Competitor analysis: why the ‘others’ category should never be ignored

Misia Tramp

27 May 2020

The year is 1964. Billy Mills is lining up on a rain-soaked running track in Tokyo against Olympic race favorites Clarke, Halberg and Bolotnikov. The next 10,000 meters should be a breeze for world-record holder Clarke – a shoe in to win, surely? But competition is never predictable.

External factors would give outsider Mills the chance to earn his place in history. Changing track conditions cramped the running styles of the regular leaders, giving Mills his chance to steal a shock win.

Ron Clarke surely didn’t expect Mills to surge past him at the finish-line, but external factors meant the underdog left the favorites trailing in his wake.

Marketers can easily find themselves in this position, looking on bemused as the market shifts beneath their feet.

Never more so than in 2020, should marketers be aware that unforeseen events may totally change both the commercial landscape and customer behavior on an epic scale.

Fixating on your closest competitor is an easy trap to fall into but is one that may leave you blindsided.

Businesses fixate on the obvious suspects

Most companies operate with a compete centered strategy. There is comfort in adopting a peer reinforced ‘Me-Too’ strategy. It requires none of the bravery of pursuing a differentiation strategy (I suggest, the banking sector 1900-2010 anyone?).

In this approach the focus is very much on the next big players. Players which are very much just like you, in fact. All the while, hidden inside the ‘others’ category, smaller more differentiated competitors may be chipping away to gain customer-share at a faster rate of change or, more radically, undermining the foundations of the status quo with a different business model or technology innovation.

These challengers and disruptors are not always looking to take first place overall. They may simply want to carve off the most profitable categories or service lines from the incumbents. But their strategies will damage margins and capture customer mindshare.

Marketers need to re-evaluate compete strategies

Disruption can shift the market in ways that current leaders are unprepared for. Tesla is a great example, coming out of nowhere to totally change the affordable luxury car category. I have no inside track but would be confident that while Mercedes, BMW and Lexus fixated on each other, they applied insufficient focus to the quirky outsider that barely registered in terms of market share.

Business leaders need to re-evaluate their compete strategies and expand their horizons beyond the obvious suspects. Instead, looking at adjacent audiences, adjacent experiences and adjacent competitors can provide a new point of view that will help lead to differentiation. It’s shifting from a ‘how are we performing’ mindset, to ‘a what they are doing and what can we learn’ approach.

Here are some points to consider and which may help you re-think where and how you learn from competitors:

Adjacent audiences

Who else could make use of your product? What other markets could you be competing in?

When Nintendo released the Wii, it was not predicted that the ‘middle-aged women looking to keep fit’ audience would be so successful.

Adjacent experiences

What other experiences play a big part in your customer journey? Look at the other businesses and brands your competitors are building relationships with.

Google disrupted the mobile market with Android in 2009. Share of desktop browsing has shrunk to 48.7% in the years sincei. Moving to mobile has allowed Google to further expand the reach of two of their primary products – search and paid advertising.

Adjacent competitors

Are there any left-field players in alternative markets that are providing your audience with an unexpected solution? Look outside your industry to those who claim to be solving a similar problem or satisfying the same need.

Shoe company Vibram had originally intended their ‘barefoot’ shoe to provide more stable footing for yacht racers. The ‘barefoot’ running trend then took off, bringing Vibram with it and forcing the incumbents Nike and Adidas to hurriedly bring out their own lightweight product lines.

Uncover the real competition or threat

Taking a differentiated approach all starts with examining your customer’s conversation.

Instead of monitoring what audiences are saying about you and the obvious suspect brands, listen to what they are talking about and then see who naturally rises to the top of conversation.

Look at why they’re being talked about, the veracity and velocity of these conversations and learn what solutions they provide to your audiences.

And you don’t need a complex data project to track the evolution of conversation over time. Social media provides us with a decade of data, so retrospective analysis is possible and a good place to start.

Avoid tracking ‘brand name’ and instead topics of interest from within your audience to find out what and who they’re really talking about.

If you’re feeling stuck, we’ve got lots of examples we can share on how to begin differentiating through understanding audience conversation. Get in touch if you’d like to learn more.