Market Your Way to the Top

Businesses who are ineffective in conveying their mission and product offering  to the marketplace simply cannot effective and efficient enough to wring profits out of insufficient revenues. Image may not be everything, but it can mean a great deal in terms of buyer perceptions that influence purchasing decisions. Clearly, not every business can be recognized as the “best in category.” However, you can continuously improve your market position by marketing and positioning your company as one that fulfills its mission and satisfies customers. The public must know your company and its offering!

Name Recognition

One goal for keeping a business strong in its marketing efforts is to increase name recognition. Keeping the company–and often one or more of its top executives–in front of the local “players” (centers of influence who will talk you up) can provide tremendous benefits; when these individuals refer or bring a client to you, it is because they:

  • know you,
  • know your reputation, and
  • trust you to do a good job for their friend(s).

Other means of getting the word out include building a thought leadership role through public speaking. If you are not the type who enjoys standing in front of a room and attempting to engage them in a conversation, you may be more comfortable as a panelist or panel facilitator. Through active participation in community groups, you are afforded a unique opportunity to discuss your company’s success and how your core values, product offerings, and service standards are opportune for the listener or someone they know. 

Customer Research

The customer must be researched continually, paying particular attention to discriminating tastes and preferences. Your sales team should be your best source of information as to what buyers seek. Research reports should compile information gathered from key figures in your community–those “centers of influence” who are gateways to networks of potential buyers for you. Study what you find out with an eye towards possible adjustments in product offerings as quickly as possible; the key here is to beat competitors to the punch. When you meet new prospects, ask them questions about what they like, try to keep a running tab of demographic trends about them, and find out what may be holding them back from purchasing from you.

Marketing Trends

Attend industry meetings for either your vertical market or the markets in which your customers are likely to hang out–better yet–do both! Stay abreast of trends in the market, listening carefully for changes in design, pricing, or delivery. This information can serve as a launching point for later team discussion back at the office of how to “up your game.” On at least a quarterly basis, someone should “shop” the competition, pay attention to how they operate and promote, so you can glean strategic insights. Chances are high that, armed with better information, you will make significantly better decisions!

Weighing the Competition

Ask your management team what they hear about competitors from suppliers, attorneys, CPAs, banks, and the like. It can be very helpful to keep spreadsheets listing others’ products, price points, features, and promotional incentives. By monitoring these over time, your team begins to get a feel for where the competition feels the market is moving–and you can adjust your own planning accordingly. Try to figure out how many employees your rivals have, as well as their real estate expenses, number of sales or distribution arrangements, and other key metrics. Watching these statistics from one measurement period to another can provide you with opportunities to win market share. When you have a feel for what obligations the other guy has, you can estimate their break even point, which translates into pricing policies, potential availability of financing, and many other factors critical to your success!


Growth Through Market Knowledge

Market positioning is won through a combination of market insights, product features, and delivery of “the promise.” Superior use of these three components makes for a winning strategy to outperform the competition. Market insights are critical to determining what to offer, in what way, and how to communicate one’s message effectively. There are two types of insights that should be studied in unison to drive your internal strategies an external tactics–competitor and buyer. 

Researching the Competition

Understanding where your product fits in the market is just good business sense. If you never take the time to study what others are doing, you will likely not be on target. When I was taking a strategy course in my MBA studies, we were treated to a semester long simulator assignment. The simulator was comprised of five teams of students who each organized to make decisions about their unique computer chip company. We were given freedom to make decisions about what size, durability, and other features different models in our product line would have. We also elected financing options, manufacturing capacities and human resources/training choices. Finally, we were able to allocate dollars between marketing and sales activities and each team received market data that showed what buyers were purchasing, along with trend reports showing products likely to be in demand in the future. Observing what changes others were making, and relatively what they were spending for parts of their businesses, then tracking both sales and profitability performance and plotting it against market share and stock price was a very instructional exercise.

What was most valuable for us was to see a glimpse into the decisions that our competitors were making. Much like a game of chess or a soccer match, the tactical maneuvers employed by others were not just to be noticed, but anticipated, planed for, and counter actions developed. Additionally, we would have strategy sessions to think through whether to do something unexpected, stay the course, expand/shrink products based on resource needs and profitability, plus make trade-offs between automation and personnel. 

