In the second movie of the Hunger Games series, Catching Fire, viewers begin to see the struggle for control of the mind of Panem’s people between President Snow and the Resistance. Katniss Everdeen doesn’t know what she started, but Snow does. Namely, her defiance of the Capitol inspires hope for the people of Panem that they can overthrow their brutal treatment. Snow discusses his plans to eliminate Katniss until his advisor, Plutarch suggests that it is important to make her seem unworthy of the people’s trust. He describes it as a process of moves and countermoves. If the Resistance causes Katniss to do something to inspire the populace, the Capitol will convey a message that turns the people against her.
Plutarch’s approach is relevant to the way we marketers should manage our competition. The challenge of every marketing department is to make your product stand out, to differentiate it from the competition. However, your competition (if they’re any good0 will be watching your message and if it begins to negatively impact them, will develop a new message that counters your product positioning. To be successful you need to develop a deep understanding of your competition’s positioning and then be able to monitor for and respond to their new message. Here’s how I suggest you approach this.
Analyzing against customer needs
To start the process of differentiating your messaging, collect the competition’s relevant promotional material. This includes sales brochures, website pages, training materials, and social media posts.
Next, compare your competitors’ positioning and messaging to the set of customer needs your product is intended to address. Chances are, they will miss some benefits that customer believe are important. These competitor messaging gaps are gold! They are exploitable messaging elements that can differentiate your product.
For example, a medical distribution client discovered that their competitors all discussed “inventory control” in their sales collateral. However, our market research indicated that controlling inventory only solved a portion of the customer’s cost containment problems. Getting clinical staff to use the same supplies and more importantly, use the same amount of certain supplies carried even more importance. Since my client’s software could track utilization, the message about the company’s software was transformed into “managing cost per treatment” rather than inventory.
Sometimes this examination of competitor collateral may identify a benefit that cannot be tied to any customer need on your list. When this happens, discuss the benefit with your development team to determine whether your company neglected to address this need. If so, you’ll need to ignore the competitor’s messaging and hope your unique benefits outweigh the competitor’s in the customer’s mind. But perhaps R & D addressed the need and did not think it was important enough to highlight to marketing. This is the best case, because you can create messaging that block’s your competitor’s uniqueness claim. Alternatively, you may find this need is not important enough to drive customer purchase behavior and can be ignored.
Analyzing against your competitor’s messaging
Next, examine competitive messaging to determine how your competitor expresses their benefits compared the approach you take. Identify the differences and similarities. The differences will help your product stand out!
Often you and your competitor create similar messages because marketing just assumes “that’s the way customers think” or, “the customers’ needs haven’t changed”. Don’t allow these assumptions to rule your messaging; perform the customer research.
Since you are trying to differentiate your product, you need to minimize these similarities. When they are about an important benefit, try to determine whether the competitive message has greater impact, which would suggest you need to find a different message. Shake things up. Make your customers think. Brainstorm ideas to uncover new terminology that better resonates with your customer.
Consider developing a new catch phrase that defines the benefit and is easy to remember. By consistently using catch phrases, companies are often able to differentiate themselves just because of that terminology, even though the benefit might be very similar to the competition. For example, for the same medical distributor mentioned previously, once we identified the “managing cost per treatment” benefit, we developed the phrase, “clinical efficiency” that resonated enough with the customer that it generated considerable interest from hospitals.
If the similarity covers an unimportant benefit, consider subordinate it to other unique benefits in your collateral.
Managing the message during the new product launch
Of course, the most opportune time to manage positioning and introduce a differentiated message is when you are launching a new product. Careful examination of the market will help you develop the best message.
For instance, my colostomy product client was introducing a new device that created a clinically superior skin health environment. For years, this industry had promoted the concept of “superior fit” as the key to promoting healthy skin around the device. And it was correct. Improving the fit DID promote skin health. So new product design focused on enhancing this feature. Customers believed it to the extent that “fit” was always a primary criterion for evaluating any new medical device.
However, my client’s new product contained an additional approach for promoting healthy skin that was entirely different; a natural substance that transferred onto the skin while the device was worn. Clinical results showed a dramatic skin health improvement. Our job was to communicate this new way of thinking to the customer. Since we knew the market was predisposed to accept the “good fit” message, we decided to take a multiprong messaging approach. We used a simple base message for every customer – “Skin deserves a better environment”.
Follow-up messaging was based upon the way this message impacted the customer. Those who clung to the better fit message received follow-up emphasizing that creating a healthier skin environment enhanced fit and security, making the device superior. Customers who accepted that transporting a compound into the skin could lead to better skin health were delivered a different follow-up message; namely supporting information on how the product created a better skin environment.
But the final piece that can lead to better management of the competitor’s message is predicting how they will react to your message. Then you can proactively develop a response. To effectively do this, I like to ask an experienced marketing colleague to take the position of the competitor and create a competitive response. This is followed by a brainstorming session to identify counter arguments.
Once you’ve launched and the competitor begins to respond, repeat this process and get the word out.
Taken together, these steps will help you manage the positioning and messaging of your product versus your competitors. We develop a message and the response to our competition: moves and countermoves.