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Marketing Planning – Don’t Do SWOT

SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) is a popular framework for developing a marketing strategy. A Google search for “SWOT” and “planning” returned nearly 93,000 results (August 2004), most of which praise the use of SWOTs. Some students have said that it is the most important thing they learned at the Wharton School.

Although SWOT is promoted as a useful technique in numerous marketing texts, it is not universally praised: one expert said he preferred to think of SWOT as a “significant waste of time.”

The problem with SWOT is more serious than the fact that it wastes time. Because it mixes idea generation with evaluation, it is likely to narrow the range of strategies being considered. Also, people who use SWOT may conclude that they have done an adequate job of planning and ignore things as sensible as defining company goals or calculating ROI for alternative strategies. I have observed this when business school students use SWOT in cases.

What does the evidence say? Perhaps the most notable indication is that I have not been able to find any evidence to support the use of SWOTs.

Two studies have examined SWOT. Menon et al. (1999) asked 212 managers of Fortune 1000 companies about the marketing strategies recently implemented in their companies. The findings showed that the SWOT hurt performance. When Hill and Westbrook (1997) examined the use of SWOT by 20 companies in the UK in 1993-1994, they concluded that the process was so flawed that it was time to ‘recall the product’.

One SWOT advocate asked: if not SWOT, then what? Borrowing from corporate strategic planning literature, a better option for planners is to follow a formal written process to:

  1. set goals
  2. Generate alternative strategies
  3. Evaluate alternative strategies
  4. Monitor results
  5. Gain stakeholder engagement at every step of this process.

I describe this 5-step procedure in Armstrong (1982). Evidence on the value of this planning process, drawn from 28 validation studies (summarized in Armstrong 1990), showed that it led to better corporate performance:

  • 20 studies found higher performance with formal planning
  • 5 found no difference
  • 3 found formal planning to be detrimental

This support was obtained despite the fact that formal planning in the studies generally used only some of the steps. Furthermore, the steps were often poorly implemented and conditions were not always ideal for formal planning.

Given the evidence, SWOT is not warranted under any circumstances. Instead, use the comprehensive 5-step planning procedure.

References

Armstrong, JS (1982) “The Value of Formal Planning for Strategic Decisions,” Strategic Management Journal, 3, 197-211.

Armstrong, JS (1990), “Corporate Strategic Planning Review”, Journal of Marketing, 54, 114-119.

Hill, T. & R. Westbrook (1997), “SWOT Analysis: Time to Retire a Product”, Long-Term Planning, 30, No. 1, 46-52.

Menon, A. et al. (1999), “Background and implications of developing marketing strategies”, Journal of Marketing, 63, 18-40.

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