Why a competitive analysis is the worst way to approach things in strategy.

Hi there, it's been a long time... & it's harder than I would have thought.

Today I'd like to discuss something that is done way too often by communication strategists in ad agencies. I'm talking about competitive communication analyses.
I mean those decks full of competitors’ campaigns and other communications - trying to depict "how the market works" in terms of advertising and such.

Let me first describe what I feel are the most common reasons for conducting such a competitive analysis in the first place. And I mean the real reasons, not the official rationale...

1) The material analyzed is more or less accessible - no need to design and carry out a study to get specific data. 

2) It (seemingly) can be delegated to junior staff 

3) Competitive analyses fit the clients’ perception of marketing communications as competitive actions against other brands. (This view is very much driven by marketers’ personal drive to compete and compare with other marketers.)

4) Planners feel it's a good way to "get into a new topic" and get acquainted with "what goes on in the market" 

All these raisons d'être are actually quite valid from a "pragmatic" point of view. At the same time there are serious drawbacks arising from this kind of thinking. Let me make some remarks on some of the motivations above: 

ad 1) Accessibility of helpful data of any sort has been probably the No.1 issue for an (ad) agency for a long time. Mostly because of severe time and budget limitations when it comes to strategy building. (This seems to be slightly different for digital, but in my opinion it is not really that much of a deviation from the rule: whatever is easily & freely accessible gets used. Basically, the sort of data we use e.g. in a pitch situation is prescribed by Facebook, Google and others.) 
All of this is perfectly understandable - if you can access the object of your analysis (ads, facebook pages, etc.) - that's good, right? Well, yes. But do you remember this joke about a drunken man who's searching for something he lost under a street light? Being asked if he lost it somewhere under this street light he answers "No, but the light is better here". I would argue it is the same kind of thinking in the case of competitive analyses conducted due to accessibility of data - not due to their quality or the richness of their implications. 

Another thing I would like to mention is the fact that accessible data will not give your agency any edge against other agencies - all of them will have their juniors compiling competitive analyses just at the same time yours do. How depressing!

ad 3) If a method resonates with the clients’ pre-wired mindset it must be valid enough to be applied - esp. in a pitch kind of setting. If you can convince a client to do something because a competitor does it already - why not do it? Well, that's the point about being pragmatic, isn’t it: Do whatever works in your work’s favor! Well, yes, that is true - but maybe you should be an account manager then. You see, the most pragmatic way to do strategy is to post-rationalize whatever your creative solution is. Go for it if that's your kind of thing to do. My opinion is: just because people buy it, doesn't mean it's good.

ad 4) This one is probably the most valid way to argue. If you want to get your head going - looking at competitors is a good thing to do. But then: at least don't delegate it to junior staff. And don't make it such a formal exercise. Take a good look around, make some notes, save some pics and then move on to something inherently more substantial.

After having talked about the validity of the common reasons to do competitive analyses let me get to the actual reasons against investing much time in them. I can instantly think of the following two:

I. The conception of marketing as competition against other brands is wrong in most cases.

While it seems to be a natural way of seeing things, the reality is quite different when you look at actual consumer psychology going on. Based on various studies I have seen or conducted I would rather argue that products and brands mostly compete against non-brands/no names and other product categories than against the alleged "competitor" brands within the narrow category. Further major "enemies" are:
- simple lack of awareness of Your brand or offering
- non-consumption
- inertia & habit
- perceptions of & user experience with Your brand
- general psychological, social or technological phenomena that have nothing to do with other brands (e.g. social norms and legislation in regards to smoking in public etc.). 

That doesn't mean there’s absolutely no competition within the category, it’s just that this kind of competition is secondary or tertiary compared to the factors above. And You shouldn’t get too distracted by secondary or tertiary factors I think.

Virtually all great ideas are derived from non-competitive insights. These are either very general insights into the nature of a product category or a life domain - e.g. Dove's Real Beauty or Nike’s "Find Your Greatness". Or these are insights into the brand’s own issues with its audiences - as e.g. in Opel’s "Repark Your Mind" campaign in Germany.

