In uncertain times how far away should the marketing planning horizon be?

Back in the 1980s when I first started consulting in strategic marketing planning companies would regularly produce three year strategic marketing plans. The understanding was that to look forward required three years timeframe to effect any major marketing changes, Of course within this there were always year one tactical plans within a strategic intent for years two and three. Not that the plans always rolled out like they were written because all plans should accept “all bets are off” if the review process within the planning process discovers new threads which require quick reactions.

Since the 1980s times have become less certain but does that mean the time horizon for strategic marketing plans should reduce? Many companies think so, some influenced by Mintzberg and others who championed an emergent approach to planning – much more open to change at all levels within a belief that strategies emerge rather than are planned. Certainly from the mid to late 1990s as I did the consultancy rounds many companies clearly had less formal planning processes in place than previously and focussed more on a resource-based view of competitive advantage, building on their strengths and distinctive competences (sometimes self deluding themselves with mythical dynamic capabilities) rather than a more reflective planned approach to shaping the future of their marketplaces. In addition a more data driven approach (often through underused, but very expensive, CRM systems) meant that planning horizons shrank with a commitment to quick reactions to changing marketplace needs.

About five years ago I began to notice clients moving towards what might be termed a more “planned emergence” approach with quick reactions within some sound framework. And now it is interesting to see that even a FMCG company like Sainsbury’s is moving back to three year marketing plans from a reliance on one year plans (see: http://www.marketingweek.co.uk/news/sainsburys-switches-to-three-year-marketing-planning/4007623.article ). I am sure that this will not stop them from quick reactions to opportunity but I would contend that this will give them a much better perspective on investment decisions and what to spend when – a great combination of strategy and reaction to the “big data” context we live in.

So we now have a strategic marketing planning continuum of planned – planned emergence – emergence. Both ends of this continuum are in effect straw men – nobody ever planned themselves into the ground or just sat around waiting for things to emerge. Let’s move away from demonising either end of this and get down to reflective approaches to the future modified regularly through a good policy review and deployment process informed by emerging trends and “big data” – planned emergence.