How to Write a Strategic Plan | Ultimate Brand Strategy Guide

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Strategic plans are a must-have to uncover not only your brand’s goals but also future opportunities and challenges. In this guide you’ll learn the best strategic plan format and structure, questions to ask when creating your long-term strategy, and how to write the outline. 

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In the 15 years of my career that I spent running brand teams, I noticed how varied the knowledge of team members was at any given time. This eventually led me to switch gears from running these teams to helping educate them so they could create breakthrough work and grow their brands faster, together. 

Part of this work includes teaching how to craft a strategic plan for your brand. This brand strategy plan can feel quite overwhelming at first, but is totally worth the effort.

Whether you’re starting from scratch writing a strategic plan or just tweaking a plan that’s in place, this ultimate guide will give you a critical eye and a proficient skill set for creating and maintaining the strategic planning process

Simply use the links to jump to each section: 

What Is a Strategic Plan?

Strategic plans have a profound effect on the work a business is going to do. This includes prioritizing and directing all the projects, innovations, advertising campaigns, and related initiatives. In larger corporations, you often have multiple levels of strategic planning happening at the same time.

For example, corporate planning is a higher level of strategic planning and can include multiple business units:

  • Corporate planning involves an entire company’s vision, strategies, and financial targets.  
  • The timing for corporate planning looks forward 3-5 years in the future, and oftentimes an annual operating plan is taken from year 1 of the corporate strategy
  • These long-term plans are usually run by the corporate strategy group and/or finance, and not necessarily the marketing department. There will also be divisional leads that have input into the plan.

Brand or business unit planning is sometimes conducted in parallel to corporate planning. Often called the brand plan, strategic plan, or “strat plan” by brand team members, the depth of this plan is this guide’s focus. (But do note that business units and corporate planning can also inform one another.)

  • A brand’s strategic plan takes into account the brand vision, strategies, tactics (marketing/innovation/operational projects), and budget/financial projections. 
  • The timing for a brand’s strategic plan is the same as a corporate strategy (about 3-5 years). 
  • This is led by the brand or business unit with the addition of cross-functional input and senior-level alignment.  

Regardless of if you are writing a corporate strategy or brand-level strategic plan, there is a cycle in which these strategic plans usually flow. 

Strategic Planning Cycle

This strategic planning cycle is constantly turning, where learning comes from the team’s work and re-informs the strategy. Most companies that have five-year strategic plans revisit them on an annual basis to update and tweak them in some way. 

Please note, I’m working under the assumption that every business owner wants their business to grow (if you’re not sure if innovation is right for you, read more here). If so, strategic plans are a necessary part of this growth. They make you, as an organization, address the question of “What are we going to do to advance our business goals?” 

Strategic Plan vs. Brand Strategy vs. Branding

This guide’s purpose is to give you the tools you need to create a strategic plan for your brand. However, because many people often use terms like strategic plan, brand strategy and branding interchangeably, it’s worth clearing a few things up. 

Let’s quickly define the differences between a strategic plan, brand strategy, and branding before we move on to the nitty gritty of the strategic framework for creating a strategic business plan

A strategic plan is part of the business planning process and contains all the nuts and bolts of how you will grow your brand. It starts with market research, market analysis, competitive research, and the creation of a business assessment. Future goals are set and specific strategies are then selected for how to grow the brand. This strategic plan is what we’re discussing at length in this guide. 

In contrast, a brand strategy is a set of internal strategic documents that define a brand. These documents can include targeting strategy, brand architecture, positioning/messaging strategy, and design strategy. Together they direct how the brand will show up and build equity in the marketplace.

And last but not least, branding refers to the end result of the internal and external assets coming together to create an identity for a business. This can include brand strategy elements like positioning and design identity as well as external assets like commercial campaigns, packaging and displays. 

Now that we’ve clarified the differences between these similar-sounding terms, let’s get to the fun part — learning about the six most important questions you’ll need to answer in order to write your strategic plan

Six Questions Your Long-term Strategic Plan Must Answer

Many consumer brands tend to follow a traditional format when it comes to strat plans, called the OGSM format. This stands for Objectives, Goals, Strategies, and Measures. It often looks like this:

OGSM Template

However, this common template often doesn’t push the writer to get specific enough. And many OGSM strategic plans are too vague to be actionable. 

