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Marketing plan

Why read this? : We share the structure and content that drive a successful marketing plan. Learn how to define where your business is now. How to set the direction and goals for the next 6-18 months. And, how to decide the actions you’ll take to get there. Read this to learn how to craft your marketing plan into a more compelling story.

Marketing plan

How this guide raises your game :-

  1. Find out the 3 key business questions your marketing plan has to answer.
  2. Learn how tools like the marketing mix and GAME plans help you structure and share your marketing plan.
  3. Improve the process you use to build and action your marketing plan.

The marketing plan is where you get more specific about what you’re going to do with your brand. 

Following the brand development process, you’ll have gathered lots of market research and insights. You’ll have segmented the market, decided which target audience to go after, and defined your positioning as part of the overall segmentation, targeting and positioning process. And you’ll have your brand identity ready to go. 

But all of these, happen inside your business. And for them to have any impact, you now need to write a marketing plan to show how you’ll bring them to life outside your business. It’s how you turn all your internal ideas into external activation that customers experience. 

White piece of paper on a desk saying "Marketing Strategy" surrounded by office stationery, plants and other marketing books

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The marketing plan - a to-do list for your brand

Your marketing plan is your brand’s to-do list for the next 6-18 months. It’s your brand’s “story” to guide everyone working on the brand so they know what to do.

The key jobs it has to do are to show :-

  • where your brand starts from – the context i.e. the highlights from the previous steps in the brand development process. 
  • where it’s trying to go – the brand goals and objectives.
  • how it’s going to get there – all the key actions, so you can write briefs and work with internal stakeholders and external agencies to deliver customer-facing activation.
Man's hand holding a camera lens in front of a lake with mountains and blue skies in the background

3 Key questions to structure the marketing plan

One of the challenges with marketing planning is every brand has a different story to tell. No two marketing plans will be the same as every brand’s context is different. 

For example, you have to account for different category drivers and different competitive strategies. Different internal understanding of what marketing does. And different expectations on timings, budgets and results.  

So you may go long and detailed with your marketing plan. Or short and high-level. You may cover every activity you plan to do or just the headlines. It depends on what works best for your business’s culture. 

Marketing cartoon - presenting the marketing plan - man pointing to a screen and saying "But I have a 2 x 2 grid AND a pyramid!"

But, as great stories have a planned structure, so too, do great marketing plans. This is based on 3 key questions :-

  1. Where is your business now?
  2. Where does your business want to be in 6-18 months time?
  3. How are you going to get there?

Where is your business now?

You start your marketing plan by setting out where your business is now. This is often called a situation analysis, external analysis or marketing audit. You collate and analyse the current status of your brand and business. This helps you identify the key priorities which will drive the rest of the marketing plan.

There can be a lot of detail here, so it’s key that you organise it into a meaningful summary.

One of the most common tools for this is the SWOT analysis. It synthesises your key (internal) strengths and weaknesses, and your (external) opportunities and threats. From that, you pull out 3-4 overarching themes that will shape your future goals, objectives and actions.

SWOT analysis - key questions for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats

Strengths

Your strengths are advantages you have over competitors. They’re something you do that your target audience likes, needs and/or wants. 

For example, you offer lower prices. Or higher quality. Or better customer service. Maybe a unique ingredient or benefit? A more stylish design, or a more efficient service level? It could also be relevant marketing activities you do particularly well. Say, your packagingwebsite or public relations activities. 

The key is to identify the strength and what’s needed to make it even stronger over the next 6-18 months.

Close up of a Superman lego hero figure against a dramatic red sky background

Weaknesses

Weaknesses unsurprisingly are where competitors have an advantage over you. They’re in similar areas to the strengths, but here you need to improve how you do them, or you’ll lose out. That could mean doing something new (i.e. launching an innovation) or changing or stopping doing something which negatively impacts customers.

The key is to identify them and work out how to reduce them over the next 6-18 months. 

Opportunities

Opportunities come from your external assessment of your category. They’re factors you can exploit to increase the chances of hitting your business goal. 

