cereal aisle with crowded shelves
PHOTO: Nathália Rosa | unsplash

I’ve been thinking a lot about competition.

My cousin Emily launched an ecommerce business in 2019 for gifting pet products. She’s done an incredible job with product selection, branding and promotion — all of which is reflected in her revenue growth and the partnerships she’s secured. Last week she called me. A competitor had surfaced that had copied her branding (logo, colors, typeface, packaging), promotions, and many of her products. Its branding is right on the line of infringement but hadn't crossed far enough over to embark on a legal challenge.

Over the last week Emily quickly worked her way through anger, frustration, depression, acceptance and back to anger again. She's now battle-ready. I have no doubts that she’ll be successful. She is passionate about her company and product strategy, is enormously talented and is working to a vision and plan that will keep her well ahead of her copycat competitor. This will ultimately end up being a blip along the way and a story to tell as the company grows and matures.

Dr pepper imitators
PHOTO: Source: Reddit

Source: Reddit

Emily's story is familiar to anyone in the B2C world. Most B2C brands are adept at managing competition on multiple levels: product, packaging, distribution, price, promotion etc. But it’s a different story in the B2B environment. Ask a B2B company for an overview of its competition and 99% of the time you are going to get either a chart showing product feature comparisons or, if it's in a leadership position, a Gartner Magic Quadrant or a Forrester Wave showing it in a positive light.

While it’s important for your product to fare well in comparison to competitive offerings, if this is all you focus on with regard to competition, you’re missing an opportunity to differentiate and distance your company and products in many other ways.

Brands: Do You Practice These Competitive Response Basics?

Product and Pricing

You don’t have to have the most features and the cheapest products to win. You do have to have the right features for your target audience and a price that aligns with your product offering in the context of your competition.

As an aside, one of the hardest things for a new B2B company to do is to price their product — there’s a lot of trial and error in figuring out what the market will bear, particularly if you are first to market in a new category. Pricing yourself higher than your competition can feel risky. The trick is to understand that nothing is permanent, you can always adjust pricing until you find your sweet spot. In a recent discussion with a group of fellow SaaS CEOs about pricing it became evident that we had all started out with pricing that was too low.

Related Article: The Truth About Competitive Analysis

Brand Look and Feel

B2B companies waste a lot of valuable time trying to get to the perfect logo and company name, becoming so wrapped up in being creative they turn inward and disregard their competitive environment. I have a few simple rules:

  • Company name. You need to be able to say it, spell it and acquire the domain and social handles — it’s that simple. There is one exception: it needs to stand apart from your competition. You would think this is obvious, but if it is, why do so many companies make mistakes in this area? Just today, we had a ridiculous conversation in a meeting about partnering and in the course of the conversation three companies in the same product category came up and their names all started with “Brand” — the conversation quickly devolved into complete confusion.
  • Choose a good color palette. If all your competitors have blue logos, choose something different. Select a palette, not just a single color, to give yourself optimum flexibility in your marketing materials.
  • Keep your logo simple and if possible, connect it to your brand name. And, if your logo isn’t square you'll need a square variant to support your social media activity. It costs time and money to socialize a brand icon and a brand name separately. In a B2C environment that may be a good idea (e.g., Nike swoosh), but in a B2B environment it’s probably not worth your time. Case in point, we give users the ability to drag-and-drop logos of marketing tech companies into our tech stack configurator. When we first launched the final visualization, it was a group of logos. We quickly realized that we needed to provide the company name as well because no one, and I mean no one, recognized all the logos of the products they were using.

The key takeaway when it comes to competition: make sure that your logo looks sufficiently different from your competitors and is scalable. It needs to be readable if it’s added to a slide alongside your competitors’ logos or to a conference or tradeshow program. That sponsorship you paid for is worthless if your logo is shrunk down to the point where it isn’t discernible. I learned this the hard way early in my career when I inherited a beautiful but entirely useless logo.

Using an extreme example, take a look at this extract from an earlier edition of Scott Brinker’s MarTech Landscape. Notice in the bottom-left corner of Business Intelligence how difficult the rust-colored square logo is to read in comparison to other logos. Secondly, take a look at the similarity among the logos of the cloud companies. I’d argue that none of these logos are serving the competitive interests of their companies.

landscape logos

Related Article: 5 Rebranding Lessons From a CMO Who's Been There

Positioning

Positioning is an area where competitive responses go awry. Many companies think the best way to differentiate is to put themselves in their own unique category or never mention their category at all in their company and product positioning. Taking that approach makes it really difficult for prospective buyers to find you. We catalog a lot of technology in my company and it’s a constant struggle to interpret vendor company and product overviews. Here’s a classic example: Vendor X’s "platform combines emotional and cultural intelligence to empower brands and agencies to anticipate threats and opportunities and respond moment-by-moment in the market at speed and scale across multiple publishers and contexts." My questions for you:  1) From this description can you figure out what this product does? 2) How would you categorize this product? 3) Do you think anyone is writing an RFP that uses this description to identify the product they name?

It’s really very simple. Own your space. If you have a good product and value proposition, you shouldn’t be afraid to compete for business. The best positioning and product statements start with “Platform X is a Y” and then continue on to describe how this product or company excels. Here’s a great example: Postal Virtual Events is a virtual events planning platform where customers can book talent from hundreds of options, manage the invite and registration process, and trigger the automatic sending of attendee event kits. Direct mail, gifts, company swag, and memorable virtual events can all come together in one place to help sales and marketers break through the noise of saturated digital channels.

Related Article: From B2B Funnel to Tornado: How to Tame the New Buyer's Path for Cloud Services

Moving Beyond the Basics

In my marketing consulting days, the first thing I’d do when working with a client looking to launch a company or product was spend a few days looking at their competitors’ marketing strategy. I'd dig through press releases to see how they positioned themselves and look at the frequency of announcements and social posts and the other channels they were using to gain attention and acquire leads. This tedious, manual work was invaluable in crafting a competitive strategy. In one situation I identified that all the players (all billion dollar companies) had a habit of announcing products well in advance of product availability (sometimes up to 3 years) in an attempt to freeze the market. Knowing that competing against the marketing budgets of these very large companies would be challenging as a startup, we decided to focus on product availability as a key point of differentiation. When we launched the company, we told the world not to expect to see any product announcements from us until products were through Beta and heading into production. The strategy worked incredibly well and we were quickly perceived as a viable competitor. 

You don’t need to uncover this information manually today. A wide variety of technology tools are available to uncover the information you need about your competitors. You can find them here:

In addition to the competitive basics, dive deep into your competitor’s marketing strategy to uncover opportunities to differentiate by targeting market segments they’re not talking to, using marketing tactics and channels they aren’t, and experimenting with a different frequency of communications.

As we all place more emphasis on digital interaction with our customers and prospects, customer experience and engagement programs offer an additional opportunity to develop competitive differentiation. Can you do a better job with your online support than your competitors? Is there an opportunity to engage with active prospects and customers in a more compelling way? I once eliminated all the [email protected] email addresses and replaced them with real names — just to be clear real names, not real people. Doing that completely changed the tone of the messages from our prospects and gave us the opportunity to start building relationships at the very beginning of the customer journey.

Defining your competitive strategy should be fun. It takes analysis, strategy and creativity — and when you succeed it feels great. Go forth and conquer! (And if you live in the UK and need to send a gift to your pet-loving friend, I encourage you to check out Pet Hamper, it would make Emily very happy.)