Quick! Name a movie that features strategic planning. Chances are you’re thinking of The Italian Job or Ocean’s Eleven. For me, the movie that comes to mind is The Princess Bride.

Princess BrideWhile it may not be obvious, Westley, the lowly farm boy smitten by Princess Buttercup, is a crack strategic planner. When Buttercup is kidnapped by Prince Humperdink, a power hungry tyrant itching to start a war with the neighboring kingdom, Westley knows what he has to do and crafts a plan to accomplish it.

Westley’s plan embodies the key elements of an effective strategic marketing plan: an inspiring noble purpose, clear objectives, compelling strategies, and specific, actionable supporting tactics.

By executing the plan, he overcomes all obstacles and rescues the Princess and achieves true love.

What were the elements of his plan and what can we, as marketers, learn from it?

  1. A Noble Purpose

    It’s not enough to simply have a financial objective. To satisfy multiple stakeholders, it’s essential to aspire to something greater, a noble purpose that motivates the entire organization.

    Westley’s purpose was to achieve true love. By setting the stakes high, Westley is able to inspire others to help him. In the immortal words of Miracle Max, “Sonny, true love is the greatest thing in the world.”

  2. A SMART Objective

    Westley’s objective was simple: Win Buttercup back before she marries Prince Humperdink. Objectives don’t get much more single-minded. Furthermore, Westley’s objective meets all five criteria of a SMART, well-crafted goal. It is Specific and Measurable (return the Princess to Florin), Aggressive (she’s already engaged), Realistic (okay this may be a stretch, but he’s committed) and Time Bound (the wedding is imminent).

    In our experience, many marketing objectives lack one or more of SMART dimensions. Growing market share is a common objective, but to be useful it needs quantification, a time period and a specific sense of where the share will be sourced from.

  3. A Few Compelling Strategies

    Confusing objectives with strategies is one of the most common errors we see in strategic marketing planning. Strategies describe requirements for success – what has to happen to create the conditions for winning. Because they describe goals, strategies can be mistaken for objectives, yet they are not the same. Strategies are the goals of preparation, not the achievement itself.

    In The Princess Bride, Westley recognizes that two things must happen to achieve his objective of recovering the Princess. He must:
    - Create a fearsome persona
    - Prepare to win battles of strength, skill and wit

    Note that Westley’s strategies focus on preparation. They describe the requirements for winning – the strategic imperatives – but do not specify how they should be accomplished. For marketers, strategic imperatives are what must be done in anticipation of obstacles such as competitive and regulatory changes. They also include moves that enable the brand to capitalize on opportunities such as customer and economic trends.

    To ensure the success of his plan, Westley takes the identity of The Dread Pirate Robert. His reputation for ruthlessness (no captives survive) gives him access to resources and intimidates his adversaries. But reputation alone is not enough. He also prepares meticulously for the inevitable battles ahead, whatever they may be. In Westley’s case, those obstacles are sword fights with expert swordsmen, steep cliffs, battles with giants, and the perils of poisons and fire swamps.

    A good starting point for developing strategies is to ask what needs to change for the brand to succeed. Do prospects need to recognize they have a problem (trigger a need), consider your brand (create differentiation), buy more frequently (inspire loyalty), purchase in greater amounts (bundled pricing)? With a clear strategic imperative, tactical ideas follow naturally and flow freely.

  4. Specific, Prioritized Tactics

    The details of how the change will be made to happen are tactics. Tactical plans specify how resources will be invested, and it generally takes the form of activities and programs. Knowing where to focus resources requires market intelligence and knowledge of the terrain ahead.

    Westley’s preparatory activities can be inferred from watching him in action. While not shown in the movie, he must have spent years creating a fearsome persona by observing and serving Ryan, the previous Dread Pirate Robert. He must have invested many hours becoming an expert swordsman, as evidenced by his dexterity with both left and right hands. He learned the ways of giants and acquired the strength to defeat them. And he packs iocane poison, to which he has developed immunity, presumably through careful preparation.

    Tactics in the marketing world span the entire marketing mix. Activities in each of the four P’s are potential tactical moves. Pricing and product can be used to create differentiation. Promotions and placement are activities designed to trigger a need or influence brand choice.

  5. A Framework for Linking the Elements

    Many plans skew heavily toward describing tactics and budget requirements, without a clear connection to or accountability for the change they hope to achieve. A good starting point for building a coherent plan is to show the flow from objectives to strategies to supporting tactics.

    Westley’s strategic framework might look something like this. Note how each element of the plan links to the others, with a clear cascading flow.

Princess Bride Graphic

Key Takeaways

Developing a strategic marketing plan does not have to be complicated. As Westley’s plan demonstrates, a few simple principles can be applied to guide the work and develop a coherent and compelling plan.

  1. Be inspirational – a noble purpose gives your plan urgency and motivates others to care
  2. Keep it simple – a single-minded, SMART objective and 3-5 clear strategies are often enough
  3. Zero in on change – strategies should reflect the changes that need to happen to overcome anticipated obstacles and create success
  4. Focus resources – linking tactics to strategies optimizes budgets and increases the chances of success

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