For example, you spot an unmet need or market trend you can act on before your competitors do. So you plan innovation launches and new services to take advantage of these new opportunities. You use planning tools like the Ansoff matrix to work out to find growth opportunities. Market research to ask customers about their needs. And idea generation to find ways to meet those unmet needs. 

Opportunities can also come from learning from previous marketing activity. Something which went well, or where you made mistakes but learned from them. For example, a particular advertising message or media channel which worked well (or didn’t) with customers. 

You can also look for opportunities in geography and with trade customers. For example, expanding your activities into new locations or selling through channels you don’t currently work with.

Threats

Threats are external factors which create a risk of you missing your business goals.

For example, you find out about a disruptive competitor activity. A big innovation, advertising campaign or sales promotion that’ll impact your brand’s sales. Or maybe a retailer is talking about changing their store or shelf layout so you’ll have less presence and availability.

Threats can also cover wider macro events like changes in laws and regulations. These may restrict your ability to carry out previously successful activities.

(See our SWOT example article for more on SWOTs).

Triangular warning sticker with large exclamation mark on a wall. Sticker has many rips and tears in it.

Making your SWOT a strength and opportunity

The SWOT on its own won’t guarantee you’ll write a great marketing plan. 

You have to make sure that you have high-quality inputs going into it. Key insights from your qualitative, quantitative and secondary research. These should be objective, customer-focused facts which help you understand what you need to do to win in your category.

Identifying and analysing these so you can define the implications is what gets you to high-quality outputs. There has to be a “so what” behind everything you put in your SWOT. The “so what” is what drives the decisions you make in the rest of your marketing plan. 

Person holding glasses in front of them against a blurry street background

Where does your business want to be in 6-18 months time?

Next, you define where you want your business to be in the next 6-18 months. You set your brand goals and objectives

Traditionally, most marketing plans cover 12 months to tie in with the financial year. The business’s financial measures like sales targets, budgets and profits are driven by the marketing plan. 

This works fine when market events are predictable. For example, for many categories, there will be key times of the year when demand is high. Ice cream sales go up in the summer, and gift purchases go up at Christmas, for example. You can plan for those events. 

An Amazon cardboard box with Christmas icons on it sitting in a hallway with a Christmas tree in the background

However, the challenge with making the marketing plan an annual event is when unpredictable events happen. And those happen a lot. If your 12-month marketing plan is too set in stone, you risk not being able to react quickly enough to new events in the market. 

That means you need some flexibility in your marketing plan. Most marketing plans have now evolved into more of a rolling 6-18 month document versus a ‘fixed’ 12-month document.

They go into more detail on short-term (i.e. within 6 months) initiatives because short-term events are more predictable than longer-term ones.

Recognising that the longer-term is harder to predict, the 6 to 18 month marketing plan is then more high level and so, allows more flexibility.

This ‘rolling’ plan is then regularly reviewed and updated every 3 to 6 months, based on market performance and any changes in the market.

Check out our brand activation guide for more on reviews and measurement.

Close up of a man's hands holding a light bulb that's illuminated

How will your brand get there?

Now you know where you are and where you want to be, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty of the marketing plan. The specific actions you’ll take to help the brand hit that future target. Though this is led by the marketing team, it’s often a cross-functional project team that works on writing the plan. Marketing doesn’t operate in isolation. 

For example, you’ll need :- 

  • finance teams to check the financial projections and make sure sales, cost and profitability targets are met.
  • operations and supply chain teams to plan materials, equipment and system changes.
Woman wearing a check shirt, yellow hard hat, protective goggles and gloves in a factory setting working on a piece of metal equipment
  • HR teams to support you with any people-based implications of the marketing plan.
  • sales teams to align your plans and activities with those of key retailers.

With that many stakeholders to engage, clearly marketing planning can be a complex challenge. Some marketing plans can run to hundreds of pages. That’s never a good sign though. If your marketing plan gets too complex, it takes too long to write (and read), confuses people and never gets put into practice.