By the way: this all might well be different in some categories & at some communication occasions that are more competitor-driven. What I mean are e.g. Presidential campaigns or other very clearly framed competitive choices that people actually see and approach as choices. But mostly people do not perform choices between a set of 8 competitive brands. They simply don't.

II.  You will have severe problems deriving any imperative implications from a competitive analysis.
There are very basic logical problems attached to such analyses. These logical problems make it very hard to go from Your findings (The What) to So What? and to Now What? for Your client’s specific situation:

a) The most important is the fact that totally opposite recommendations can be derived from exactly the same findings. Basically the contradictory logic goes like this: "All competitors do this - you should do it" vs. "All competitors do this - you should do the opposite". This is mostly the case when it comes to choosing messages for advertising and such.

b) The logical contradiction above is actually the best case scenario - in most cases there is no "All competitors do this" but very different patterns or no patterns to be found at all. In this scenario it gets really hard to apply any kind of recommendation logic.

c) Actually, if you think about it, there cannot be a proper recommendation logic of any kind.
Imagine you are seeking career advice from a personal coach at she tells you about what you should pursue based on what other people did. Or imagine trying to "choose" a spouse based on whom other people have chosen. I believe, communications is the same: it cannot be firmly based on what other communicators do. It can be related and compared to what others do - but not really based on it.

That is why most planners would claim that a competitive analysis should be just ONE of the sources but not the only source of insight or recommendation. While this sounds absolutely fair the reality is that most competitive analyses are unfortunately used as THE source of insight. Or they get presented in a separate section of the presentation with little or no cross-relations to its other parts. Frankly, given the issues described in I. & II. it is understandable why real cross-references and logical connections are very hard to be made.

Consequently - and rightly so - competitive information also often gets used to "prove" the differentiation of the agency’s ideas. So instead of being an extensive front part of the presentation it becomes a single "ticking the box" slide somewhere at the end of it. And that's exactly the role such an "analysis" should play in most of the agency presentations. (Although, I must admit ... as you might know, I am also quite critical of the concept of Differentiation with a Capital D and people’s obsession with brand differentiation.)

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Obviously, all of the above is quite exaggerated. Of course, there is some value in knowing what other brands do. But I would simply argue that this specific contribution to a great strategy is often overrated - while the efforts required to run such an analysis are systematically underestimated, by the way. Also, the claims above are rather based on an ad man’s view of things. The value of a competitive analysis is much higher when it comes to disciplines such as e.g. SEO, SEA, Brand & Packaging Design and other disciplines where being distinctive or finding cost-efficient niches is absolutely crucial.

But in the field of finding big hairy communication ideas I believe any kind of encounter with consumers or experts would have much more impact than a competitive analysis. I would even go so far and say that you should always recommend researching people whenever someone asks you to research competitors. You probably will hear then: "Well, we could do both". That is alright, but then I would pledge for at least explicitly prioritizing consumer research. Our resources are finite - let's use them wisely.

Actionability - A criterion underserved by strategy.

We are quite used to seeing strategy as something governed by its impact on the consumer or in the market. We seek solutions that are Relevant & Credible for consumers and Differentiating against competition. Such criteria are almost automatically used when we try to come up with or to judge positionings, creative ideas, etc.

But is the strategy good for the communicators?
Strategic consumer orientation is certainly absolutely justified but it's important to highlight the company/agency side of the coin, too.

Such an internal perspective on a strategy evokes a different set of criteria among which Actionability is the one I would like to talk about here.

Actionability means that
a) there actually are obvious actions/solutions you can derive from that strategy/idea
b) the strategy/idea helps managing and coordinating the company’s/agency’s activities.

Basically you could say: "You should be able do make more great stuff more easily with this strategy or idea in mind." You could also call it the Fertility of an idea or strategy. (http://account-planning-confessions.blogspot.de/2013/04/on-creative-fertility-of-idea.html)

To support this notion, let me quote what Sarah Watson, CSO at BBH in NY says about the role of a brand essence: "The real question is whether the brand short hands we work with contain a sufficiently nourishing narrative for those working with them to create something good. I always remember Tom Ford describing how he was able to simultaneously design for Yves St Laurent and Gucci; 'one is Audrey Hepburn, the other Sophia Loren'. A quick shorthand but one that had enough vividness and depth for him to create collections and communications season after season."   http://www.contagiousmagazine.com/2013/10/a_safe_distance.php

While this seems obvious it gets often forgotten by planners. The result are often so called "not well executed strategies" which in reality might have been not very actionable ones.

