Competitive Brand Strategy

Posted on Posted in How to Guide for Marketers

How to battle your competitors to win over the heart of your consumers

A competitive position matches up what consumers want with what your brand does best, better than your competitors. This sets up a space in the market for your brand to own. To create a bond with your consumer your brands must stand out from the pack. You must choose whether you want your brand to be better, different, cheaper. Or else, your brand will not be around for very long.

To find the competitive space in which your brand can win, I introduce the Venn diagram of competitive situations. Looking below, the first circle should list out everything the consumer wants. The second circle then lists everything your brand does best. And, finally, the third circle lists everything your competitor does best.

Strategic Thinking Competitive Positioning

To find your brand’s winning zone, you should match up what consumers want with what your brand does best. This provides you a distinct space that you can own and defend from attack. To maintain ownership over that space, brands should always  satisfy the needs of the consumer better than anyone else can.

Your brand will not survive in the losing zone.  This space matches up the consumer needs with the area where your competitor does it better than your brand. It is dangerous to try to play in this space, because over the long term, your competitor will beat you.

Winning the tie

As markets mature, competitors copy each other. It becomes harder to be better with a definitive product win, and that leaves you to play in the risky zone, which is the space where you and your competitor both meet the consumer’s needs in a relative tie. The tie is important to understand, because brands can still win the tie when they make their brand seem different enough that consumers perceive their brand to be better. Perception becomes reality. The four ways to win the risky zone is to leverage your brand’s power in the market to squeeze out lesser brands, or to be the first to capture and defend the space, or to win with innovation and creativity, or find ways to build a deeper emotional connection.

Sadly, I do have to always mention the dumb zone where two competitors “battle it out” in the space where consumers do not care. One competitor says, “We are faster” and the other thinks, “We are just as fast.” A competitive war starts up, yet no one bothered to ask the consumer if they care.

In brand management, we never experience pure isolation. Even in a so-called blue ocean situation, it quickly turns to red ocean. The moment we think we are alone, a competitor is watching and believes they can do it better than we can. To win the competitive battle, you have to find a unique selling proposition for your brand that distinguishes you from others. If you ignore the competition, with a belief that only the consumer matters, you are on a naive pathway to losing. Competitors force us to sharpen our focus and tighten our language on the brand positioning we will project to the market.

In terms of marketing war games, I will map out four types of competitive brands: power players, challenger brands, island brands, and rebel brands. The final situation, where brands have no clue where they stand competitively, I call the cluttered brands. They sit in the cluttered space, lost, and in total decline

Power Players

Power Players lead the way. They are usually the share leader or the perceived influential leader of the category. These brands command a power over all the stakeholders, competitors, and retail partners of the category. In terms of positioning, the power player brands own what they are best at, and they leverage their power in the market to help them own the tie. This expands their presence and power across a bigger market. They leverage the love from a core group of loyal brand lovers to win the tie.

These brands can also use their advanced financial situation to invest in innovation to stay ahead of the category. They defend their territory with an attack back at any aggressive competitor or even an attack on itself to close any potential leaks before a competitor notices. These brands require a strong culture to continually get better and stay ahead of the competitors. To stay as the power brand, you can never become complacent or you will die.

Strategic Thinking Competitive Positioning

Examples of Power Player brands

One of the best Power Player brands is Google, who has managed to dominate the search engine market. Their extreme focus and smart execution gained market power and squeezed out Microsoft and Yahoo. Focused on providing knowledge for consumers, they have continued to expand their services into a bundle of products with e-mail, maps, apps, docs, cloud technology, and cell phones. On the other hand, Blackberry forgot to defend their castle. In 2009, Blackberry dominated the B2B corporate smartphone market. However, they became distracted by the Apple launch and tried to be more like Apple than stay themselves. They launched a bad touch screen phone, an undifferentiated tablet, sponsored rock concerts, and launched Blackberry Messenger (BBM) for young teens. These brands never attacked themselves. They left severe product flaws that frustrated their users. Pretty soon, corporations switched to the iPhone.

Challenger Brands

Challenger brands must change the playing field to attack the leader and exploit a potential weakness or build on their own strength. While you can amplify what your brand does best, it becomes just as important to reposition the power player who you want to take down. The best way is to turn their well-known strength into a perceived weakness that moves them outside of what consumers want. While your first instinct would be to attack the power player’s weakness, the smarter move is to reposition one of the power player’s strengths into a perfective weakness.

Strategic Thinking Competitive Positioning

When you attack a power player brand, be careful of the leader’s potential defensive moves. Anticipate a response with full force—possibly with even greater resources than yours. Avoid battles that drain your brand’s limited resources or else you will spend a fortune only to end up with the same share after the war. Focus on consumers who are less vested in the leader’s brand to help kick-start a momentum away from the leader. As the leader tries to be everything to everyone, you should drive a narrow attack that slices off the most vulnerable part of its business before it can defend it.