That’s why I think it’s more helpful to answer six specific questions. If you answer these questions in order, you will have written a compelling and actionable strategic plan—one that is more convincing than using the standard OGSM template. 

6 questions to write a strategic plan

  1. What is the current state of your business (starting point)?
  2. Where are we going — where could we be? 
  3. What key issues (or opportunities) stand in our way? 
  4. What are the strategies that address the key issues? 
  5. What are the initiatives/actions that enable the strategies? 
  6. How will we know if the strategies are working? 

In order to actually write a strat plan, you have to know your business. You really need to learn the potential of your company and the key issues for your specific business. 

Therefore, I recommend you complete a bit of “homework” first before diving into the six questions. There are a ton of ways in which you could go about this. One way is to conduct a strategic landscape analysis. This will give you a starting point to determine what’s important (or your key takeaways) to include as you create your strategic framework. 

Once you’ve done your homework, come back and take a closer look at each of the above questions in the sections that follow.  

Business Update: What is the current state of our business?

Your first section of your strat plan will focus on your Business Update. It’ll serve as an introduction to your strategic plan. I recommend you not get too carried away in this section. It should be short and narrow in scope — about 3-5 pages max that serve as an overall summary of how the last year has gone. 

Things to consider when writing your Business Update: 

  • What are the basic data points that tell you how your company did this year? 
  • What are the key gains made with retailers? 
  • What key innovations or media tactics successfully launched this year?  

Some best practices for the Business Update section:

  • Be sure to use data like sales figures, margin, market share, and distribution gains and compare them to expectations set the year prior. Did you hit those goals? 
  • The goal of this section is to get people’s heads nodding and serve as a warm-up to what they’re going to see later in the strategic plan

Once you’ve taken stock of where your company has been, you can focus on your vision for the future. 

Vision/Objective: Where are we going?

Though the question of “Where are we going?” might be tempting to gloss over or skip, don’t. Think of it this way: If your strategy is a road map, then you need to define your destination — otherwise how would you know what the right path is?  

Consider the following when working on your vision:

  • What’s the upside of the strategy you’re working toward (the total opportunity size)? 
  • What category shift will you make? 
  • What is the brand’s big aspiration? 
  • What would you be happy to achieve in 5-10 years? 

Some best practices to keep in mind when you’re creating this section include: 

  • Choose a vision that’s aspirational. 
  • Paint a picture of what the future could look like (either figuratively or literally). 
  • Use numbers and data to show and support the potential. 

Here are a couple of examples of long-term visions or objectives:

  • Top-3 market share in every category we compete.
  • Establish our brand as a household name.
  • Attain category leadership.

Now you know where you’ve been and your vision for the future. But what, if anything, stands in the way of achieving the vision you’ve laid out in this strategic business plan?

Key Issues/Opportunities: What key issues stand in the way of achieving the vision?

With a future vision in-hand, it’s time to identify the issues that, if addressed, will unlock your vision. You may also uncover opportunities that the brand could pursue to unlock new levels of growth. Collect all of these issues and opportunities and begin to prioritize them. 

Things to consider to help uncover issues or opportunities: 

  • What obstacles prevent us from achieving our vision? What’s holding us back?
  • Are there any key negative takeaways from the homework? 
  • Why are we here? What are the key drivers or reasons we’re here instead of our future state? 

Keep these best practices in mind when you’re considering your issues and opportunities: 

  • Brainstorm first, but don’t keep everything you think of. Focus on the biggest inhibitors of growth. 
  • Try to group your list of issues into key themes. Some smaller issues could just be bigger symptoms of the same, larger issue. 
  • Have a goal of 3-5 key issues. 

Once you select the few most important key issues to address, you’re ready to write the next portion of your strategic plan

Strategies: What strategies directly address the key issues?

The next step is to take the key issues that the plan needs to address, and come up with a strategy that solves each issue.  This is the “how”—how you’ll achieve the vision.

Usually you will come up with a few ideas for strategies against each key issue. Then make choices between them to narrow down to the strategies that are most likely to have an impact. Feasibility is another consideration—each strategy will imply certain resources.