Creative Fertility: 
In creative terms planners often have strategies of limited or even negative creative impact. E.g. highly "psychological" ideas that are often very hard to be depicted (typically in print media). Or ideas that lead to very stereotypical expressions in all kinds of media. Let's say you come up with something like "self-efficacy" as the brand benefit - it often leads to claims such as "You decide". Which seems OK, but how do you show that you decide yourself - let's say in print? But isn't it hard to show "decisions" ... and even more hard: decisions you make yourself as opposed to not yourself? Another example is one of my most hated type of ideas: those built around "Individualism". In 9 of 10 cases this ends up in showing "our weird customers" (= motorcycle bikers or girls with punk-like haircuts) to make clear that they are "individuals". That's awful.

Sufficiently broad communication platforms:
Another important issue that has to do with Actionability is the question "How broad and open should a positioning or idea be?" An actionable positioning / idea should be narrow enough to spark off clear and distinctive executions. On the other hand brand management needs platforms to allow for multiple actions now and in the future - in dozens of channels. So actually, breadth is often vital too. Just think of Coke and their "Happiness" - which is as broad as can be. Old school planning insisted strongly on narrow ideas with little ambiguity. I believe that real Actionability is about maximizing both: absolute clarity of direction AND a sufficient breadth for a whole array of possible actions. This is less contradictory than it sounds. Another example of this is "Good Food deserves Lurpak":




There is certainly more to say about the Actionability of a strategy but I'd rather leave it on that note and maybe revisit the issue someday with some fresh thoughts and examples.

Why Differentiation with a capital "D" is misleading - a plea based on the Tesco case.

In a former post Why differentiating positionings don't matter much I have already talked about why meaningful differentiation is an overrated - or misunderstood - concept. This post was largely influenced by this book here: "How Brands Grow"

In today's post I would like or explain my doubts in a more concrete way - by using a famous example:
The Tesco brand, which back in the days has been and for some still is the poster child of successful re-branding and superior service design.


The Tesco case.


















Tesco have reinvented themselves in the 80ies/90ies and ran some legendary campaigns in the UK.

In the colorful circle below You can see a description of the Tesco company brand - with its main message "Every little helps" and it's implications for doing business. As already mentioned this one of the really big cases in branding history and people (in Europe) still say "Tesco" when you ask for THE retail case to learn from. Tesco's main idea was to make "constant improvement, guided by customer orientation" the core of their company & brand. Basically, they strive to create the most satisfying shopping experience at an affordable price.

Now, what is interesting about this case is that it is almost completely lacking originality, or let's say "differentiation" as we normally use this word. Yes, the Tesco experience is quite a distinctive one - especially because they steadily innovate it. So is the advertising style. But the Tesco proposition is astonishingly generic. "Every little helps" is a good understated expression of something absolutely basic to the category: Customer Service in all its aspects and the will to improve it.


"Generic"

When you read the single imperatives & attributes derived from "Every little helps" you might be astonished. If it was not Tesco but one of those less glamorous clients you probably would cry out "but that's generic, everybody could say that".
Some examples: "The staff are great", "The prices are good", "I can get what I want", etc.
There's obviously nothing specific there. If it was not Tesco, you would assume it's just the usual marketing bs.

All this raises a question: is our understanding of differentiation and its importance maybe wrong?
I believe it is.

But what is our usual understanding of what we call "Differentiation"? With a capital D, that is.

I believe what we mean when we say "Differentiation" is: "others don't have it". If you really want to kill ideas you would even go for "others cannot even have it in future, because ONLY we can".
By setting such standards we simply ask too much of the core idea and too little of ourselves.


Asking too much of an idea.

