The Danger of Confusing
Spin With Strategy

By Patrick Di Chiro
President and CEO, THUNDER FACTORY, Inc.

In the numerous post mortems that followed the bursting of the Internet bubble (It didn't "change everything" after all), one factor was usually overlooked as being key to the Net economy's demise: The fact that management, investors and industry pundits too frequently confused "spin" with "strategy."

This is nothing new for marketers, who have been confusing spin with strategy for many years now.

There is a world of difference between spin and strategy. Spin is about superficial trends, "buzz," nonexistent planning, very little focus, and continual changes in direction. Strategy is based on rigorous planning, long-term value, making the hard decisions, focusing like a laser beam, and consistency over time.

In recent years, marketers have been increasingly satisfied with taking the strategic path of least resistance - they have been adopting spin tactics rather than doing the hard work to come up with a strategy.

One doesn't have to look too broadly to discover some poignant examples of how spin has permeated every aspect of our business and marketing thinking.

Marketing's 30-Year Spin Cycle
Some would argue that the entire Internet economy was a triumph of spin over strategy. Clearly, it was not our finest hour as marketers. It was a time when spin virtually replaced strategy. A time when marketers actually believed that you could "build a brand" by blowing half your annual marketing budget on one Super Bowl commercial. Or, by getting your CEO mentioned a few times in the now defunct and forgotten Industry Standard.

Michael E. Porter, the Harvard Business School professor, who is one of the world's foremost thinkers on business strategy, discussed the decline in the use of strategy in a March 2001 Harvard Business Review article entitled, "Strategy and the Internet." Porter commented: "Many of the pioneers of Internet business, both dot-coms and established companies, have competed in ways that violate every precept of good strategy. Rather than focus on profits, they have sought to maximize revenue and market share at all costs, pursuing customers indiscriminately through discounting, giveaways, promotions, channel incentives, and heavy advertising."

The truth is that marketers began emphasizing spin over strategy long before anyone had ever heard of the term "first mover advantage." The seeds of this trend were planted in the 1960's, during the first major creative revolution in the advertising/marketing industry. This period is rightfully characterized by many as a Renaissance in the advertising business. It brought intelligence, light and humor to a business that too often treated consumers as if they were idiots.

But, there was a dark side to this creative enlightenment. The positive changes of the '60s led to a second creative revolution in the 1970's. Born in San Francisco and L.A, the second creative revolution is best known by its oft-repeated mantra, "It's all about the work."

The "work" stood for the creative output, which itself became the hero and the end game. Not the product, or the client, and certainly not the marketing strategy. In this new spin-focused approach to marketing, the primary goal was to entertain and impress. Selling and building strong, value based relationships with customers and other stakeholders took a back seat.

To be sure, strong creative is a fundamental part of good strategic execution. Effective strategy engages customers, keeps their attention so you can deliver a persuasive message, and hopefully changes their behavior in a positive way. You cannot accomplish that by boring people. But, a marketing-advertising approach that principally emphasizes entertainment, mind share and buzz, is not destined to build long-term success. And definitely not profits. That takes strategy, not spin.

Spinning a "Press Release-a-Day"
At the height of the Internet craze, CEOs of hot public dot coms were known to instruct their marketing and communications staffs to issue a "press release-a-day." They believed that the quantity, not necessarily quality, of these releases would create the impression that their companies were dynamic, growing and successful. Never mind that the vast majority of their releases had no value whatsoever. In fact, a common complaint amongst Wall Street analysts and reporters was that the only thing these companies were winning was the "press release war."

The dot com CEOs readily admitted that their daily press release edicts were solely about spin, and had nothing to do with business strategy. But they adamantly stuck to this practice because they believed it generated the desired results - boosting their stock prices and creating the all-important buzz.

The real problem for these Internet companies and their shareholders was that their buzz-loving CEOs ultimately confused spin with strategy. CNBC was crowded everyday with glib CEOs who exhibited a dangerous habit of seizing the trend du jour and promoting it with an almost religious fervor. Their strategic zig zagging not only hurt productivity, competitiveness and employee morale, it wasted a huge amount of money in the process. Shareholder value quickly went out the window.

Several of these CEOs continue to confuse their spinning with having a real strategy. Evidently, they are hoping they can attract a buyer before their companies simply collapse from too much spin.

Strategy Edges out Spin in Presidential Politics
The term spin was actually coined in the political realm, and it has been enthusiastically practiced there ever since. The original "spinmeisters" were the political operatives who tried to gain competitive advantage for their clients by devising poll-driven messages - and even policies -- that purported to tell voters what they wanted to hear.

The good news is that strategy still does win the day, even in the spin-centric political world. Leaving aside the controversies of the 2000 presidential race, few would disagree that then Governor George W. Bush won the strategy war of the campaign. Many believe that Vice President Al Gore lost by his over reliance on spin.

From the beginning of his campaign, Bush established a clear strategy and deceptively simple messages to communicate his positions. He then did something that seems almost revolutionary these days: He consistently stuck to them throughout the campaign.

Whether or not you agreed with candidate Bush, you knew where he stood. More importantly, his steadfast adherence to his strategy and messages painted the picture of a disciplined, straight talking and even principled politician. One who knew what he wanted to do, and where he would lead the country.

In stark contrast, Vice President Gore was all over the map in campaign 2000. He constantly changed his strategy, and key messages, and thus reinforced a perception that he was just another superficial politician who did not really have any guiding principles. Someone who would "do or say anything to get elected." As such, whether by design or through lack of discipline, Vice President Gore's campaign was essentially run on spin, not a core strategy. The final result reinforced again the power of strategy over spin.

Sparking a New Strategy Revolution
What the marketing industry needs today is a new strategy revolution. In this revolution, the "work" would serve to support the strategy, not the other way around. Spin would just be another tactic in a comprehensive strategic plan. Like the original creative revolution of the '60s, this new strategy revolution would reclaim the true business-building legacy of the marketing profession. It would be built on the following strategic marketing tenets, all pillars of proven business strategy:

Make the Tough Choices - Strategy is not about doing everything - it's about making hard choices and trade-offs, that differentiate and help drive competitive advantage.
Focus on Profitability - Growth, market-share and mind-share are all great, but, without profits, businesses die. Marketers must develop strategies that drive the bottom-line as well as the top-line.
Deliver Real Value - This should be tattooed on every marketer! If you develop and deliver a product and an experience that has real value, you can charge a fair price for it. That helps to build brands, and leads to profits and success. It has nothing to do with spin.
Listen to the Customer - This seems self evident, but it's forgotten all too frequently. Building an effective marketing strategy is, first and foremost, a bottom's up process, not top down. Learn first what your customers really want and need, and then plan from there.
Define Your Unique Value Proposition - The essence of strategy involves developing a differentiated value proposition that drives competitive advantage. If you're having problems doing so, start over. No amount of spin, or marketing budget, will take the place of a strong value proposition.
Be Consistent - As marketers we all know that brands are earned over time. They are not bought - even with expensive advertising campaigns. But, that doesn't stop marketers from trying. To succeed in the long run, you've got to take the time and do the hard work to build a strategy, and then stick to it.

Great companies know that lasting business success comes from having a strategy that is refined, reinforced and followed consistently. If you are willing to do the hard strategic work - and avoid the pitfalls of confusing spin with strategy - you too can build a business franchise that stands the test of time and competition.
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