What Elections Can Teach Us About Competitive Strategy

With the election season now (finally!) having passed, it’s time to ask: Did we actually learn anything? Aside from all the griping about negative advertising, campaign spending and over-focus-grouped talking points, there’s a story about how political history can provide clues into competitive strategy.

In the 1930s, husband and wife Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter founded Campaigns, Inc., which was essentially the first political consulting firm. Many of their techniques are still in use today (for better or for worse), though it’s their approach to sizing up the competition that’s most relevant to product management and product marketing.

Product managers, product marketers and salespeople are naturally proud of their products. When a competitive brand is mentioned, the natural instinct is to respond by explaining how their product is far superior. This confidence is notable but often misplaced. Sometimes, the tendency to instantly react and respond when challenged blinds marketing, product and sales to legitimate competitive threats that should be understood and analyzed.

Whitaker and Baxter took a different approach to the candidates and causes they were hired to support. In addition to creating a campaign plan for their candidate, they created a plan from the competitor’s perspective as well. They identified points that they expected the opposing candidate to highlight. They documented important issues, talking points and arguments that they expected would be used against their candidate. By getting inside the mind of the competition, they were better able to detect weaknesses in their own campaign.

Apply this approach to product marketing. Take your main competitor, and put yourself in its shoes. If it was your job to attack your own product, what is the most compelling argument? What are the weaknesses to focus on? How would you position the competitive product for success? How would the competition react to a new program or product announcement?

One useful approach to apply this in practice is to formally document a “competitive response.” This would serve as an internal guide to what the expected response is from all relevant competitors for any initiative, and could be included as part of a standard deliverable such as a business case, marketing plan or launch plan.

For example, if you were implementing a new marketing campaign, the competitive response would analyze whether the competition would retaliate with a similar campaign. For a new product launch, it would offer insight into which competitors you expect to respond and how. Would they initiate a price war? Create a copycat product? Try to run a smear campaign against your new offering?

Some organizations even run simulations where different teams take on the roles of the competition. These exercises present an opportunity to dig deeper when analyzing competitive strategies, and often uncover previously unknown defensive strategies and market opportunities.

Whitaker and Baxter put themselves in the mind of the other candidate and used that knowledge to better prepare their candidate for success. By applying this approach to products and services, marketers have a better chance of defeating the competition.

 

About the Author

Jeff Lash is Research Director, Product Management, at SiriusDecisions. A recognized thought leader in product management, he has over 10 years of experience in product management, portfolio management, product development, and user/customer experience design. Follow Jeff on Twitter at @jefflash.


3 Comments

  • Bruce McCarthy, 23rd November 2012 at 8:59 am

    Reply

    Good reminder of a key aspect of product marketing. A good analysis should lead to the answer to the question, “what is the move we could make that they couldn’t answer?”

  • Bruce McCarthy, 23rd November 2012 at 9:08 am

    Reply

    OTOH, I’ve always felt that most product marketing situations weren’t really the same as elections where there can be only one winner.

    In my post on this (http://www.userdriven.org/blog/dont-be-better-than-the-competition.html), I argue that finding a customer segment to serve extremely well will create the loyalty necessary to keep the competition at bay. Essentially, this comes down to establishing a niche, as a particular organism establishes a role in an ecosystem.

  • Jeff Lash, 23rd November 2012 at 9:20 am

    Reply

    Agreed, Bruce. There are a lot of things about elections which *aren’t* relevant for product strategy — including how candidates usually attack their competition. But product managers often fall victim to hubris, and this approach of trying to understand and anticipate the competition can prevent that.


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