Competitive Strategy: Which Category Works for You?


Now that you know how to field the comments about your competitors, let’s close the office door and look at the issue from a strategic point of view. No matter what you call it, developing a picture of the competitive landscape in which your company operates is essential.

First, how do you identify your competitors? If you add everyone who in one way or another provides the product or service you provide, the list will be unwieldy. Every field will have low-cost providers, and if you don’t compete on drastic price reductions, forget about them. If you have developed a customer profile, you will find that your target audience and theirs diverge.

So, let’s take a high-level look at some competitive strategies:

Are you the industry leader?

You might have a mega brand (Coke vs. Pepsi is the classic example, but how about Microsoft vs. Apple?), but, more than likely, you are the leader in efficiencies, installed user base, product superiority, customer support, or any leadership category relevant to your industry. If you are a recognized leader, act like a leader. Position your company as a knowledge base; don’t keep fighting the battle you have already won. Hint: this is where a good PR strategy is critical: speakers at conferences, electronic interviews, brand activations, and other industry-focused initiatives.

Are you the runner-up?

Perhaps your product or service was not first to market, but there are ways in which it is superior to the market leader. Your task is competitive positioning. The marketing textbooks always refer to the legendary Avis vs. Hertz battle for market dominance. The tagline that lived beyond anything Hertz offered was Avis’ “We try harder.” Unlike the market leader, you do need to compete. You must define your target audience; you want to be known as a solution provider that meets their needs in a unique way because you understand their pain points. Did the Mac overtake the PC? Perhaps in mindshare. In customer base? Do we know? It keeps changing—and the Mac and the PC keep the competition going, each company engaging in creative, competitive positioning. Surface or Mac Book Pro? Then again, who remembers Zune?

What if you are among a number of companies vying for positioning and visibility? Brand building expert Denise Lee Yohn suggests this exercise to help move your brand up in the order of preference:

  • For X, we are the A who does B because C
  • X = target audience: Who are you trying to persuade? What distinguishes them? What’s important to them?
  • A = competitive frame of reference: What is your aspirational competitive set? Into what mental file folder should your target should put you?
  • B = differentiating value you deliver: What do you do that no else does as well and that is very important to your target audience? Why should your target value you?
  • C = reasons to believe: What evidence proves that you deliver that value?

Focus on X; don’t try to be all things to all markets. You might want to segment your target audience even further into “diffusion of innovation,” a term popularized 50 years ago by marketing professor Everett Rogers, to describe how innovation achieves a critical mass. The audience segments for this are

  • Innovators
  • Early adopters
  • Early majority
  • Late majority
  • Laggards

Rogers explains the steps by which the market forms preference:

  • Knowledge
  • Persuasion
  • Decision
  • Implementation
  • Confirmation

Although this particular paradigm was developed to explain the adoption of innovation, it is equally valid to use it as a model of changing preference. The process, by the way, makes a perfect trade show strategy—covering everything from product knowledge and engagement to follow up.

Finally, if you have more ideas than revenue, consider taking a guerrilla approach. Jay Conrad Levinson popularized this competitive marketing strategy in a number of books, beginning with Guerrilla Marketing in 1984. Basically, the goal of guerrilla marketing is to achieve conventional outcomes using unconventional and low-cost tactics, investing energy and creativity instead of money to increase brand engagement. In the exhibit industry, the best example of guerrilla marketing is that of Moss Tents. Wanting to exhibit at a trade show but lacking the funds to build a conventional exhibit, Moss created an exhibit from fabric, the same type of fabric used for its tents. Years later, the tent division of Moss was sold because the use of Moss fabric for exhibits and events had become the company’s primary business.

There are many ways to adapt these and other competitive strategies to your particular marketing challenges. All of them hinge on knowing your audience, knowing where your company lives in the competitive landscape, and positioning your company to increase its market share.

Start now to develop a competitive strategy. Need help? Schedule a free strategy session.