Are You Thinking About Competitors, or OutThinking Them?

When I share the story of how BrandFoundations came to be, and describe our evolution from traditional marketing agency to one that marries the very different disciplines of branding and organizational development, I often get the question “How in the world did you come up with this idea?”

I've always attributed it to the frustration I felt with the traditional agency model combined with an intensive 360-degree coaching experience and a little luck. I never really thought there was a replicable “innovation” model at work in our pivot.

But then, I met Kaihan Krippendorff and read his book OutThink The Competition. And now, I realize – not only is there’s a model anyone can follow to unlock innovative new strategies – but we had unknowingly been following it all along.

In Kaihan’s book – and in a superb day-long workshop I attended this Saturday with the Columbia Business School Alumni Club  – he spelled out 5 rules any company can follow to OutThink their competitors, unleash innovative strategies and ruthlessly disrupt their marketplace. 

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and  
I took the one less traveled by, 
And that has made all the difference."   
- Robert Frost 

Rule 1: Move Early to the Next Battleground

Wayne Gretsky famously said of his success, “I don’t skate to where the puck is, I skate where it’s going to be.” Similarly, business OutThinkers don’t make incremental changes, they leapfrog entire cycles of market thinking. VistaPrint didn’t just use the web to make ordering business cards more efficient for large enterprises. They eliminated some of the traditional options (like custom design and colored paper) to make it possible for an emerging market of solopreneurs to order small batches on demand.

At BrandFoundations, we saw that purpose-driven millennials would soon dominate the workplace (as well as the marketplace) and that connecting internal culture with external marketing would be a more differentiating strategy for us than simply adding another mobile, social or digital marketing capability. 

Rule 2: Coordinate the Uncoordinated

Technology has allowed rapid coordination of previously disparate audiences, sometimes with dramatic results (e.g. wikipedia, the Arab Spring). Today, when you pull up to a McDonald’s drive-thru, the person on the intercom may not be in the restaurant, but sitting at home taking your order by computer and sending it to the servers.

We mimic this approach at BrandFoundations by tapping into (and coordinating) a large emerging network of culture and organizational consultants and technology platforms rather than trying to create these capabilities in-house.

Rule 3: Force a Two-Front Battle

In OutThink The Competition, Kaihan describes how the New York Times sought growth by positioning itself as a more national and international paper.  But this reduced its focus on local NYC news and made it less attractive to local advertisers. The Wall Street Journal responded by creating its own “Metro New York” section that appealed to local advertisers and forced the Times into the dilemma of coming back to fight a two-front war, or ceding the market to a competitor.

At BrandFoundations, we saw there was a very real link between external brand and internal culture but that few (if any) traditional marketing or web agencies were focused on it. By moving into this area we force competitors to learn about this new discipline, and develop the capability, or risk becoming less relevant.

Rule 4: Be Good

OutThinkers don’t just serve the shareholder, they serve all of humanity – with a powerful sense of purpose. For instance, Dove doesn’t just sell a bar of soap. They sell the idea of helping grow the self-esteem of women of all ages. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. 

Early in my career, I was lucky to work for MCI, a company that possessed an incredible sense of purpose that energized every employee (freeing the market from a hundred-year monopoly). To this day, many of my fellow MCI’ers are in search of that sense of excitement we felt in those glory days.  

At BrandFoundations, we believe every employee – at every company – should feel a deep sense of connection to the company and its purpose. This is what makes work and life worthwhile. Certainly more so than a nice looking website.  And it's what our tagline "Build Solid Connections" means. 

Rule 5: Create Something From Nothing

Most businesses play by an unspoken rule that “You cannot add a new piece to the board”. But OutThinkers ignore this rule entirely. When Huggies needed a strategy to compete with Pampers, rather than going head-to-head in the diaper category and simply adding another me too feature, they envisioned a whole new category for kids too old to wear a diaper. And a multi-billion dollar market of “pull up” disposable underpants was born.

At BrandFoundations, we chose to create a unique “brand advocacy” model that had never existed before:  Unlike others, for whom brand is a just a stepping stone to other budgets (web, advertising), our only agenda is the brand – getting it right, and making sure the organization lives it. 

The Tip of The Iceberg

Kaihan’s books and workshops offer even more in-depth models to unleash innovation. But these five simple rules really work. We’ve seen so first-hand.

So are your teams just thinking about their competitors? Or are they OutThinking them?