You've sweat blood and tears to develop your amazing product, unique service or groundbreaking application. You've created a brand, developed a distinctive tone of voice, devised and launched an enticing marketing campaign and you're starting to see the pay off.
Your customer base is growing, people are starting to comment on how they love your original approach and then, one day, while you're messing around looking at completely unrelated things, ahem, undertaking some important internet research - you stumble upon a new business that seems to be in the same field as you… with an uncannily similar turn of phrase in the description of their service… and the same colour palette on their website… AND a line about being the "new innovative approach to…".
Your heart pounds, you feel fury start to rise and your mind starts to buzz: OK, they've not stolen your idea completely but it's pretty much a direct lift of your approach. So now what?
Of course competition is an inevitable consequence of starting and running a business and is absolutely a good thing for the customer. Imagine, for example, if there was no competition in the washing powder market; would we now have the whitest of white clothes since white clothes were invented? Would the washing powder companies have improved their products anyway, or did competition push them into it?
But there is a particular type of competition that is slightly harder to deal with. It's one thing to have a competitor - there are very few completely unique products right? But it's another when that competitor doesn't really seem to be ploughing their own furrow; in other words they're riding off your ideas, repackaging them ever so slightly (to avoid those pesky legal issues) and presenting them as their own.
Take Innocent drinks. When they first appeared, they had a truly original approach. Of course there were other companies selling smoothies and fresh juice but the branding and tone of voice of Innocent was completely different. In particular, their irreverent, fun, style of copywriting was a real first. Now, of course it's all over the place, you can barely move for the 'hello there, we're down to earth and very nice' approach to branding.
A few years ago I used to work with a brilliant start-up that had genuinely revolutionised a particular market (diplomacy prevents me from naming them). Within six months, a company had popped up that had pretty much wholesale copied their idea and approach but with enough minor differences to avoid IP issues.
When I asked the MD of the start-up what she thought - Was she annoyed? What would she do? - she said that although initially it was hard not to spend day after day trawling through every page of their site while her blood pressure went up and up, in reality the absolute best thing to do was to ignore it and focus on making her company the best it possibly could be.
You could argue of course, that it's the fairly obvious answer. After all, you can only actively change your own business not someone else's but faced with the sheer bare-faced cheek of someone pinching your 'stuff' it can be difficult not to descend into borderline obsessive behaviour, worrying about whether said company will steal your thunder (and customers).
So while we all know that regular competitor analysis is vital, make that a smaller part of your overall focus. Instead expend the majority of your energy on continuing to innovate, improve and generally kick ass - that's how to stay ahead of the 'me too' competitors.
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