Strategy can be a bit of a scary word, I am told.
It sounds ‘businessy’, probably not creative, possibly not relevant, and certainly daunting. It is one of those words which creative marketing people (such as yours truly) and less comprehensible business die-hards and textbooks bandy around. It has the air of the unachievable about it for most mere mortals, and is much, much easier just not to think about.
Not so! I view strategy as simply taking stock, taking control and making do-able goals for your business – in short, knowing where you are going. And the good thing about strategies is that they get you from A to B, step by step, how you want to do it. Oh, and it’s actually quite easy…
So, in this post, I will take you through how to define a strategy (or approach) for your business, that will underpin everything you do and how your customers or clients see you. This year, I am sure you have promised yourself, is the year you will make the business work, move it forward, and see the financial rewards.
Let’s get started.
What is a strategy?
There are different types of strategies, but they all aim to be solutions to existing problems and overcome challenges in the business. They are an approach for you to follow. They can be specific to functions of your business – perhaps distribution, marketing, sales, social media and so on. This is so that you can really focus on each area, come up with a way to manage it, and then follow it.
Also, the good thing about strategy is that it helps you be competitive in your direction. What this means is that you do well, if not better, compared to your competitors, and see sustainable profit and business growth as a result. In real speak, this means you can keep making and creating and designing and earn a living from it, plus branch into areas you want to go into because your customers or clients or buyers get it and want to come with you. For this, you first need clarity about how you want to operate – your business direction.
Overall, there are three main ways that you can operate, compete and grow as a creative business, whether it is fashion, ceramics, interior design or sculpture. Porter, in 1985, presented these as Cost, Differentiation, and Focus (or Niche, as I call it) Strategies. I mention this here, because I believe this knowledge about the direction of your own business will help clarify the next steps of developing individual function strategies. Many businesses I work feel they need this clarity to do this.
Which business strategy (approach or direction) to adopt
Cost strategy businesses operate on a low-cost (not necessarily low price) basis. They drive and keep all costs down, and produce products or service that can compete on price and/or large volumes and availability. Hard to do in a crisis-stricken economy and, as we tragically saw in Bangladesh, hard to do ethically. This isn’t for exclusive, high-end or quality orientated businesses – the main goal with these businesses is keeping costs low and mass production, quality is less of an issue.
A differentiation business is literally different, they innovative their product or service in some way. They have an added value, a unique benefit or feature perceived by the customer who is willing to pay a premium for this – they can’t get it elsewhere. The business can be more original, exclusive, more quality or luxury focussed, their offers aren’t available everywhere, but perhaps in selective outlets or bespoke and one-offs. Quality brings with it higher costs for the business, but be mindful that small designers’ higher sale prices can be undercut by better known and larger scale competition.
Lastly, a focus strategy business, or a niche business. This is where a designer or maker spots a narrow gap in the market and targets it. Products and services are developed for this new area – it might be a specific product like ties and pocket-squares, or interior floor tiles only, or a specific type of customer – over 60’s only, or babies. All the marketing of the business will be targeted to this particular customer or client segment.
How to work with Porter’s strategies
Obviously, the three different strategies above need to produce and market their offers in different ways, in different volumes and to different customers. The creative businesses I work with tend to fall into the latter two camps. I think as a creative business you have to offer something different or specialised – the high street is full of mass-market ‘me-too’ products. You need to stand out to gain awareness and build custom.
So, if you are a differentiation strategy business, exploit it! Know your market and customer, and be clear that the work you are producing is always unique and original, high quality and higher-priced, and build a brand identity around this. This business will be more selective in distribution, or even exclusive to one or two outlets.
Or are you a focus strategy business (niche)? Where perhaps you have a limited and very specialised product range or demographic, and push and promote this. You need to know your customer well, and target all your energies onto reaching them and not dilute this specific approach by moving into other products which might also suit other people. The costs here will also be higher, as your production runs may be smaller. But try it, stick to your guns and develop it as you go. And make sure you market and promote the product or service’s features.
Strategies to address business problems
Once you have decided what type of business you are (i.e. differentiation or niche), you then start to build individual function strategies, as mentioned before, from this. At this point of discussion with a client, I usually mention the five steps of strategy: you start with an external analysis, then an internal audit (yes, you’ve already done this!), before beginning to map out your function strategies for marketing or sales etc, then implementing them, and then, lastly, reviewing and monitoring.
If you want to be super-rigorous and do an external analysis, then this is a market, competitor, and economic review. But I think this level of depth is best left to the professionals, rather than hard working small businesses and entrepreneurs.
What I recommend you do instead is browse online and in the shops, see what other makers/designers are producing, how much they are charging for it, and how widespread they are selling it. Note whether stores are having lots of sales (i.e. consumers not buying full price products). Have an awareness of trends and shifts within your specialism, opportunities that may be developing, and likewise, areas that interest is dying off in. This way you can take the market’s temperature easily.
From the business review we looked at over the last two blog posts Taking Stock of Sales and Costs and Reviewing Your Business, you have – and congratulations once again – thoroughly got to grips with your own business, its strengths and weaknesses and areas for development. Armed with this, and your new market knowledge, you now know the areas you need to tackle, refine and improve internally. You also know the trends, gaps and opportunities that are out there, and what to avoid. Next, all you need to do, one step at a time, is develop your strategies.
I think that for businesses at your stage and scale, generally this will fall into distribution and sales, marketing, and social media strategies, and I will cover these in my forthcoming posts.
For your creative business, these are your next steps.
In my next post Creative Planning – Next Steps 4: Easy Distribution Strategy, I will guide you through different approaches to how and where you sell your work.
If you have any questions after reading this, or would like me to work with you on your creative business, then feel free to email me on firstname.lastname@example.org, or drop a comment on the blog.
 Michael Porter’s ‘Three Generic Strategies’ in Competitive Advantage: Creating and sustaining superior performance, 2004, Free Press