So, you also have to aim for your marketing plan to be :-

  • simple enough for everyone to understand.
  • flexible enough to react to market changes.
  • clear enough to give direction and ensure consistency.

The 3 key sections of your marketing plan

To get that simplicity, flexibility and clarity, you want to make your plan as readable as possible. Include only what’s necessary. Write “tight” using as few words as possible. Stay away from jargon and use words everyone will understand. There are 3 key sections to focus on which form the heart of your marketing plan :-

  1. Customer experience.
  2. Marketing mix and GAME plan.
  3. Activity Calendar.

Customer experience

Your marketing plan should reiterate your target audience, including any customer profiles you’ve written. This should include a succinct summary of key market research and insights you have about the customer experience. These define who the customer is and what their needs are.

It should state clearly the change in attitude or behaviour you want to drive with those customers over the next 6-18 months. You’d draw out a journey map to help identify the key jobs to be done to drive those changes.

This section is all about bringing the customer to life, so you know exactly what actions you have to take to improve the customer experience

Strategy and tactics

Those actions can be at a strategy or tactical level.  

Strategy-level actions look longer-term and focus on how you’ll do things to achieve your goal. They set direction and are more holistic. 

Tactics are more focused on what you will do in the short to medium term. They’re more specific and immediate actions to move you towards your goals. 

For example, let’s say your competitive strategy is to lead on price and keep costs low. 

Board level view of a chessboard as you are playing black and your opponent is moving their white queen

You’d have a bunch of tactics in your marketing plan to support that strategy. Price discounts. Sales promotions. Commercial planning with retailers and suppliers. And so on. 

Usually, your strategy has already been defined at this point, so the focus for Customer Experience is usually more on tactics and immediate actions. (See also our beware the strategist article for more on this).

Marketing mix and GAME plans 

From the customer ‘jobs to be done’, you next start planning how you’ll satisfy those customer needs.

This is when you get more into the detail of brand activation planning. Which specific marketing activities you’ll do. What they need to achieve. How you’ll do them, and who’ll do them. How much time and budget you’ll spend on them. And how you’ll know they worked .

There’s 2 key planning tools you can use to help you scope, organise and communicate these activities :-

  • the marketing mix.
  • GAME plans. 
Examples of the marketing mix 4Ps and 7Ps - product, price, promotion, place, people, process, physical location

The marketing mix

The 4Ps are the most well-known version of the marketing mix. The “P”s are Product, Price, Promotion and Place. This model dates back to Professor E Jerome McCarthy‘s 1960 book Basic Marketing : A Managerial Approach. It was then popularised by Philip Kotler in his 1980s and 1990s classic marketing bool, Marketing Management. While there have been many attempts to come up with alternatives since then, it’s still popular due to its clarity and simplicity.

Flicking back through our own battered copy of Kotler’s book, the processes and scope are mostly still valid. In particular, for product-led businesses, the 4Ps work as a useful action checklist for ways to meet the needs of your target audience.

Product

The product section covers many different factors. The focus is on finding ways to increase the chances of customers buying your product. For example, the product section in the marketing plan typically answers questions like :-

  • What improvements to the quality or features of the product could you make?
  • What are the style characteristics of the product?
  • How could you adjust the product’s look, sound, feel, taste or smell?
  • Have you reviewed the brand name to make sure it appeals to the target audience?
  • What about the range you offer? Or what if you make your product available in different sizes?
  • Have you reviewed any warranties or guarantees you offer with your product?
  • Have you considered when and how much of a product to make available?

Price

Price impacts the perception of your brand. It affects how customers see your brand versus your competitors.

The price section of the marketing plan would cover :-

  • Regular or list price – the price you will sell to customers when not on sale.
  • Discounts – the types of sales promotion and price discounts you’ll offer. When you will offer them. e.g. discounts for bulk orders or quicker payments.
  • Payment periods – do customers pay in advance, at the time of purchase or can they defer payment?
  • What about subscription and repeat orders?
Shop window with two clothed mannequins and three price discount stickers on the window of 50%, 30% and 20%
  • Setting your price points versus competitors.
  • Extra benefits you can offer to increase the perception of value e.g. free delivery or servicing, and extended warranties.

