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THINK PIECES

 

Love Your Competition!

by Patricia Luebke

 

Patricia Luebke is a New York-based marketing consultant
with more than 20 years magazine publishing experience.
Pat conducts sales training seminars, conducts market
research, produces promotional materials and provides
strategic planning and media relations assistance.
She may be reached at 212-996-1409..

 

Competition is good for you

You may mutter expletives about your competition or blame most of your gray hair on them. You may fantasize about how wonderful -- or easy -- your business life would be if your competition closed their doors. But did you ever think about how your competition helps you? That's right. Your competition does good things for you. Instead of thinking of your competition as a drain on your time and energy (not to mention your customer base), start thinking of all the good things your competition does for you. Be grateful for how hard your competition is working on your behalf.

 

Niches

Your competition creates market niches for you. For example, if your competition is a magazine serving the powerboat market, the sailboat market is left to you. If you compete with an award-winning advertising agency who is behind the power curve in their understanding of websites and other means of electronic communication, that agency is ceding that business to you. Whatever your competition doesn't --or won't -- do is available as your company's specialty. Instead of going head-to-head against a competitor for the same market segment, you might consider a strategy where you fill a niche your competition doesn't cover.

 

Leads

Your competition provides a source of new customers. We're not suggesting stealing customers, but a competitor's unhappy customers will find their way to you. You are getting customers who are ready to buy, who want to buy, who would welcome the first-class treatment you can provide. You may even get a chance with your own former customers who leave you for the competition only to return when they realized how good they had it with you.

 

Compared to them. . .

Your competition can make you look good. A competitor's unprofessional behavior, failure to meet a deadline or exceeding an agreed-upon budget can all serve to boost your own company's image. Your understanding of and involvement with a particular special interest market segment will come through loud and clear when compared to your competition's generalist talents. Your customers are weighing you against your competition, and you can come out on top. Whatever they do badly, you can do well. Whatever weak points they have can become your strengths.

 

Their mistakes

You can learn from your competition's mistakes. Your competition has a trade show booth that can only be described as silly. Your competition tries a pricing plan that makes customers leave them and come to you. Your competition aligns itself with a company with a poor reputation. Your competition attempts to reposition itself and does it badly. That's when you start taking notes. Watch what your competition does and learn from their mistakes. Your competition keeps you sharp and motivated. No matter which side of the desk you are on -- as media seller or media buyer -- your clients have choices. This knowledge continually guides you to try to improve the quality of your own customer service and support. Providing your customers with better service, quicker service or more cost-efficient service is easier to do when there is competition nipping at your heels. Without your competition, it would be easy to get complacent in your business practices. Competition is good for everybody, especially the customer.

 

"Borrowing"

Your competition gives you ideas you can... steal. Well, maybe not steal. Your competition gives you ideas you can adapt for your own use. That's why it's important for you to keep an eye on your competition. For example, if you are monitoring where your competition is advertising and see that they have stayed in Ad Age, for example, over a long period of time, it's a pretty safe bet that the publication is working for them and may work equally well for you, too. If you're a media rep and a competitor's new media kit has been mentioned to you for the third time by an agency media buyer, you'd be wise to get a hold of the kit and see why it's so good. Does a new tagline for a competitive magazine easily position them in media buyers' minds? There's nothing wrong with analyzing what your competition has done and adapting it for your own company.

 

Better than who?

Your competition is a yardstick for your own market position. How can you claim to be #1 in your market without your competition filling the spots for #2 on down? If you're the leading advertising agency for the travel industry, you're only a market leader as long as there are market followers. Conversely, if you are competing against the #1 company or magazine, you have something to aim for. For example, Avis built an entire company around their #2 market position. Further, you can judge how your sales are doing by comparing them to the competition. Whether it's in number of customers, a particular dollar volume of sales or the prestige value of your customers, your competition helps you measure your own success. Former New York Mayor Ed Koch was known for asking his constituents, "How am I doing?" and that's a question your competition helps you answer as well.

 

Staffing source

Your competition provides a source of employees. We bet that you have at least one employee on staff who used to work for your competition. In fact, there are few people employed within the media industry who have not worked at competitive media or rival ad agencies. Your competition is a good source of new hires for you. When you hire someone who works for your competition, that new employee brings a wealth of information and expertise to you. If you know him (or her) by his reputation, you're taking less of a risk with a new employee, knowing that you are hiring a known quantity. One word of caution: Some employees are required to sign "no compete" contracts in which they promise that they will not work for the competition if they leave their place of employment. Some of these contracts have been upheld in court; others haven't. Make sure you check this out with your own legal counsel before hiring someone from a competitor.

 

Where are you working next year?

Your competition provides employment opportunities. Of course, the street runs two ways. If you're an employee and not the owner of a company, your competition is the most likely place for you to seek employment as well. Your reputation as a creative person, as a salesperson or as a media analyst is being noted not just by your own employer and customers, but by your competition as well. This is another good reason to conduct yourself with dignity with your competition. Badmouthing the competition can quickly backfire. What's more, crow doesn't taste so good. In the media business, you never know what company name may be on your next paycheck.

 

Competitive spirit

Your competition makes business more fun. This is the best thing your competition does for you. Admit it: playing the game of chess with your competition is fun. Having a competitor you "love to hate" makes coming to work worthwhile. When you institute a program that brings in new business or win a major client over from your competition, the victory is all the more sweet when it comes at the expense of your favorite competitor.

 

If you can't join 'em, beat 'em!

Competition is a fact of business life. Don't neglect your competition, but rather use your competition to your advantage by being aware of what they are doing, whether in their product line, sales and service or their own marketing. All of this market intelligence can be done through totally ethical methods. For example, you can learn a great deal about your competition by scrutinizing their advertising or media kit or agency profile. You can learn about your competition from the vendors who call on both of you. (Bear in mind, though, that if a vendor is telling you about a competitor, he is likely telling a competitor about you, too.) You can learn through more informal channels such as the word-of-mouth generated by your customers and employees. All of this input should be analyzed by you to take the market temperature of your competition.

 

Ahead of the game

Why study your competition? You need to know as much as you can so that your competition doesn't upstage you. You need to make course corrections in your own business plan. You need to be able to respond covertly or overtly to what they are saying. You need to know as much as you can about your competition so that you can plan your own strategy for healthy and profitable business.

And, finally, you need to know as much as you can about your competition because the marketplace can be fickle. You may be in a solid #l position in your market today, but you have no guarantee what the future holds for you.

 

Win by leading

However, marketing your own company -- minding your own business -- must come first. Don't make the mistake of getting so involved in one-upping the competition that you ignore your own business. The best way to keep a few steps ahead of your competition -- whether big or small -- is to have marketing programs in place which embrace three factors: constancy, longevity and involvement.

You may not love your competition, but it will serve your business to understand your competition and make the competitive atmosphere work for you. Understanding the role your competition has in your business will make you a much more savvy marketing strategist. And that can only mean more business for you.


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