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'ĂȘtre 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 5 to 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.