The Temptation to Copy a Competitor ~ Soulful Brand

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  • January 09, 2018

It was a line that stroked my ego. And in the same moment, I knew there was a misunderstanding about the role we were really playing.

A client of ours, on a core working team for our engagement, spoke the words that caused my concern.

He said something to the effect of, “we need you to tell us if we should change our offer to be more like our competitor’s.”

On one hand, I love to imagine myself as someone with “the answers”. On the other, as a consultant, my role is to cultivate the conditions in which the leaders of a company can see the best strategic directions for themselves.

Furthermore—and this is important for all companies that are feeling stuck in their marketing efforts—becoming more like your competition is only a good idea if it’s coming from a place of being more authentic to what your organization truly stands for.

Let me say that a slightly different way: Don’t try to be like the popular kids. Get to know yourself better and let what you uncover guide your decisions about who to be and what to offer.

It’s easy to imagine that what works for one company should work for our own. Except that, just like individual human beings, every company is so unique that this logic is rarely true.

Just because one organization found that challenging people to record themselves pouring a bucket of ice water over themselves was a great way to inspire engagement online doesn’t mean you can borrow the idea and have it work for you. Perhaps you can be informed by the principle—such as “share self + public dare + good cause = positive social media trends”—but even then, there’s no guarantee the formula will work for your organization.

Why is that?

I believe it’s because when we are in alignment with ourselves, as leaders and as organizations, we make better decisions that serve a master that is not always economic or numerical in nature. The master I am speaking of is “your soul’s path.”

Just like individuals, an organization has a soul and therefore a path—a journey to undertake which leads towards playing in different ways. For mission-driven organizations, I’m going to borrow from Joanna Macy’s concept of The Great Turning to offer examples of different ways a company’s soul might be called to play today:

  • Actions to slow the damage to Earth and its beings
  • Analysis of structural causes and the creation of structural alternatives
  • Shift in Consciousness

If you don’t believe a company has a role to play in making the world a better place, then I probably lost you at “an organization has a soul and therefore a path”. Since you’re still reading, let’s look at an example…

In 2008, Apple was dominating the personal computer market and Microsoft wanted to compete. But rather than Microsoft digging deep and uncovering what was unique to themselves (that they could rest a new campaign on) they borrowed from the Apple playbook. And in trying to “be like” their competitor, the campaign failed.

Microsoft and Apple were at odds over which company had the better operating system and PC experience.

Apple won that commercial battle after airing the iconic “Get a Mac” campaign between 2006 and 2009. The ads, which were shown worldwide, showed two men—one dressed in casual clothes representing a Mac and another wearing a suit representing Windows.

The ads were aimed at making the Mac seem cool and fun and Windows machines old-fashioned and obsessed with work. While they always took a comedic tone, they were effective in conveying Microsoft and Windows as the boring alternative to Macs.

Apple’s Mac sales soared during the ad campaign, though it’s impossible to know how much those commercials attributed to that success.

Feeling the pressure, Microsoft responded with the “I’m a PC” ad campaign in 2008. The ads attempted to poke fun at Apple’s campaign and enlisted the help of comedian Jerry Seinfeld and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates to counter “Get a Mac” claims. The campaign… failed to catch the same fire as Apple’s commercials.

— Don Reisinger; Microsoft’s New Ads Say PCs ‘Do More’ Than Macs; Fortune magazine; Feb 29, 2016

This example is about trying to be something you are not. Bill Gates may be “cool” in his own “nerdy” way, but the Microsoft brand has never been about being cool or creative. It’s been much more about just getting work done (this is probably why their more recent campaign features Microsoft computers as the ones that “Do More”).

Unfortunatley for Microsoft, they got their egos bruised and took the bait by trying to play Apple’s game instead of claiming a narrative that might actually be authentic and work for them. They even tried to outsource “funny” by getting Jerry Seinfeld involved, rather than being a culture that actually exudes humor. In today’s ever-growing transparent landscape, these sort of misaligned strategies just won’t be effective.

It’s rumored that Steve Jobs, former Apple founder and CEO, once told his team to not worry about what Microsoft was doing—that Apple did not exist to compete with Microsoft, Apple existed to compete with itself.

That sort of “beyond competition” thinking is what made Jobs so effective. When you see other players in the marketplace as your competition, you become defensive, less creative, and naturally lose sight of yourself, or your center… and yes, even your soul as an organization.

Human beings are primed to respond to threats—seeing a competitor as a threat is just one way we’ve brought that primal brain into the modern workplace. So it’s not that surprising to hear a client say, “we need you to tell us if we should change our offer to be more like our competitor’s” rather than, “we need help remembering who we are and how to convey our uniqueness in the marketplace.”

Perhaps thinking of an organization as having a soul is a step towards seeing its own trajectory and development rather than focusing on that of others who appear to be getting in the way.

Again, the soul’s work is to follow it’s own path…

  • One organization might be called to hold a government accountable for unending warfare.
  • Another might be called to create a new way of distributing housing options for the homeless.
  • And still another might be called to hold space for business leaders to act in accordance with their higher selves.

I like what Richard Branson said on this topic:

“To me business is not about wearing suits or pleasing stockholders. It’s about being true to yourself, your ideas and focusing on the essentials.”

Focusing on what a competitor is doing well is a fine exercise. But only if it brings you back to your own truth.

When we wish to mirror that which we admire, we must assess: is the intention coming from a desire to fit in and be popular, or a desire to honor the path of your organization’s soul?

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