Don’t Obsess About the Competition
BY John Miller
September 15, 2022

There is a saying among college students: “Cs get degrees.” And it is very much true. They do get degrees, and those C-grade earners do graduate … typically into the middle lane of life.

But for most of us marketers, we are actively seeking to avoid being in the middle (ahem, regardless of our final GPA). Marketing is about hitting grand slams, and you can’t do it if you don’t swing hard.

And the surest way to the middle of the pack is to do what everyone else is doing. To take their vanilla content and do a slightly better version and call it French vanilla.

And yet, rather than trying to come up with something that resets the industry conversation, we tend to get into circular, inside baseball conversations that focus on what the competition is doing, while the competition focuses on what we’re doing.

In other words, we’re obsessing about the wrong group.

Should you do a competitive audit?
Well, yeah.

It’s good to know what the competition is up to. It’s good to have an understanding of the broader industry conversation. But, for the love of all that is holy, don’t copy them.

In our perfect marketing world, we’d always create new, exciting marketing content and campaigns that have dramatic impact for the business. If we want to be really, really good, we have to aim for spectacular on a regular basis.

This means taking chances.

It means not following the pack, and not slowly iterating forward what someone else has done.

It means having the courage to fail.

Following the consensus is bad for you

Back in 2006, legendary (and filthy rich) investor Howard Marks wrote a memo entitled Dare to be Great, saying, “If your behavior and that of your managers is conventional, then you will get conventional results—good or bad. If your performance is unconventional, you will likely get unconventional results.”

Marks wrote that the “road to above-average performance runs through unconventional, uncomfortable investing,” which means looking at non-consensus ideas, something most investors fail to do. But this is where the true opportunities for growth lie, according to Marks.

The same is true in marketing.

We need to shock the customer into paying attention. There are a lot of ways to do that, but it begins with an honest organizational self-assessment, something that’s really hard to do. In some instances, you’ll realize that your internal sense of who you are as a business is not uniformly felt internally, or that it doesn’t align with external perceptions. Don’t freak! You can fix it, as long as there’s a commitment to that honest self-assessment so that you can ensure your brand story is based on The Truth.

Get comfortable being uncomfortable

Marks said in that note mentioned above that most “great investments begin in discomfort.”

If you’re not uncomfortable when you launch an initiative, you’re probably wasting your time. Being uncomfortable doesn’t mean something is wrong; it usually simply means that you haven’t done something before.

The key is to revel in the discomfort … that’s when you know you may be on to something. You’ll never be 100 percent certain of anything before you launch it, but you want to question your own assumptions, stress test your ideas [link to “disagreement” blog post when live]and create the case for what you’re doing. Basically, you need to invest in building up your confidence that you’re right so that you don’t get knocked off course the first time someone—inside or outside the company—questions what the hell you’re doing.

[For a great case study on this, read our post on how Michael Brenner used a data-backed approach to change how B2B giant SAP marketed itself.] 

Do obsess over your customers

Great marketing requires great empathy … for your customers.

When a marketing team is obsessed with its competition, they typically don’t have enough attention to focus on the people who really count—the customers and prospects. When this happens, we tend to focus on the minuscule differences between our product or service and our competitors’ product or service. Often, these “differentiators” are not things customers care about.

So figure out what they care about.

When Sean Blanda took over the content team at tech start-up Crossbeam, he spent weeks getting to know the company’s (very hard to define) audience. He focused on job titles, made connections and asked them questions about what was important to them. Based on the information he gathered, the path forward became clear, and the Crossbeam blog continues to be a top-of-the-funnel engine for the company.

The divergent path

If you believe Robert Frost, taking the road less traveled will make all the difference.

If you do what everyone else does—attend the same trade shows, advertise in the same places, create and distribute similar content—you won’t rock the boat, and you won’t come under scrutiny from above. But you’ll also never stand out in the eyes of the customer. In other words, you’ll look like you’re doing the job, with lots of activity, but you’ll never achieve what you most likely got into this career for—to make an impact.

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