Sideways Glances Only Get You So Far
It’s finally here. The biggest race of your life. As you walk onto the track you take a deep breath and kneel to lace up your generic running shoes (we don’t play favorites here). You max out the volume on your headphones listening to your pump up song, and give a cursory glance to the other runners lining up on either side of you. You maintain your cool composure as you size up the competition. There are a few contenders, but no-one out of the ordinary. Nothing unexpected. As you take your place at the starting line, you feel confident you’re among the top three. You’ve raced these other runners more times than you can count. You fix your eyes on the finish line, already thinking about what kind of frame you’ll choose for your gold medal.
The gun goes off. You have an incredible start. You look left and see no one near you. You look right and see the nearest runner is leagues behind.
Triumph is inevitable.
But as you turn your head back to the finish line you witness the inconceivable.
Far ahead of you, a runner leaps from the bleachers to the track, just feet from the finish line. He crosses, and confetti is launched into the air. Spectators have their back to the race, focused on the new contender and cheering fanatically. The spandexed usurper is hoisted onto a podium and given a medal. The race judge is lifting an arm and declaring a winner.
You and all the other runners who began at the starting line watch, bewildered.
Brands are facing this exact scenario every single day.
More and more frequently brands that thought they had a comfortable lead are being challenged by competitors from outside the race. Brands have begun to recognize that evaluation of their direct competitors won’t suffice. Turns out competition is like sand after a visit to the beach - - it shows up everywhere and it’s impossible to avoid. Whether due to freak accident, technological breakthrough or a new consumer need, we’re finding the lines between one brand’s offerings and another is becoming more blurry by the minute. Basically, when it comes to where your competitors come from now days, all bets are off. When you look for competitors, best to cast a wide net.
A few notes on expanding your view of the competition:
1. Admit Your Mistakes
Google missed social. That’s not my assessment. It’s theirs. While Google was busy vanquishing other competitors in search like Yahoo and Bing (poor sweet Bing), it turned a blind eye to where they would continue to grow and expand their business in the ready made social media category, giving Facebook a protected period of infancy and allowing it to grow into a behemoth before responding with Google+ (poor sweet Google+ too). While missing an obvious opportunity for growth can be embarrassing, Google took the lesson in earnest as few do - they admitted to their mistake. When you learn to, well… learn from your mistakes, you stop wasting precious time and resources defending yourself and instead invest them into anticipating the next extraordinary opportunity. Learning to to expect the unexpected requires humility (admitting mistakes). Surround yourself with individuals who do the same.
2. Adaptation Isn't a One and Done
Adaptation isn’t a done deal. Think of Netflix. While Blockbuster and Hollywood Video were busy giving each other sideways glances, the brand bringing a recognizable “buh-duh” sound to households worldwide was innovating an entire industry, free of competitive scrutiny. One day we’ll try to explain to our grandkids the unimaginable excitement we felt when we started having DVDs delivered to our mailboxes, and they’ll stare at us glassy eyed, wondering how long until they drop us off at a nursing home. Netflix learned adapting an industry once isn’t enough to stay ahead, scaling back their mail order service in favor of the growing trend of streaming. The disruptors that succeed are the ones that keep disrupting. Winston Churchill may have preached that failure isn’t fatal, but not before stipulating that success isn’t final.
3. Mere Copy and Paste Isn't Enough
When you learn to spot the players innovating your industry (whether they’re on the inside or outside of it) mere recognition and imitation isn’t enough to garner success for yourself. Blockbuster reacted to Netflix’s success by introducing a similar subscription model to its customers, but if you react too slowly it’s often too late. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but producing pure flattery doesn’t always pay the bills.
4, If You Can't Beat 'em, Join 'em - FAST
If you’re proactive in seeking out the unconventional or outlandish competitors, you may be able to share in their success. Recognizing where new forms of competition come from, and doing so early, allows you to adopt similar tactics or invest in promising ventures that would otherwise eat your piece of the pie when full grown. Lyft and Uber employed this strategy when stepping into the electric scooter craze that’s been sending sidewalk commuters running directly into traffic. If you recognize the opportunity early enough, you can become a part of the evolution instead of falling behind it. Like they say, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. As long as you join them in time.
In this unceasingly innovative era, looking for competition takes nearly as much creativity as developing your product or service. If you’re too busy focusing on the competition right in front of you, you’re missing the competition that’s ahead of you.
You might as well be tripping on your shoelaces.