Every brand has two vulnerabilities from an activity point of view: what it’s doing (because that makes its strategy more visible to its competitors) and what it’s not doing (because in failing to act, it generates opportunities for others to do so). Nothing startling there. But Derrick Daye mentioned something recently that I think we need to pay more attention to: the opportunities for “competitive intelligence” – understanding and responding to the underlying attitudes inside a rival brand and the implications of those dynamics competitively.
Here’s three examples of things to be looking for and some actions you could take.
Responding to a shift in the priority of marketing
This can manifest itself in the resignation of an individual and their replacement with a person with a different skillset or the restructuring of marketing into/out of the Executive Leadership Team. That in turn can mean a downgrade/upgrade in the marketing spend and/or in a change of suppliers (e.g. new agency).
If the person driving marketing is replaced by someone with a greater orientation towards finance or perhaps tech, that should be a heads-up that the brand is preparing to change direction. With a finance head at the wheel it may become more focused on results for example – leading to a more campaign-focused approach. If the person is more tech focused, that could mean a greater reliance on data as the basis for decisions, a shift to online or more digitally focused advertising or a change in how they are systematised.
News that a brand is preparing to adjust its marketing spend following a new appointment or a restructure could be a sign that marketing is not performing to expectation for the business and the company is preparing to tail off its market presence or take a more front-foot approach with its brands. A change in agency too almost certainly signals a shift in campaigns and a wish to compete with new ideas.
Three actions you can take in response:
- Lift your marketing activity while the new person settles in. Use the 90 days it’s probably going to take them to get their heads around what’s going on to make in-roads in terms of market share, to redefine the competitive playbook so that you’re no longer the competitor they thought you were, and to reinforce the stability and consistency of your brand to suppliers and consumers.
- Reinforce what you stand for in the minds of the market so that if the other brand is repositioning, they have to work around your re-established presence. That way, they also must declare their hand about the future as they see it. Position yourselves as trustworthy, reliable and consistent, but also fun.
- Read a new agency appointment for what it might mean. Why did the new appointment happen? Perhaps the agency have worked with the new exec before (in which case look at the kinds of campaigns they’ve done together in the past) or the agency has a specialist skill (indicating that’s where the rival brand sees its future). If you rate the agency’s work, here’s two of my favourite responses. Pre-empt where they might go. Or, more mischievously, appoint their greatest rivals to prepare a counter-campaign for the work you know is coming. Simply state that the rival agency has been appointed for “special projects” and let the mind-games begin.
Responding to changes in ownership
This can be particularly important if the company gains new shareholders, for example, or if it IPOs. Either way, the shift from privately owned firm to investor-owned firm has implications for the priorities for the company and for the emphasis it may put on marketing.
Almost certainly, a shift to new investors will bring a compression in the timeframes within which results are assessed. Marketers finding themselves facing quarterly reporting may be more inclined to adopt tactical approaches – at least initially. If the reporting is public, that also means much greater visibility potentially on how they are tracking.
A merger or acquisition will also introduce new decision makers. If they are hands-off that may make little or no difference to marketing. If however they are brand-savvy, expect them to make their presence felt soon enough. To get some sense of the direction their influence may take the brand, take a close look at their attitudes, their approach historically, the brands they currently control, how those brands are managed and how they perform, their areas of strength and the wider pressures they may be under in terms of differences of opinion between personalities or the expectations of investors.
Three actions you can take in response:
- Make a push for even greater consumer loyalty, either through upgrades to what customers get or by offering them other rewards. Position yourselves as market leading, fresh-thinking and responsive. While your rival plays up their new owners, highlight your commitment to your customers and to suppliers.
- Use a combination of short-term and long term approaches to lure your rival into tactical responses at the same time as you layer up your long form story. In particular, look for pressure points in their earnings book and force them to focus their resources on defending. At the same time, lift the longer term resourcing of areas where they would need to make a substantial investment to catch up.
- Concentrate on what they have lost by merging. For example, they may no longer be the small firm that everyone loves. They may be more conservative. They may be less local in their approach. Capitalise on these changes by filling the emotive holes that their change in circumstances has created. If they play up size, for example, you may need to highlight one-on-one.
Responding to changes in the leadership
Perhaps the strongest sign that the company you’re competing against will change direction comes with new line-ups at executive level. These changes could be motivated by a re-alignment to resource a new business plan, by pressures from the owners for new thinking or by a lack of functionalism in the team itself, or in the wider culture, that has seen one or several senior managers choose to leave.
The new leader/leadership team will want to put their stamp on where the business is going decisively and as quickly as possible. Depending on the personalities involved, those changes could be conservative or more far-reaching. An assessment of the individuals and their track record of change should reveal pretty quickly what to expect.
Three actions you can take in response:
- Take the opportunity of your competitor being ‘offline’ to refresh/reposition your own brand to address shortcomings and to attract new interest. Make decisive changes that enforce your leadership status and turn the market’s attention your way. A very powerful way to do this is to change your purpose and ambitions as a brand.
- Drive a new conversation on social media and in the wider press. Shift what gets talked about while your competitor is re-grouping, and have a plan in place to shift it again once they are back. Use the first change to absorb their affirmation of their new brand. Use the second shift to tack away from the new way in which they are trying to compete with you.
- Establish new alliances/markets that force them to compete with you on a wider front than they have had to previously. Announce this extension of your intentions as soon as possible after the rival’s new management has been announced. This will have two effects all going well – it will change how the market thinks of you, and talks about you. And it will force them to adjust their new strategy on the fly.
A lesson from Plato
Plato once said that all human behaviour stems from three sources: desire; emotion; and knowledge. Try using that as the basis for your next “competitive intelligence” strategy session.
- What do your rivals want more than anything right now?
- How are they feeling?
- What do they know about their competitive advantages and about yours, how will they seek to use that to their advantage and what can you do to stop them?
Photo of “Beach Watch” taken by martin, sourced from Flickr