Promotion

Promotion is mainly driven by marketing communications. Your marketing plan should cover key areas like :-

Place

Finally, place relates to “where’ you’ll sell the product. This part of the marketing plan will look at :- 

  • Do you sell through retailers or do you sell direct to consumers? Or both?
  • Does your product only sell in stores or are you also selling online
  • If you sell through retailers, how will your plans tie into their plans for the year?
  • If selling online, how does the order to delivery process work? Have you considered areas like warehousing and transport as part of your plan? How will your products physically get into the hands of customers?
Supermarket central aisle with lots of displays and signage on view

The marketing 7Ps for services

There’s also an extended 7Ps version of the 4Ps used for service-led business. It keeps the same 4Ps but adds in an extra 3Ps to cover :-

  • people.
  • process.
  • physical location.

People

If your staff interact with customers, then your team is part of your marketing mix too. For example, in categories like hospitality, health and beauty and travel, face-to-face interaction is an important part of the customer experience. 

Your plan should cover how you’ll organise and train your team to best manage these interactions. That usually covers key HR-related areas like recruitment, culture, training and your reward programme.

Process

Your teams who interact with customers have to act consistently. You should build clear processes they can follow. For example, restaurant diners are always welcomed warmly. Payments go through your finance and IT systems correctly. (See our customer experience guide for more examples of process optimisation). 

Physical Location

Finally, there’s physical location. This covers the environment in which the customer interaction takes place. For example, how do you set up the venue’s ambience? What colours do you use? How well lit is it? How is it laid out to make it the best experience for the customer and so on.

Physical location can also extend online. For example, what’s the experience of your brand website or online store? In this case, the ‘location’ is the screen of the device the customer uses. But the same principles apply. 

How do you use the marketing mix?

You use the “P”s of the marketing mix as a checklist to make sure your marketing plan covers everything it should.

They prompt you to review how each of those areas is working and to think about how you could do them better. 

Even if you decide to not change what you do in one of the “Ps”, covering it in the marketing plan means you’ve at least given it some thought. It means you make conscious decisions about what marketing activities you’ll do rather than letting things drift along chaotically.

The marketing mix helps you prioritise and focus on which activities will have the most impact.

Question mark spray painted onto a tree trunk among a wood of trees

If you can’t get the 4Ps / 7Ps model to “fit” your business, or it just doesn’t work for you, think about what marketing factors would work as a checklist for you. For example, some businesses use a 4C model. For example,  Consumer-Cost-Convenience-Communication or Commodity-Cost-Channel-Communication.

The underlying principle’s the same though. A checklist that helps you break down the big task of “improve your marketing” into a list of smaller, more actionable areas of marketing activity. (See our example marketing mix case study article to see one being put into action).

Your aim here is to come up with a list of the big initiatives and activities you’ll focus on. How many depends on your context, but around 5-6 is the norm. Maybe less for smaller businesses with a specific focus, maybe a few more for really big businesses. These “big” activities you then flesh out with more detail using the GAME plan format.

GAME plan

GAME stands for Goal – Activity – Measure – Evaluation.

It helps everyone quickly understand what the plan is in that area, so they can orient themselves before digging into more detail.

It also makes it easier to compare different initiatives within the plan by presenting each one using a consistent format. Very helpful when you’re trying to prioritise. 

The Goal usually starts quite broad. Grow sales. Launch innovations. Change market behaviour. It supports the overall brand goal set earlier in the process. But it’ll be more specific to the activity e.g. $Xm sales from new advertising campaign, or from launching product A.

Game plan examples - marketing plan

You then list the specific activities which will deliver that goal from the earlier marketing mix work.

In this example, the key activities focus on “Product” and “Promotion” because the goal is driving market share. The activities to support hitting this goal include innovation launches and new advertising campaigns

The GAME plan then sets out the measures that’ll show if your activity has succeeded. For example, improved brand health, campaign awareness levels and customer trial or conversion rates.

