I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve talked to executives who say they don’t have any competition. They talk about their unique selling proposition, their software innovation, or the new industry their business has created. When I hear this, the first thing I think comes from the public relations person in me: “There is no way I can put this person in front of a reporter to talk about the business, the industry, or anything.” The second thing is from the consumer in me: “This person is clearly not listening.” All companies have competitors. Recognizing this should be the second step in any marketing, PR, or social media strategy. (The first is identifying the audience.) There is not a single company, service, or product in the world that is the only choice a customer has, even if the alternative is doing nothing. There are four competitor groups, and because communication invariably exists in the context of one or more of these, it’s important to create messages and strategies for each.
• Direct. These companies or organizations are very similar to yours in multiple aspects of a product or service offering. They may or may not compete with all the same services, the delivery might be different, or they may have a different marketing strategy. Maybe you sell red apples and they sell green. You market the sweetness of your apples and the competitor highlights the texture of theirs. Sure, in some cases there is not a direct competitor, but this is not the only type. • Indirect. Some companies offer a product or service that is different, but intended to solve the same problem. This might make it easy for consumers—maybe they either like apples or bananas. You’ll never be a banana, but maybe you can convince more people that potassium isn’t that important. • Perceived. These are the most challenging types of competitors to identify, because they require your marketing team to stop focusing on your business and concentrate instead on the customer’s point of view. Monitoring is the only way to identify this group of companies. (Social media tools like Twitter are great for this and provide more insights than marketers had even a few years ago.) Apple-flavored gummy vitamins may have nothing on the real fruit, but maybe your target audience thinks they get the same vitamin C from both. • Partner competitors. We hear a lot about strategic partnerships in the business community today, and they can be incredibly important to your communications strategy. Businesses are always changing, though, and the company that might have been your best referral source is now expanding because what you do seems like a great growth opportunity. Say hello to the grapple (looks like an apple, tastes like a grape).
PR and social media strategies are most effective when they communicate what’s different about a company, product, or service, not what’s better. That difference should be based only on a well-researched, honest, and objective look at all the competitors in your fruit basket. Cass Bailey is president and CEO at Slice Communications, a public relations and social media company based in Philadelphia.