what if we did XYZ then?
What if we hired an influencer and all the rest. And he gets straight into tactics like in every single occasion. And I always have to say, his name is Vincent, Vincent don't even know what we're talking about because I don't know what you're trying to do. So I don't care whether you're getting TikTok, email or carrier pigeon to get the message out there. You need to tell me what you're trying to do.
And Alex, you know, when we talked a few weeks ago, initially, I think the first kind of point I tried to get across was that we're almost 90%, not all, almost 90% of your execution in market, your digital marketing challenges or your brand challenges, your brand activation challenges start much higher up in those boxes that I mentioned earlier.
You haven't had a decent diagnosis and you haven't kind of devised decent strategy or you don't have a decent position. It's always one of those too. And so whenever anybody asks me things I go straight to those and I don't worry about whether you've chosen to do TikTok or carrier pigeon as your communication strategy.
That makes perfect sense.
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What about the positioning side of things? Cause again, I think that's a challenge. I think brands come up in so many different guises and a lot of people would say that brand kind of starts at the top. Everything almost stems from brand.
But I guess with the boxes, you've laid out, you know, strategy and that diagnosis comes first and then brand and positioning follow. Or maybe you can talk a bit about how to go about that positioning piece once you've got the brand laid out.
What is the next step after diagnosis?
Well in the B2B world, I'd argue Alex, you know, I'm going bounce back to the diagnosis bit for a second there. Because it's a bit of a hobby horse of mine before I talk about the positioning piece. That's another hobby horse. So don't get me started. The diagnosis piece and let's kind of move out of the realm of marketing. And let's talk about say all the current conversations around environmentalism and other things like that. You don't have to be pro or anti-environmental and all the climate change stuff to kind of work out that a lot of the diagnosis is suspect, say the least, and it goes straight to blame.
And for instance, you know, you and I, Alex, if we, no matter how much you and I wrap and pack our plastic bags and you know, the right thing to do and, you know, recycle all our paper and all the rest, but it really does make that much of a difference to what's going on in the world because the majority of climate change and pollution and CO2 is caused by things that are much bigger, but we always end up going to the every day in the sort of, as the word is quotidien.
Because that's a bit we can understand, but really a proper diagnosis would say, a version of don't to worry about recycling your plastic bags. We actually have to tackle the cement business, or we have to tackle the old business for us because that will have a much bigger impact. So I'm just using that as an example, you don't have to be on any side of the fence on climate change to work out that the diagnosis sometimes is a bit kind of incorrect in terms of what you could do.
So then we talk about strategy. Strategies about like basically deciding where to play and how to win based on this understanding of the market by decent diagnosis. But part of this, and this is where we go straight into the marketing strategy. Of course, you got to understand to create a marketing strategy in your brand position, you got to understand the customer, you got to know how to segment.
What is positioning?
You got to know how to target and understand how the brand can grow. So once you've done this diagnosis and you've created your marketing strategy, that's when the world of brand positioning caves in. What is positioning? It's about where your brand fits in relative to other brands. And there's a book in the 1980s, it's called Positioning by Recent Trend. They're very adamant on this, which positioning this done in the mind, not at the storefront, not at the point we purchase.
We all position and the fun way I have always teaching this is I talk about cars because I'm a bit of a car nut. And I talk about it in that context there. And I say, so Alex, if I say the word Mercedes to you, what comes to mind? And by the way, typically when everybody says is big, luxurious, German. And if I say the word so Ferrari, everybody goes and says, you know, red, Italian midlife crisis, or whenever it may be. Yeah. And then if I say Tesla, then they come up with these other sets of things.
Now, typically in the audience, not one person has a Mercedes, not one person has a Ferrari and very few if I have a Tesla. And so it proves the point that, you know, in many respects with the positioning that is done in the mind, and it's not something that you even have to have the product purchase to experience positioning.
So it's always in relation to other brands and separate clothing. I mean, obviously, the folks who do luxury products spend their whole time thinking about this. Now, if we look at B2B positioning, if I just kind riff on that for a few minutes, one of the best kinds of people who've looked at this is April Dunford and her positioning book is probably the best for any of the audience to listen to.
First of all, I've met April. She's really genuine. She's really great person. If you listen to any podcasts, you really see that she teases us out very well, particularly for folks like us who sometimes feel a little bit neglected in the B2B folks.
Yeah, we actually had her on the podcast last year. She's great, and she's lovely.
Yeah. And the way of talking that I also use as well. So that's why I would encourage, it's not just an abstract discussion talking about April's material, I've applied it and used it. And you know, for positioning, you really have to look at your competitive alternatives and she uses this great phrase, which I really tried to run home to people, which is the pattern of alternative also includes doing nothing.
I don't know how many times I've sat meetings with sales folks and product folks and they come up with all sorts of competitive alternatives but never go and say the alternative is an excel sheet. The alternative is, you know, my map on my desk. I said a piece of scrap paper on my desk. So for instance, like kinda be a little silly about this. You can give me all the sort of productivity tools, software tools, sign up and do all the rest.
But no matter what I keep coming back to the same pen and paper, that's my productivity. That's what I use. I cannot get my head around all this other software stuff. And just works for me, yeah. Then there's this idea of the key unique attributes, what features and capabilities do you have from different competitors that do not have and you've got to be brutal with yourself on that because a lot of people say, you know, Alex, I've got X Y and Z, and you're like: Well, the competitors can't complain about that.
