The importance of mapping your competitive landscape

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“We have no competitors.”

This is a phrase that I often hear from clients and that always makes me think. It’s technically possible that your brand has carved out such a specific niche – say, a dating app for marine biologists – that you’re literally the only player in that space. The most likely scenario, however, is that you simply haven’t considered all the alternatives to using your product or service.

Mapping this landscape of choice is key to understanding your market and refining your value proposition. I know this because I work in digital marketing, where the competition for attention is always high and only the most polished messages get through. Highlighting your brand attributes to direct competitors is relatively simple, as we will see below. However, standing out from indirect and surrogate competitors is much more difficult.

Marketing against direct competitors

Your brand’s direct competitors offer more or less the same product or service as you, and as such they are quite easy to identify. You’ve probably come across their ads in trade publications. You may even hear customers mention them as alternatives to your brand. And if you’re going to a conference or exhibition, they’re probably setting up booths right next to yours.

You and your direct competitors are all fishing in the same pool of customers and competing in the same marketing spheres (think Google Ads, social ads, email outreach). When trying to persuade a customer to choose your brand over a direct competitor’s, you typically focus on the differences in functionality and quality, but the core appeal remains the same.

Related: 5 Ways to Dominate Your Competition

Marketing against indirect competitors

Indirect competitors are brands targeting the exact same audiences as you, but selling products or services that can be considered substitutes (rather than replacements) for your offerings. Pizza Hut and Domino’s are direct competitors. Pizza Hut and PF Chang’s are indirect competitors. All of these brands are trying to reach the same market – hungry people ready to eat at restaurants – but they offer very different ways to meet this need.

Usually the biggest difference between indirect competitors is price and quality. An extra large double pepperoni pizza from Domino’s will cost a lot less than a family dinner from PF Chang’s. When someone chooses Domino’s, they are indicating that, for at least one night, the full dining experience one gets at PF Chang’s is less important than just getting a hot pie to take away or delivered and be done with she.

To win customers who turn to an indirect competitor, you need to focus on how your product or service provides value beyond a single use and potentially solves problems along the way.

One of the ways to make yourself indispensable to a client is to establish and maintain a trusted partnership. While it’s true that trust grows naturally over time, it has to start somewhere, and having a deep understanding of your competition helps you get off on the right foot with new people who still have no reason to believe. In you.

Let’s say you meet a potential client and he mentions that a competitor has offered him a cheaper quote for the job he wants done. If you’ve done your homework, you understand how your services compare to this competitor. This allows you to present an honest and well-informed argument as to precisely how the service you offer will do it faster or more completely. You don’t have to fall back on cheap sales models or, even worse, throw out promises you may not be able to deliver. Then, if you land the client, they know what to expect, you have confidence in your ability to deliver, and a trusted partnership begins to take shape. And even if you go for it, they’ll probably appreciate your candor and knowledge of the field. Maybe they will come back to you for the next job.

Related: 10 Ways Competition Can Improve Your Business

Marketing against replacement competitors

Replacement Competitors is a broad category that includes… well, basically any choice that doesn’t use your product or service.

On social media, for example, your business content floats suspended in a torrent of posts, a small portion of which comes from your industry peers. You’re trying to grab a potential customer’s attention as they browse through a feed of updates and comments, photos of their friends’ kids, and videos of raccoons stuck in dog doors. You don’t have to just stand out from other stores. You have to distance yourself from all the interests of a client.

Staying aware of all these different elements of competition you face can feel like extra work. You get into the business you work in because it has fundamental appeal, whether it’s the products you sell, the people you deal with, or the money it makes. Don’t have personal social networks, but need to worry about Twitter and TikTok? Are you a mattress manufacturer, but you have to think about how much your customers pay their accountants? It can be overwhelming, all you need to consider to be successful, but of course you don’t need to know everything. You won’t be able to measure every aspect of the competition you face.

But making a concerted effort to do so will pay off. Putting in the work and allocating the resources to trying to understand everything you’re up against is key. Because ultimately you are competing with your own self-indulgence, the lies you tell yourself to make necessary tasks less important. When you’re wiped out at the end of a long week, curiosity can feel like more trouble than it’s worth. “We’ll be fine.” “We have no direct competitors.” Meanwhile, you are falling behind, whether you know it or not.

The only way to overcome competition is to embrace it – to reject your own laziness and insecurity. When I hear clients tell me about their lack of competition, I know it’s probably because they think the presence of competition suggests there’s a problem with their process or execution. This is not true at all! No matter how good the work you do, you will always have plenty of competition. It’s everywhere, and it’s inevitable. Knowing your competitors better is your best chance for success. Anything less is just a wishful thinking.

Related: 3 Reasons Why You Should Spy On Your Competitors

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