OK first of all, let’s dispense with the semantics. Competitive positioning. Strategic positioning. Competitive differentiation. It’s all the same thing. And what is that,
I hear you say…
What Is Competitive Positioning?
It’s how you position your business in the mind of the consumer, compared to your competitors. You could be the biggest, the cheapest, the most advanced, the friendliest, quirkiest, coolest, most luxurious – the list goes on as you can well imagine. And it’s incredible how many businesses just doesn’t even think about it before jumping straight into brand and strategy, and then doing some marketing.
Competitive positioning as a concept was successfully developed by David Ogilvy (often referred to as the ‘the father of advertising’), embraced by Philip Kotler (who is known, I kid you not as ‘the father of marketing’!), and finally named as such by Jack Trout. If you want to read an absolute masterclass on the topic, his ‘Differentiate or Die’ is the go-to. Not a man to mince his words, Mr Trout, but he certainly knew what he was talking about.
Why should you even bother with competitive positioning?
Because telling your target customer how you’re different from your competitors is probably one of the most basic, essential elements for building a successful business. If you don’t differentiate from your competitors, why would anyone ever choose you, as opposed ‘all the others’ out there…? Differentiate or die, as they say.
Some examples of competitive positioning.
We are going to give you a few tips on how to develop a compelling competitive positioning for your business, but first of all we’ll take you through some examples, so you can see how powerful it can be.
Avis Car Rental
This is an oldie, but it’s probably one of the cleverest pieces of positioning work ever. Back in the early ‘60’s Avis was struggling to gain traction against Hertz, the number one car rental company at the time.
They tried everything without success until they hired ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach which reframed the entire strategy. If you’re in second place, they told Avis, then you have to try harder than everyone else, or you’re in trouble. You have to make sure the cars are always clean, and well maintained, you have to make sure the customer service is always up to scratch. Being second was actually a competitive advantage when you looked at it like that.
All of this was summed up in a competitive positioning statement that was so successful they used it for 50 years – We try harder. If you think this feels refreshing in 2022 (it does), imagine living in 1962.
Over time Hertz’s dominant market share dropped from 61% to 49%, and Avis increased from 29% to 36%. All because of competitive positioning. Powerful stuff, as you can see.
And staying with cars, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Volvo? It’s probably safety, a competitive positioning they’ve been nurturing for years. Mercedes..? Luxury. BMW…? Technical performance. You get the picture. Each one has carved out its own position and built its brand around that.
Each competitive position creates a moat around the business so strong that no competitor would dare compete on the same terms. So your positioning is a defensive as well as business-building investment.
Veolia Environmental Services
Moving to the B to B space, Veolia which collects and recycles waste all over the world, recently repositioned the business to create cut-through in a fairly uninspiring space. Given all the action in the global environment for waste, pollution and recycling, the time was right for Veolia to up its game and capitalise on the ‘boom’ in their space.
So they repositioned from a functional waste collector – which it still is in Australia – to a progressive company that’s making the world a better place. From the so-what “Enjoy reliable, on-time and responsible waste management” (Australia), to the proactive “Let’s act together for the ecological transformation” (global).
The website even offers an option to view it in a more ‘eco-responsible mode’ – and it tells you how much less carbon you’re using by ‘accessing a more sober’ interface. Bit of a gimmick..? Maybe, but does it show they’re committed to the repositioning? Certainly does.
Veolia has already won an award for showing how the business of rubbish need not be dull, and so far differentiating from its competitors is yielding great bottom-line results. It’ll be interesting to see if and when their Australian arm catches up.
How to find your competitive positioning.
OK, so let’s get down to business. How do you find your own competitive positioning?
There are a few steps to take, and none of them are that difficult, really – you just have to do it.
1. Step back and objectively examine your business
Take a helicopter view of your business and write down what it actually does. The absolute bare bones with no nonsense included. Then read it back thinking of a sibling or a sceptical friend, and if you can imagine them raising an eyebrow at any of your brilliantly made points, leave it out.
2. Examine your customers
Find out what your customers actually care about. You might find relevant market research reports and articles online, but you can also, shock horror – actually ask your customers! Send a questionnaire to your email list (incentivise response!) or get a research company to run some focus groups, a great investment every few years.
3. Map your competitors
Spending a couple of hours reviewing your competitors’ websites and socials is incredibly useful. You’ll find out what they’re all up to, and let’s face it, when’s the last time you did that..?
Maybe one’s launched a new product you weren’t aware of, or they’ve changed who they’re selling to, and might be encroaching on your turf! You might even be able to see what their customers are saying online about their service. Google reviews, and social media comments will let you know what bothers them, what they like and what they care about.
But the main point of the exercise is looking for how each competitor is positioned, what promises their brand appears to be making to the customer.
To track your thinking, place them all on a competitive positioning map. This is an incredibly useful tool we use time and again, to visualise the lay of the land for our clients and look for clear space to potentially enter. All you have to do is determine two factors that are important to the customer, and then map your competitors on the matrix accordingly. The classic factors are price and quality, though there are many others. Here are a couple of examples:
Ready to articulate your competitive positioning?
Once you’ve completed all three steps you should be able to answer this question:
What can you genuinely* claim to offer, that none of your competitors are claiming, that your customers actually care about?
*positionings should be grounded in reality, or you’ll get caught out in the end
If you can answer that question – great! You’re closing in on a competitive position and a way to differentiate from everyone else. Jack Trout would be proud.
But for some, let’s be honest, maybe there’s nothing that remarkable about your business, and you may struggle. It’s possible that neither you, nor any of your competitors have any clear competitive advantage. But keep trying and get creative – remember Hertz?
And if you really can’t find clear space, what then..? Well, you have to get clever with your marketing to stand out and cut through, and if you need a hand with that, of course, we’d be happy to help.
So, get stuck into your competitors. Figure out what you do better than everyone else.
Find out if anyone cares, and when the stars align – shout it from the rooftops as loud, as clear, and as often as you can.
Your business will benefit, I can guarantee it.