Yeah, but it's not as good as ours. Well, that's not how people are buying. Not as good as not a thing. Because what you want to talk about is the value. And these picture attributes have to really create a lot of value. You know, if you're new into the market and you're in B2B, you've got to over-deliver on the value rather than just have a, we do a little bit and I think it's good.
You know, you got to really over-deliver if you're new then I mean the sort of like the killer piece around B2B positioning is finding customers that care. One thing that April doesn't cover off as much, but it's where I like to do is say, when you talk about customers and customers that care, you've really got to be in tune with the adoption curve.
And you may be familiar with Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore, the definitive tech marketing book, but he's got two sorts of segments at the left-hand side of it. Bottom left-hand side of it, which is the sort of not just the early adopters, but the people, the tinkerers, the people who like messing around with things, excuse me. And if you're a company that's doing new tech, that's an MVP. That's just barely working, talking about going to the mass market is completely silly.
What you want to be doing is working with people who are willing to work with things that don't quite work as yet. So it's one point particularly around the position that people sometimes forget the customer that cares may not be the mass market. The customer that cares may be the tinkerers, the people who just like messing around with stuff until it works.
And the final point of positioning is the markets that you could win. Because how do you create this value that is so obvious to people? How do you communicate it? And that's where your series of messages come in. And what happens is as like I said, in the start like people run straight to tactics, they run straight to messaging, but they're thinking about consumer what the other customer or what they want. They run messaging without thinking the value created and they run straight messaging without thinkings of attributes that matter. You can't go and create an activation, activate and activate a position you've all that worked out.
Makes sense, I think you break it down nice and clearly, if I can understand it, then I think everybody else listening will be able to as well. There are lots there. It might be that we can follow up if there's anything that we can share, that there's visual or linked to, then we can look at doing that.
I can give you the strategy framework. I'd love your audience to have a look at it there because you know, I want to kind of give them, you know, the way the Pope stands up in the corner of St. Mark square and blesses everybody and says, I absolve you from your sins. Well, sort of my metaphorical version of that, my rather silly metaphorical version of that is don't be hard yourself.
If you know, I don't really get this kind of strategy thing. I think a lot of the stuff around positioning as kind bit concerning. I'm really quite sure I get it. And just like, Pope themselves will remove your sins. I'll absolve you of this problem and not be worrying about it because we're dealing always and forever in this kind concept of what I call abstractions and many of our products like if I went to my local supermarket, I can lift things up and touch and feel.
But if I think about eCommerce often doing is interacting with pixels on a screen. And so, therefore, particularly if you, any of your folks, they're selling B2B professional services, B2B technology, it's the same thing. These are abstractions their ideas, their services. And we can only bring this to life, to creating propositions that have decent positioning with great messaging.
So it's very, very hard because we're dealing with abstractions and what you're always trying to do is make it up and make it real. And you make it real through great propositions and great messaging, which then it means you can go to the market and do your AdWords campaign, or do your SEO campaign or do your webinar, whatever it may be. But you going to do that hard work first, Alex.
Absolutely. Yeah. Makes perfect sense. I want to wrap up because we're nearly out of time with a few final, quick-fire questions. If you like first one being, do you have a favourite MarTech tool or technology?
What is Colin’s favourite Martech tool?
The cornerstone, my first and true love email
I feel like email's having a bit of a resurgence.
Yeah. And what about your biggest challenge right Now?
What is Colin’s current biggest challenge?
Getting my head around web 3.0 without getting suckered into you know, buying NFTs for 6 million dollars and losing it. More seriously though, just to actually, I don't mean even it in a marketing context because I was around to understand web and web 2.0.
And there's elements of web 3.0 that are going to mean that if you understand them, you'll be ahead of the curve, which means you'd be able to apply them, which means, you know, you won't fall into buy trap spending 5 million pounds on an NFT.
Yeah. And what about ending on an optimistic note, looking forwards? Anything that you're most excited about in the B2B marketing world?
What is Colin excited about in the B2B marketing world?
Well, the B2B marketing world until I don't even say five or six years ago was probably seen as the, the black key to the family, the way I kind of, you know, it used to be the Basian the last bastion of people who organising the golf days and the events kind of thing. But actually digital has not just, I was gonna say the word Renaissance, but digital has created a brand new set of capabilities that can really make B2B marketing, both interesting fun, and a very clear ROI in this.
So arguably there's a lot more opportunities in marketing for B2B than ever before. And part of that excitement is what I'll call the consumerisation of B2B. In other words, the application of all the cool techniques that were applied in consumer marketing for the last 50 or 80 years, since the dawn of the brand manager in the 1930s in P&G. Although those tools are still I think has yet be rolled that to B2B. So arguably the wave of B2B is just starting. It's a great place to be. And you know, you're all in the right place. That's for sure.
Well, that's a positive note wrap up. Thank you, Colin. It's been a pleasure talking, lots of super clear and practical advice and thinking that you've shared. So thank you. As we talked about, hopefully we can link to a few bits in the description below, but thanks again.
Thank you very much for your time, Alex, and I wish everybody on this podcast a fortunate in 2022.
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