Competition is tough and often brutal- it’s not for the faint of heart or politically correct.
In my early days as a packaged goods marketer, I remember the annual high stakes game of writing the marketing plan. We always segmented our plan into the different elements of the marketing mix. If we were smart, we also prepared a section on the competition. The problem was that we tended to report on the competition as if it were an object fixed in time and space. An object with a brain, perhaps, but just not as smart or creative as we were. An object largely built of facts and figures rather than any real understanding and empathy.
One year I wised up. I created three teams to represent our three major competitors. Each team consisted of managers representing finance, sale, R&D, marketing and ad agencies. Each had two weeks to go to school on its designated competitor an learn all it could until it became that competitor. The final task was to outline a ten-point plan to attack our business.
We set up a two part competition: the team that compiled the most interesting and useful information won the first part; and the team that created the best ‘kill our business’ plan won the second part. We made the competition fun because annual planning is never fun.
The results were amazing- I was stunned by how much we had learned. We found out so much that I started to become concerned about legal liability.
The second phase was even more interesting. There is a huge difference between writing a page on a competitor and actually becoming that competitor in a no-holds-barred way. The 10 point plans highlighted some of our key weaknesses on the home front and were very instructive on the steps we needed to take- immediately- to ensure that they weren’t put into place by our competitors.
I believe the brands that succeed look at the marketplace in just this manner.
Here are some historical examples of fierce competition that won:
-Remember Pepsi taste tests? Pepsi’s marketers had limited success with cultured and creative campaigns, so they rolled up their sleeves and took out the brass knuckles with a blind taste test that proved consumers preferred Pepsi on pure taste. Not only did this simple approach bypass expensively produced ads, but it caught Coke completely off-guard and unable to adequately retaliate.
-I love what Budweiser advertising did a few years ago. Miller had introduced an ad campaign featuring football refs taking Bud away from people and replacing it with Miller. Bud promptly countered with ads showing police capturing the refs running away with the stolen Bud, revealing that they planned to drink it themselves. Miller eventually retreated to a less competitive plot. A trivial example, perhaps, but it shows how a dominant brand can make creative use of its power to remind the competition just who is in charge of the game.
In sum, be competitive. Be very competitive. Be like Phil Knight of Nike. Think like Yoda: “Do or Do Not. There is no Try.” The competition want to eat your lunch. Each theirs first.
Austin McGhie is head of Sterling Strategy