Things to consider when selecting your strategies: 

  • Which strategic alternatives (time/resource investments) best position you for success? 
  • Decide what would need to be true in order to realize that objective/overcome a key issue. 
  • Fill in the blanks: We will address [insert key issue/objective] by or through  _________. 

Best practices for writing this section include: 

  • Make choices — what to do (or not to do). Think “or.” 
  • Strategy must be specific enough to indicate an action. 
  • Drill down to answer “how.” 

Feel good about your strategies? Great! Let’s move on to learning about the next step: Initiatives. 

Initiatives: What actions enable the strategies?

It’s time to get to specifics. What are the initiatives and actions you can take that enable your strategies and make them a reality? What needs to be done now and in what order do those next steps need to happen?  

Considerations when selecting your Initiatives: 

  • What are the immediate projects we must start/stop? 
  • What actions do you need to take to make your strategy true? What would it take to pull it off? 
  • What is the proper sequence of steps involved? 

Best practices when writing out your Initiatives includes: 

  • Examine your resources/outlining your investments, whether that’s time or money. 
  • Break down big strategies into more manageable parts via sequencing or steps to take and in what order. 
  • Focus and limit projects to just a few that will have the largest impact. (Remember: It’s not about doing more things, it’s about doing the right things really well.)

While all of this long-term planning may seem like a lot of work, all of these steps are necessary to ensure you have a proper plan in place for achieving your business goals.

And now we’re reaching the finish line. All that’s left is to create one final section: a Financial Progress Roadmap that will help measure how well your strategic plan is working. 

Financial Progress Roadmap: How will we know if the strategies are working?

It’s always a good idea if you can end your strategic plan with a progress roadmap. This is a section where you can add in details and measures to help show senior leadership that your plan is realistic and to set expectations. 

That way when you update senior management in 6-12 months, you’ll have already set expectations about what success looks like.

This is usually done through charts/tables that forecast annual revenue and profit increases. The best financial roadmaps tie incremental revenue and profit to each strategy. Here’s an example of a useful roadmap format:

Financial Roadmap Example Table

Considerations to take into account as you work your Financial Progress Roadmap: 

  • What are potential KPIs/benchmarks for each initiative? 
  • What might the effect be of your growth drivers (more people/stuff, more often, higher price)? 
  • Can you estimate the value of a project over time? 

Best practices for writing your Roadmap include: 

  • Try to build your numbers in layers. 
  • Consider sales, margin, CAGR, awareness, penetration, offerings, etc. 
  • Get input from cross-functional team members. 

Ready to tackle your strategic plan? Great! I recommend starting your brand plan outline first, making sure to include all the strategic planning framework steps outlined in this guide. 

Your outline should look something like this: 

Section Key Content  Key Question
Business Update 3-5 slides recapping recent performance and accomplishments vs. expectations What is the current state of our business (starting point)?
Future Vision  1-3 slides painting a picture of potential/desired future state Where are we going — where could we be? 
Key Issues (& Opportunities) 1 slide per each key issue, curated from your homework What key issues stand in the way of achieving the vision? 
Strategies & Initiatives 1 slide per strategy with details (see template); end this section with your Strategic Plan one-pager What strategies directly address the key issues, and what initiatives enable the strategies (the how)? 
Progress Roadmap (Milestones) 1-3 slides with financial/performance targets over time  How will we know if the strategies are working?  

Once you’ve settled on your outline, it’s time to start filling it in using the guidelines I’ve laid out for you in this Strategic Plan Ultimate Guide. 

Next Steps for Strategic Plan Writing

While this might seem like a lot of work for creating your brand plan, I can promise you it’s worth it. When you’re done, senior management will see you as an indispensable leader, and your team will know exactly which projects are top priority.

I hope this guide empowers you to create your own. I think you’ll find, with continuous implementation of this process, you’ll see how much progress you’re making toward your brand goals.  

For more in-depth training, check out our course on How to Write a Strategic Plan and get motivated to lead and produce great strategic work!

If you need help writing a strategic plan (a.k.a. brand plan) or you’d like more in-depth training, here are a few options to take things further:

  • Brand Management Accelerator Membership — a unique training program that combines everything brand managers need, including in-depth training workshops and courses, community and expert support, and live events.
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  • 1:1 Brand Leadership Coaching — the direct help and guidance ABMs and brand managers need without taking time away from senior managers’ already-busy schedules.
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