In your own business environment, research data is compiled form three main sources:

  1. Primary: first-hand interaction with the market and reporting.
  2. Secondary: compiled reference materials outlining primary research others have done.
  3. Tertiary: facts and figures derived from someone else’s summary research statistics.

Surveys, focus groups, interviews, literature searches, online services, and personal observation are all legitimate ways to collect the above data, dependent on your desired level of confidence in the decisions you must make. Industry associations, through conferences and publications, provide a fair amount of secondary and tertiary research information about competitors and buyers.

Buyer Research

Though I have guided many companies in market research projects over the years, these days I try to guide clients to resources when someone is more dedicated to a discipline than I. Jay Nolfo, who writes the blog Pensare, and is a good friend of mine is one such  resource. (By the way, his company uses a rhino rather than a hippo, but at least we’re similar!) Here’s what he had to say in a blog post earlier this year:

  • Introduction of New Product or Service: Any new business, or introduction of a new product or service that the company is thinking of offering, needs market research.  By developing a good understanding of the product by developing a good business plan based on market research helps provide a solid foundation for your offering.
  • Customer Development: Next to understanding the product or service you are offering, understanding the customer who will be buying it is paramount.  In a consumer based business, understanding the demographics and psychographics of a target market can be determined by looking at previous purchase behavior or through a needs analysis.  In a business which sells to other businesses, understanding their needs can be a little more difficult.  However, this can be understood by doing surveys or focus groups.
  • Customer Satisfaction: After your customers have purchased your product or service, following up with them to understand their satisfaction of that purchase is key.  By understanding why they liked or disliked your offering and the reasons why the customer purchased your product or service over the competition can provide a basis of what could be your competitive advantage.

Take the matter to heart…consider how to improve your knowledge of what competitors are doing and what buyers want. You will then, as we did in our MBA class, be better prepared to develop winning business ideas!


Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a…?

In watching the rerun of “Ali” over the weekend, I was transfixed by the man on a mission, the fighter originally known as Cassius Clay. Muhammad Ali was motivated by multiple factors. He fought for Allah…for the repressed…for black men and women who yearned to be free…for his own self-worth. Stronger, more experienced fighters were knocked down and out time and again by this focused innovator of the boxing ring. Ali had the incredible footwork that made him elusive and seemingly able to “float like a butterfly.” Added to the footwork, he had a lethal left hand that, in his words, “stung like a bee.” This formidable combination proved almost unstoppable throughout a career that spanned a couple of decades.

In what ways is a prizefighter like a business executive? There’s the obvious–not everyone will agree with your beliefs and practices. Sometimes, we are called to make a stand on a life issue that is much bigger than ourselves or event the moment of competition. For many, a career pursuit is an opportunity to find fulfillment as we exercise our gifts and abilities and hope that our contribution to society has been positive and enduring.

But, beyond the esoteric comparisons, what else can we as business leaders derive from Ali and his legacy? He came into boxing at a time when standing toe-to-toe and slugging the other fighter into submission was the conventional wisdom. What did he do differently? He changed the game! By incorporating speedy footwork designed to force others to come to him, emphasizing endurance, and furious arm/hand speed, Muhammad Ali demonstrated that brute force could be overcome, just as other methods of warfare have been replaced over time. The “sting” of Ali was his counterpunching capability–to absorb what the competition threw his way, and to come back with a vengeance and knockout blow to the head.

In what ways have you undertaken a game-changing strategy? When your industry, product, service, talent, etc would dictate the terms to you, do you roll over and take it? Or, do you devise a unique approach that suits your unique competitive advantage and exploit it to gain an upper hand? Are you daring in the face of such long odds? Most of the innovators of our time have been

As to your counterpunch, do you have what it takes to observe the competition’s best effort, take it in stride, and initiate your own offensive? Does it deliver a “sting?” Or, is it benign and overlooked for lack of potency? Arise and conquer! Find a way to “punch” back when your adversary is resting on laurels. Develop your own effective means to TKO them and win your prize.

May you develop the knack to float like a butterfly and sting like a…