“I knew I was going to take the wrong train, so I left early.”

by David Heitman

Yogi Berra’s malapropism points to a great truth about organizational success, including a company’s marketing: it’s worth taking the time to plan. Getting an early start on the next great marketing idea isn’t much good if it’s going the wrong direction.

The word “strategic” has been so overused that I’ll try to avoid it here; but the concept is right. As someone once said, “You never go into battle without a map.” A clear understanding of the destination—asking what does success look like if we do marketing right?—is not an option unless you have a fortune in marketing dollars to burn through.

At the risk of over-simplification, posing that one question and then reverse engineering to get there is the key to marketing success. Throwing money or advertising or Twitter at a problem may work, but if your success is anything like my brackets in this year’s NCAA Basketball Tourney, that’s not much of a guarantee.

Planning doesn’t automatically guarantee success. It just minimizes the likelihood of failure.

That may sound a bit pessimistic, but there are many things we can’t control: macroeconomic forces, what your competitors will do, or what Miley Cyrus’s next haircut will look like.

What we can control is the elimination of unnecessary risk, excessive caution, reckless spending and boring brands. (Members of Congress, please take note.)

Planning is thus an insurance policy. It sharpens the edge of every marketing tool. It makes every ad dollar go farther. It empowers and equips employees to be advocates for the brand. It finds ways to add to the lifetime value of every customer.

Planning usually involves research, questioning assumptions and a vision of what success will look like. That takes a few days or weeks, but it is well worth it. All the tactics make sense and work more effectively after that initial investment of time and effort.

Then it’s showtime! A bias for action replaces a penchant to ponder. As Roger von Oech would say, it’s time to put off the artist’s beret and wear the warrior’s helmet.

Just make sure you’re on the right train.