Examples of challenger brands

Apple’s “I’m a Mac” campaign defined the Mac brand as simple, confident, and cool, while re-defining the PC as old, uptight, and awkward. Apple repositioned PC’s strength as an intelligent computer and turned it into a weakness that was perceived as complicated, frustrating, and incapable. The ads layered in new ways that Mac was easier, while they highlighted all the problems with the PC that included hardware issues, software problems, and insufficient applications.

One of the best examples of a challenger brand that made significant gains is Pepsi, who launched the Pepsi Challenge in the 1970s as a direct offensive attack on Coke. Taste was one of Coke’s perceived strengths, but the ad implied that Coke’s taste was actually an acquired and memorable taste, not a sweet, superior taste. In the blind taste test, without the Coke brand name visible to consumers, they overwhelmingly picked Pepsi, preferring the sweeter taste. At the same time, Pepsi amplified their own strength as the “new generation” that set themselves up as the solution to those ready to reject the old taste of Coke.

Island Brands

Island brands move into the blue ocean area all by themselves, where no one else competes. These brands are so different, that they appear to be relatively on their own. Most Island brands start as game-changers who have responded to an identified niche gap in the main category. They satisfy an unmet consumer need, whether that is a new target, price point, distribution channel, format, or positioning. When successful, the Island brand ends up repositioning the main category players as unattached to the consumers. While everyone wants a game-changer, to be so different brings increased risk that the concept may fail. Also, success may invite other entrants to follow the island brand, which puts the brand in a red ocean position. A red ocean is where your brand becomes the new power player brand who needs to defend your territory with full force.

Strategic Thinking Competitive Positioning

Examples of Island Brands

Special K is great example of an Island brand. As consumers started to rethink their diets, Special K specifically targeted women, positioning the brand as a low-calorie meal replacement and weight-loss alternative. They launched the Special K challenge “Drop a Jean Size in Two Weeks.” Not only does this set up Special K as a great solution, it makes all other cereal brands seem like bad choices for women. Special K has moved across various food categories, each time they made the category leaders feel detached from women.

Rebel “Craft- type” Brands

Rebel craft brands go against the entire category into an area too small for the leaders to notice. Rebels pick a segment or target market that is small enough not be noticed that they can easily defend. They take an antagonistic approach to the rest of the category. They portray every other brand in the category as old school, flawed, corrupt, overly corporate, or even stupid. Rebel brands believe that it is better to be loved by the few than liked or tolerated by many.

Strategic Thinking Competitive Positioning

As consumers have taken over the buying process, they look for brands that speak directly with them. A typical grocery store that used to have 3-4 main coffee brands now carries fifteen to twenty coffee brands. To succeed, the Rebel brand must speak directly with a small group of consumers and own a small enough niche away from competitors.

These brands lead with purpose, create a deep emotional bond, and try to be seen as “anti-corporate.” Their intention is to be aggressive. They put all the brand’s resources against their small target to gain the perceived relative force of a major player. These brands have to be nimble and quick to seize the opportunity before others notice. They are ready to exit if consumers shift their needs or the major competitors enter. Rebel’s explore non-traditional marketing techniques such as creative names or media options that fit with the niche target market.

Example of Rebel Brands

A great example of a Rebel brand is Five Guys Burgers who successfully avoided the big fast food chains. While fast food feels frozen and microwaved, Five Guys has gone the opposite way with high quality and fresh ingredients. They offer large portions at a super premium price ($8-$10 for a burger). The Five Guys promise is not to start your hamburger until it is ordered. They have expanded rapidly with word of mouth helping to spread their reputation as “the best burger.” McDonald’s has yet to generate an adequate competitive response.

Another great example is Dollar Shave who launched as an online subscription model for razor blades. With a $3 billion dollar shaving market dominated by two players, the price of razor blades grew out of control. With only $30 million in the first year, they were too small for Gillette to even bother with. However, without a response, Dollar Shave continued to grow year-by-year. They recently sold the brand to Unilever for $1 billion.

Cluttered Brands

A cluttered brand has no clue where they stand competitively. These brands are stuck in a cluttered mess without a clear target market or a clear point of difference. These brands lack a loyal base of consumers and are unable to generate any positive growth or price premiums. They end up an indifferent commodity, disconnected from consumer needs. Without sales growth or profits, they struggle to invest back into their brand, which further accelerates the path of decay. Examples of cluttered brands are General Motors, Burger King, and Sears, all of whom lack any clear brand positioning. The way to break this vicious downward spiral is to start over and follow the strategy of the rebel brand. Try to own a small niche and build around a unique brand positioning to a smaller motivated target.

Strategic Thinking Competitive Positioning


To learn about strategic thinking, follow this powerpoint slide presentation.


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