The evaluation part of the GAME plan then identifies HOW the measures will be reported and reviewed.

(See our brand activation guide for more on performance management).

A completed template of a GAME plan with examples of the Goal, 4 Activities each with measures and evaluation

Activity Calendar

The final essential component of your marketing plan is your activity calendar. This creates timelines for each initiative, breaks down smaller sub-activities and helps you assign project teams and individual responsibilities. 

It gives you an overview of what should happen each week so you can stay on top of progress. You use it to visualise and track the way each project is going to help identify barriers, opportunities and synergy areas. 

You should review and update this regularly with the teams working on your biggest initiatives. It helps you make decisions about :- 

Person holding calendar with 9 days crossed out with the letter x
  • which projects need more support.
  • which it may be OK to pull back on.
  • how you can plan new projects based on market changes since the original marketing plan was written.

It also helps to assign budgets to specific activities within the activity calendar. Monitoring spend and cash flow is part of the ongoing project management process. You should share the activity calendar with your finance team as it helps understand what the money’s being spent on and what future finance requirements they’ll need to plan for. (See our brand activation guide for more on what happens during activity calendar reviews). 

Final thoughts on building a great marketing plan

The marketing plan is a key document in your business, but it’s worth remembering marketing planning is a process. For processes to work, you need people to make them happen.

So to get a great marketing plan, you need to consider how to also make it more compelling for people. 

There are 3 key areas to focus on :-

  • Simplicity and clarity.
  • Involving people in building it. 
  • Being flexible, rather than fixed.
Yellow post it with illustration of a lightbulb pinned to a wooden pin board

Simplicity and clarity

It’s tempting to put everything you’ve found out into your marketing plan. After all, you don’t want to miss anything. However, the marketing plan is supposed to be an actionable document. You should only include the information and insights needed to help drive the right actions.

That means being ruthless in what you choose to include in your final marketing plan. You want it to be written in a very readable way, with very clear calls to action for the rest of the business. And talking of the rest of the business …

Involve people - it’s as much a process as a document

The marketing plan only works if the whole business gets behind it. You’ll need support, time and focus from other functions and your agencies to make it all happen.

You’ll get much more support from those teams if you involve them earlier in the process so they feel part of building the plan. 

Share the information and insights you gather and make sure key stakeholders get a chance to be part of the decision-making. This’ll help you overcome typical barriers you might run into, and make everybody’s life easier. Plus, you’ll come out with a stronger marketing plan, and a team of people fully engaged in delivering it.

Keep it flexible rather than fixed 

One of the big challenges when building your marketing plan is time.

The longer it takes you to write, the more likely changes will happen in the market which will force you to change your plans. But the longer it takes you to write, the harder it is for you to change the plan. 

So, it’s a constant challenge to find the sweet spot. You want to be detailed enough to provide clear direction and consistency. But also flexible enough to update your plans when needed. 

The key is to not let yourself get too fixed on any part of your plan. The goal is to do what’s right for the brand now and into the foreseeable future. 

Woman in exercise gear sitting cross legged on a yoga mat and twisting to one side

If you see changes happening, keep an open mind and always be prepared to do something better. Your marketing plan should be an evolving document which keeps you on track towards achieving your marketing goals.

Conclusion - How to build a great marketing plan

The ideal marketing plan drives your business forward over the next 6-18 months. It sets out where your business is now, where you want it to go, and the key activities you’ll do to get there. 

This basic brand story structure helps you get everyone on board with the plan, while still leaving flexibility to fill in the specific details which make it your brand’s story for the year ahead. 

There are many areas to cover. How you write the plan, who’s involved and what your final plan looks like all depend on what works best for your business. You’ll learn what that is as you put your marketing plan together. This guide should have given you plenty of ideas about how to start doing that. 

Three-Brains and brand strategy

Need help with your brand strategy skills? We have lots of marketing experience building successful brand strategies. Our coaching and consulting services can help you at each stage of brand planning with expert advice and support. Get in touch to learn how we can help you build your brand strategy skills and grow your business.

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