Just When You Thought It Was Safe...
Over the past several decades, the orientation of business management has evolved - from production to finance to marketing - to reflect the changes in the society around us and the new ways in which business must be conducted to accommodate them. Today, marketing has become a highly sophisticated and formalized discipline which most managers find they cannot do without - yet many still fail to grasp the basic concepts of this new science.
Bigger Than A Breadbasket
The term marketing has long been loosely associated with the principal activities of promoting and advertising, and has often been narrowly defined, even separated from the sales function. The contemporary business approach, however, embraces the broader definition previously mentioned. But where to begin?
Finding the Handle
Specifically, marketing addresses four major aspects of taking a product to market:

1) The Product
2) The
3) Distribution
4) Promotion

From these basic elements one can grasp that the essence of marketing is to change the focus of management from the company and its products to the consumer and his needs. Yet it is often not clear how to take maximum advantage of the business benefits which this dynamic philosophy can provide. A comprehensive tutorial is needed to guide the manager step by step through the process of marketing his company and its products: the marketing plan.
What's in it for Me?
The marketing plan, as the name suggests, is simply a comprehensive guide to implementing the marketing program over the planning period (most often, but not limited to, 12 months). The benefits that accrue to management are the same that accrue for the planning of any activity - efficiency, effectiveness and cost savings. A well-conceived and executed marketing plan can:

....give management the "big picture" of the company and its markets. Perhaps for the first time, management can examine the interrelationships among product lines, operating divisions, markets or programs, and compare their effectiveness.

....provide the initial core intelligence for a comprehensive market data base. Information on competitors, market conditions, customer needs, perceptions of the company by customers or prospects, sales effectiveness, new technology developments or other developing trends can be collected, organized, analyzed and used to make informed business decisions.

....pinpoint company strengths and weaknesses. Management perceptions of company strengths and weaknesses usually don't coincide with those of other employees, customers or prospects. Clear definition of the situation can lead directly to good strategic planning which capitalizes on strengths and repairs weaknesses.

....identify problems and obstacles. Unforeseen problems arising suddenly can throw a wrench into management's sales and profit expectations. Once defined, specific problems (which can seem to be a general roadblock when undefined) can often be dealt with tactically, opening the door to continued growth.

....expose hidden market opportunities. Through the analysis of assembled market data, previously unnoticed potential can be defined and realized. This is perhaps the greatest potential direct benefit of the marketing plan.

....provide the basis for analysis of the competitive situation. Comparison of the company with competition across the board can reveal potential threats and opportunities.

....identify segments within a market. Frequently, markets are composed of several segments with different interests in the product or service. These segments may be sold more effectively on an individual basis by appealing directly to their narrow interests.

....help management to establish realistic objectives. Too often, arbitrary or unachievable objectives are set due to misunderstanding of the opportunity and lack of focus on selected efforts.

....provide measurement of performance against objectives. If performance can't be measured, how can it be determined whether the goal has been reached? And how can the decision be made to switch tactics or abandon the strategy if the program founders?

....evaluate alternate and contingency strategies. This activity gives management great flexibility in addressing business decisions, but is unlikely to occur without a marketing plan.

....set priorities for marketing activities. No company ever has adequate budget or manpower to attack all market segments simultaneously. The plan allows management to focus on and support selected objectives, allocating resources according to current opportunity and potential return.

....assure that communications are reaching the correct audience. Lack of identification or targeting of the proper audience (demographics) can sink an otherwise perfect communications program.

....assure that communications appeal to the correct audience. The wrong message to the right audience won't motivate anyone - the appeal must be made to appropriate interests and personality types of the target audience (psychographics).

....establish dates and deadlines. If it hasn't been planned, accurate deadlines can't be assigned - activities may go unfinished long after the planning period has elapsed.

....place responsibility for results. Activities often go unimplemented when there is a confusion over specific responsibility; a good plan always assigns responsibility for each activity to a single person.

....allow efficient use of marketing dollars by coordinating all marketing programs. Cost savings through economy of scale and avoidance of duplication can be incorporated into any marketing program with advance planning.

....take the guesswork out of budgeting. A good plan provides line item projection of all marketing activities and costs, facilitating the creation of a zero-based budget.

Caveat Emptor
A marketing plan can be a powerful tool, but it cannot be all things to all people. It will not necessarily provide a client with a list of new prospects to call on; the research phase may not uncover any strikingly new data (although confirmation of what was only suspected is valuable in itself); it will not guarantee the success of any aspect of a business - it will only maximize the probability of success. In fact, it will accomplish very little if it is ignored or left to gather dust in a drawer. The marketing plan, like all other management tools, must be used to be effective.
The Dynamic Duo
The key is dynamic. The plan should be a living document, constantly scrutinized, re-evaluated and revised to reflect changes in the company and in the marketplace. The plan should be renewed, revised or totally replaced at the close of each planning period, and management must be rededicated to the implementation of each new plan every year. Yes, management and the marketing plan can be dynamite together!