Obviously, we want a brand or an idea to be unique. But what is really unique in this world? Hardly anything is. Of course there are cases showing considerable differentiation - you might even call it niche behavior - like e.g. The Body Shop, HSBC or Cirque du Soleil, Wii. But the world is full of other examples similar to Tesco who were able to standout and be superior despite a seemingly generic basic idea: Here are just some further examples: Coca-Cola’s "Happiness", BBC’s "Real Journalism ", Whole Foods’ "Fresh and Healthy", even the ingenious Avis’ "We try harder" (which was striking only because its bravely reason to believe "We are second.")
Let's put it that way: just count how many UNIQUE brand ideas you had in your lifetime.

Asking too little of ourselves.

I believe we often avoid thinking about the issue at hand in favor of talking about it with colleagues and clients. In such - mostly confrontative - conversations "differentiation" is rather used as a means to undermine the other guy's arguments. "Differentiating vs. not" becomes a criterion to kill ideas & ads. (Almost never the ones chosen instead really are differentiating in the end.)
Or let's put it less defensively: differentiation is a concept we use as a criterion to choose ideas in a very simplistic way. Basically we build a digitally split version of the solution space: 0 = non-differentiating, say won't work even if relevant & credible, 1 = differentiating, say will work if relevant and credible.

Another way of making it too simple for ourselves is our personal motivation when we crave for something truly differentiating. We crave for a miraculous notion that reduces hard work. Something that is so ingenious that we won't have to fight the fight of details and little steps, ultimately that we won't have to compete - ideally not at all. Although this is true for a truly differentiated, unique business (see Aaker’s notion of competitors being not even considered) - it doesn't stay true for long, since other player start copying your uniqueness, thus destroying it.
And here we are again: not really differentiated, trying to play "The Original" card.
This wish is especially often dominant on the agency side and even more in planning departments. The further you are from daily business the more you believe in a stroke of genius, some sort of a paradigmatic turn. I do as well. But we should be aware of the hidden motivations behind this wish: we simply do not want to make our hands dirty by thinking through the nitty-gritty and executional side of business success.

The Tesco case shows that it doesn't have to be the basic idea that is differentiating. Perceived differentiation can come from the way how a more or less generic idea is executed. E.g it starts with the way the brand slogan is written: "Every little helps" is nice because of the execution of the core idea "Constantly improving customer experience". It's also not the idea of having a great assortment that creates competitive advantage but the actual manifestation of this idea - week by week.
Same is true for lots of brands and campaigns. Let's take Old Spice for instance: "Masculinity" is really nothing a scent can own in men's perfumes market. It's the execution that creates the differentiation.
Same is true for Avis’ reason to believe "We are second.", which is an executional way to play "Customer Dedication.", not the brand proposition itself.

Towards a more realistic concept of "differentiation" - no capital "D"

Having said all that, I would suggest the following corrections to the concept of differentiation:

  • for established brands, differentiation is the least important of the Holy Trinity: relevance, credibility, differentiation. For challenger brands with small market shares this might be not true, I must admit.
  • differentiation is a continuum, not a Yes or No: ideas are more or less differentiating, and almost never truly unique. differentiation from just some of the competitors might be enough. differentiation to some degree might be enough. The mere perception of differentiation might be enough. 
  • differentiation does not at all have to happen in the idea itself, it can take place in the execution (both in comms or in service/product design)
  • differentiation should be thought of as creating & nurturing assets attributed to the brand;
    instead of thinking of it as creating a line of difference from other brands. If you are able to ensure attribution to your brand you don't have to think of others having or not having something similar.
  • differentiation is a good means to cut through the comms clutter in the market and should be seen as such: as a means to overcome certain barriers, not as an end in itself. Just remember: it could easily be replaced by sheer omnipresence and spendings. Relevance and Credibility could not. At least not in a free market.
  • what counts in the end are customers who like what the brand offers and move seamlessly through their purchase cycle to actually buy the offerings. differentiation certainly might help here and there in that cycle because it fosters awareness and attributability of perceptions and mental schemata. But that's about it.
If you have a brand people perceive as "different", a brand that has a very distinctive brand story, that's perfect. If not - do not worry too much about being somehow different. Rather ask yourself: is the brand really really good at something that is relevant - and if not, what should it be?

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For those of you interested in a more scientific analysis of this issue - here's a presentation of some statistical evidence of the marginal role of "meaningful differentiation".

What do percentages tell us?


