As in most things in life, there’s a time to hold your ground when you’re a brand, a time to step back and reassess, and there are times when you should look to front-foot your position. Those calls should be based on pragmatism not impulse, because the resources required to up your game can be considerable and the consequences of failure can be significant. So when should a brand take on a competitor, directly or indirectly, and how should they behave when they do so?
Let’s start with the circumstances in which an attack makes sense.
1. It’s the only way to expand your market share – if you have carefully thought through growth plans but are competing in a market with little or no organic growth, the only way to expand your presence is to take it off someone else. Be aware though that in many static markets, fluctuations in market share are small – so a concerted effort to grasp a bigger piece of the pie is likely to be costly, drawn out and could well become bitter. Is it worth it?
2. You have something to sell that your competitor doesn’t – a new product or an improvement on an existing product, especially in markets that have deep parity, is a great opportunity to press home the advantage and convince more customers to go with you. Be careful though that your innovation is not just a one-off, and that you can bring other ideas or improvements online quickly to match take-up and raised expectations.
3. You have something to say that your competitor won’t – a particularly good approach for brands looking to project a distinctive personality into a bland, safe market. Gaining share of voice is a great platform for gaining market share in these circumstances because it prompts people to pay attention. This approach particularly suits challenger brands.
4. Your competitor is stalled or complacent – catch a static competitor off-guard by moving quickly and decisively to achieve specific goals. It’s important in these situations to focus on actions and successes that can act as a beach-head from which to further expand your presence. (Sometimes, a particularly sleepy competitor won’t even notice the change that has occurred.)
5. Your competitor is fading – maybe they’ve had a drop in reputation or credibility, or they have simply run their course as a competitive force. This is the time to make the call that they are vulnerable and to lift your game.
6. You want to create an alternative – very much a challenger strategy. This is about raising questions about the “accepted” way of doing things and proffering your brand as that new and exciting way. Before you can succeed in this, you will need to show that the risk of change is worth it (particularly in B2B markets) and that what has been acceptable is no longer enough.
7. They’re poised to attack you – if you receive market intelligence that a competitor is about to attack you, sometimes the best form of defence is to attack them first. This can force them to change gear to defensive mode.
8. You’ve been attacked and now you need to counter-attack – you’ve been on the receiving end of the attack and now you need to force a delay in their plans so that you can marshal a strong defence. I tell clients that the successful approach for a counter-attack lies in one of four Rs – redirect (change the focus of the attack to one where you are strong); refute (go after their facts); reposition (change how you are perceived in the market); or remind (tell your customers why you are such a valuable asset and why they should remain loyal to you).
9. The time is right to grow your footprint – this can be a much longer and less dramatic play than some of the other options. This is about steadily and carefully expanding your customer base through a combination of acquisition and attrition. You acquire a competitor and then use your greater presence to put pressure on other bigger players while scouting the market for more buys. This can be a highly effective approach in markets where it’s in everyone’s interests for things to remain stable, reliable and dignified (e.g. professional services or if you’re looking to grow your presence inside a supply chain)
10. You want to start a conversation – whereas option 6 is about taking on another player directly, this is a broader approach that focuses on reframing the terms of reference. Attacking the way that the biggest player in the market operates, for example, can be a great way of getting the rules changed so that you are in a position to profit. This is a highly effective approach in markets that have been monopolised or where the old rules are becoming increasingly redundant because of technology changes etc. Naturally, because this is a more political approach than some of the others, it is subject to all the risks of politics – enough said.
11. They’re doing something you don’t want them to get away with – maybe your competitor is behaving in a certain way, or not behaving in a certain way; maybe they’ve protected themselves in a particular manner or have failed to tell people what is really going on. This is an ethics-based attack that calls into question the scruples and modus operandi of your rival. As a result, things can get very nasty, very quickly. The key to successfully using this approach is to raise the issue and then to get others to take up the ‘cause’, so that it’s not just you who is seen to be outraged.
12. You see an opportunity to compete through confusion – sometimes the best way to attack is to use a multi-levelled, multi-pronged approach that combines moves in the market with moves in the corridors of regulators and/or public opinion. Use this approach against a wily competitor who can overwhelm you if you attack them directly but who may not be nimble enough to address concerted and well-thought through attacks on several fronts.
7 rules of engagement
So often, when brands take each other on, they engage in a head-on war that deeply involves the two parties but quickly disinterests or confuses everyone around them. For that reason, it’s vital that when you attack a competitor you do so under clear terms of engagement. Here are my seven rules:
1. Don’t fight with the rival – fight for the customers
2. Be assertive, not rude. Restrain from slinging mud. Attack principles, not personalities.
3. Be positive and optimistic about what could or should happen.
4. Use a mix of media (and messages) to make your point.
5. Work to your strengths rather than focusing on their weaknesses.
6. Commit, don’t just dabble.
7. Set a timeframe, set a budget, set clear measures. Assess progress continually and act on it.
Photo of “Cannon” taken by Joe Shlabotnik, sourced from Flickr