In a world packed full of marketing theory and elaborate models, might these six little questions – immortalised by an English poet more than a century ago – be the most useful marketing strategy toolkit of them all?

Let’s face it – marketing loves a model!

In common with most other strategic business disciplines, marketing comes with its own ‘Canon’ – a received body of theory, frameworks and toolkits mostly developed over the last 50 years or so.

Inevitably, we in the Leader team use many of these models in our own work, from Porter’s Five Forces to the Ansoff Matrix, the loyalty ladder, the Boston Product Portfolio Matrix, and so on.

We also deploy a number of proprietary toolkits which we have developed to inform and guide our work, and to ensure consistency in our service delivery.

But recently (and very much to my surprise) I’ve come to realise that the model I use most often in my strategy and planning work is the simplest of them all – and one that was immortalised by an English poet over a century ago.

Six Honest Serving Men

In 1902 Rudyard Kipling included the following lines of rhyme in his book The Elephant’s Child.

I KEEP six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

Although Kipling was setting out these ‘six honest serving men’ as the essential tools of his (then) trade, journalism, the ideas were certainly not new or unique to journalism when he penned his poem. In fact this logical construct is generally attributed to Aristotle.

But regardless of who first created it, this simple list of questions is as useful today as it ever was. And this is as true in marketing and business strategy as it is in journalism or any other situation where clarity of thought and planning is required.

The Power of Simplicity

The brevity of these ‘six honest serving-men’ belies their power.

Quick and easy to use, they have helped me time after time to cut through a mass (or mess) of information, objectives, perspectives and ideas.

Often they lead me straight to the solution I’m seeking. Even if they don’t, they usually help me identify the problems or information gaps that stand in my way.

Working with them is pretty much as simple as it seems, but a few marketing-specific pointers might prove helpful.

1. First, in marketing applications we would generally consider three of these questions to be strategic: Who, What and Why.

2. The remaining three are therefore generally tactical: How, When and Where.

3. In each different application you are likely to see different questions come to the fore. So for one problem your focus might settle on the Who and the What, whereas the next one might turn out to be much more about the When and the Where. That is normal, and nothing to worry about – you don’t need to have used all six questions to have ‘properly’ used this particular model!

4. However, it is also true to say that it is normally worth spending at least a little time with each question, whether it initially seems important or not. In this way this simple little toolkit may help you root out issues or angles you hadn’t even realised where there.

Let’s Ask Questions

To see how this works in practice, let’s take an absolutely fundamental part of marketing strategy, finding your value proposition(s).

There’s no doubt that the three strategic questions provide a useful starting point here.

Who? This is almost always marketing’s No. 1 question – who do you want to engage? Take time to consider who these people or organisations are, and what their problems or needs are. This is where buyer personas can be a powerful tool.

Why? So why do you want to engage these people (or organisations) in particular? And – this being the million dollar question – why should they want to engage with you? In essence, what can you do for them, what benefits can you bring?

What? And finally, bearing all this in mind, what product / service with what features are you going to make or deliver to make this happen?

Inevitably these questions are easier to ask than to answer, but they are absolutely fundamental to marketing success.

And getting them right makes the next three questions, the tactical ones, a great deal easier to answer i.e. How can they engage with you / buy the product (and for how much), Where is it sold, When is the service available.

Of course this is just one example, but it shouldn’t take you long to think of plenty of other marketing situations where these questions can be deployed equally usefully, from planning an event or writing a press release through to building an entire brand architecture.

Keep It Simple, Stupid!

It’s easy to over-complicate marketing strategy and planning. There are certainly enough marketing model and frameworks and toolkits to help us do just that.

Naturally I am not arguing that these tools are not useful. Most have rightly earned their place at the marketing table because they can add enormous value when used appropriately.

But there are plenty of times when something far simpler can provide all the structure and clarity you need to cut through the noise and analyse your situation.

So if you’re wrestling with a marketing challenge or looking for some fresh insight, why not grab a pen and a sheet of paper and see if it helps to spend a little time with these ‘six honest serving-man’.

You can read more about Strategy + Insight services from Leader here, or please do contact us today to discuss your own marketing challenges