Oh dear, this one is so hard to talk about. There's so much to say and so little fun to talk about it. Boring it is. But not to me. And maybe someone else cares. So let me pick one aspect that especially drives me mad. 
What really puzzles me is the interpretation of the typical bar chart that is supposed to help understand consumers' motives. They go somewhat like this:


Consumers get asked what is "important to them, when it comes to XYZ".  Let's leave aside that this is a very naive question. What I want to talk about is just the numbers and what those quantities tell us.
What happens almost all the time is that we go: "Quality is most important, "Knowledgeable Stuff is second", "Selection seems to be least important." Right? Again, forget about the stupid variables, just go by the numbers. Quality is more important than Selection, right?

Well I don't get that. How can those bars tell this kind of story? The questionnaire obviously must have worked this way: "Tel us how important the following blabla are ... etc" and then each variable could be rated (not ranked, unfortunately!). Now, 80% of the respondents said Yes, or have chosen the Top-2-Boxes when it came to the Quality factor and 50% did that when it came to the Selection factor. But how do we know that for each person, or even for most of the them that the Quality factor is more important than the Selection factor? We have never asked them! What we have measured is not the relative importance but the distribution of high importance of each factor in the population. This tells us that salience of Quality is more frequently found, not that it is literally "higher" than that of Selection. 

You see, we just do not know by looking at those bars how many percent of the 80% "Quality Seekers" also find Selection very important. There might be up to 50 percent points of them among those Quality Seekers. So probably most of the people who find Quality important would find Selection just as important. Both factors are rather equally important to most of the respondents! How can we than say that Quality was more important, then?

What could it probably mean "Quality is more important?". What they mean is: if you improve your quality perception this would appeal to more people than when you improve your perceived selection. So the underlying assumption behind that kind of bar chart is: "The more people you target the more successful you will be." Thus, the primary imperative is Reach. You can easily evaluate if your task at hand is in-line with this imperative. If it is - than there's nothing wrong about those bars and their interpretation. 

Let me give you three examples:
Task 1) "Differentiate our brand from the competitors in the industry."
Task 2) "Create more loyalty for our brand. Raise the re-purchase rate."
Task 3) "Position our new product as the first of its kind and leverage first-mover advantages fully."
Which of these tasks is the one that is in-line with the assumption "The more people you target the more successful you will be"? Give it a try!
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Obviously, it's Task 3. Being the first mover means grasping and owning the most popular, most obvious factors. Task 2 is not primarily about reach because it is rather about depth. Task 1 is not primarily about reach because it's rather about partitioning. Of course, in the sub-segments you are sort of aiming for reach, you could argue. But even that doesn't always have to be true: loyalty could very much be about individual, not popular priorities. Differentiation could is probably more focused on less popular yet energetic, unoccupied territories to make them popular. E.g. Axe/Lynx occupied "smell" probably not because it is the most "important" factor in terms of it's statistical distribution in the total population. But it makes a stronger brand positioning than going for "antiperspirant effect" which probably is slightly more frequently rated as "important".

The most important bias at work when looking at those percentage bar diagrams is a visual one. We are automatically attracted to the longer bar. To us it seems more potent, thus more effective etc.
And we all make use of this bias. Especially because planners often rather abuse than use data. They abuse them "to make the point" = to soothe clients' worries = to make them think less.

Instead of making us think more data - especially simple descriptive percentages - make us think less. That's a pity. We should think much more about what data tell us. Not exactly because this would always make us read more out of the data. In the stupid case above - the very first pic I found on the Net - there's not much to be read. It's not very useful. All planners know that. But we should think more about data e.g. in order to learn how to design better surveys. I would start with the question: "How can we measure how important one thing is compared to another?" and "What needs to be known before we can measure that?". But maybe we just can't know what's important?

A very entertaining but sound talk on how content vs. advertising works

David Ogilvy’s Oysters Ad

Down below you will find a really a wonderful talk given by Paul Feldwick on several very interesting topics.

Among others you can hear and learn about:
  • an anecdote about David Ogilvy’s first ad idea (the oysters ad)
  • a taxonomy of advertising effectiveness models
  • a definition what content really is
  • a discussion why content is NOT the opposite of advertising
  • and some more.

I really recommend to watch it. Enjoy!