Marketing plan Pro provides good start

One relaxing day this spring I was approached by strategy to assess an off-the-shelf marketing planning tool. They wanted to get the perspective of someone who has lived through many marketing planning cycles and currently offers strategic business and marketing consulting support to assess the tool.

One relaxing day this spring I was approached by strategy to assess an off-the-shelf marketing planning tool. They wanted to get the perspective of someone who has lived through many marketing planning cycles and currently offers strategic business and marketing consulting support to assess the tool.

Objective: Review pre-packaged marketing planning software and comment on its utility and ease of use.

The Marketing Plan Pro package from Palo Alto Software claims to be the number-one-selling marketing-planning software for seven years running. It lists a quote from Accounting Today that it is ‘…the simplest way to create a marketing plan that will improve the profitability, awareness and long-term stability of your business.’

Products like these could represent a real threat to someone who makes their living providing brand and marketing planning counsel! Undaunted, I spent some time with the product and here is a summary.

Overall, it’s easy to use and provides a pretty good summary of how to not only build a marketing or business plan, but also what you need to do to execute against that plan. This type of tool can be quite useful for companies with less sophisticated business planning processes or which need to allocate more focused time to planning, and will be especially useful for anyone embarking on a new business venture and hasn’t had to pull together business plans before.

It comes with software, a small manual and two books: The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding by Al and Laura Ries, and On Target: The Book on Marketing Plans by Tim Berry and Doug Wilson. Both are great (not just because they come in a large font for those aging boomers out there) but because they contain useful information. The 22 Immutable Laws provides insight into the concept of branding (which I believe is lacking in the rest of the package) while On Target provides a great reference tool with a glossary of terms and concepts.

In fact, it’s a well-integrated offering which allows a user to leverage (or buy online) other Palo Alto products: Both inside the program and within the On Target book are numerous hyperlinks to more information. There is also a link to download another title by Tim Berry, Hurdle: The Book on Business Planning, that further explains some of the concepts touched on in the software. I would recommend a review of all the materials upfront before starting to develop your plan.

From the time you open the software, you appreciate the virtues of the program design. There are easy-to-use guides to walk you through all sections of a marketing plan. In each, there are coaching tips on what needs to be considered, where you can get information and a library of examples. In fact, users can access 70 marketing plans from different types of businesses which can be used as templates and relevant sections can be cut and pasted into your own marketing plan and edited as appropriate.

The program is designed to help you develop a professional-looking document that can be used as an internal marketing plan, but is also suitable for presentation to third parties, such as investors.

As you start using the software you are prompted with questions so the tools can be tailored for your type of business. It then covers off key areas for any marketing plan:

* Situation Analysis including market needs, an assessment of the company’s strengths and weaknesses and a competitor analysis (for direct and indirect competitors)

* Marketing Strategy including developing a value proposition, identifying critical issues, defining financial and marketing objectives, target markets, messaging and the development of strategy pyramids

* Marketing Mix: defining strategies for product, pricing, promotion; developing a plan for leveraging the Internet, customer service and tools to develop an implementation schedule and sales plan

* Financials: break-even analysis, sales forecasts (by relevant segments), forecasted expenses and a tool to link those back to the key strategic thrusts, plus defining contribution margin

* Controls: implementation schedules with assigned budgets and responsibilities, key success factors for the plan, marketing research requirements, contingencies and a section devoted to CRM, ROI calculations, organization structure

There is emphasis on making sure the plan is implemented, that budgets, timing and performance metrics and key assumptions are identified and then tracked against.

Overall, a great pool of knowledge and easy to use. Let me just briefly comment on where I think it falls short, which is in the less tangible areas of a successful business: the concept of a Vision and the notion of ‘brand.’

The importance of a vision for a business can’t be understated in my mind. It should raise a challenge to a business of what it wants to become which in turn should become the shared goal of all the entity’s activities. In the Palo Alto Software they never discuss the notion of Vision and go right into Mission. The Mission should be looked upon more as the overarching strategy that will be pursued to achieve the Vision. By not making the distinction, the authors miss out on a key emotional driver in keeping a business focused.

The second deficient area is ‘brand.’ One of my favourite sayings is: ‘Brand – the last legal unfair competitive advantage.’ The authors touch on the concept of branding but they describe a brand more in terms of building a symbol that comes to mean something to consumers – a secondary result of successful marketing versus a core asset of the business that is a key differentiator. Perhaps this is best illustrated by use of the term ‘product manager’ versus brand manager. To me a brand is a ‘promise’ of numerous virtues and values that have to be consistently nurtured and developed over time, not just a collection of product features and benefits.

The good news is that they included The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding in the package. The downside is that the principles defined in the book are not interwoven into the software, so run the risk of being forgotten.

So, am I worried for the future of people like me? Not really. I think the Marketing Plan Pro serves a valuable purpose and is a user-friendly resource, particularly for a smaller business, in utilizing the proper discipline to develop plans. However, if you are trying to take your planning to a higher level of refinement, there is value in third-party facilitation to provide objectivity and experience to challenge the conventional wisdom that can build up blind spots inside an organization and push your thinking on the less tangible notions of brand and vision.

Mike Welling is a 22-year veteran in the dog-eat-dog CPG world, principally with Unilever, working in Canada and Europe. Since 2004, he’s been leveraging his brand-building skills as president of Mike Welling & Associates Strategic Brand Advisors.