Brand platform: the competitive plank

for a B2B marketer

If you’re a business to business (B2B) marketer, gathering and using competitive intelligence for your brand platform will be entirely different from the process of Looking at how competitors brandinformation gathering I outlined earlier for a retail establishment.

First of all, you probably won’t have near the number of significant competitors a retailer has. I suspect you’ll have less than eight significant competitors to profile.

But as with a retail establishment, the reason for profiling and integrating this information into your brand platform is to better position your company. You don’t want to take a position already occupied by a strong competitor. It’s almost impossible to dislodge an aggressive competitor from an existing position. You end up being a “me-too”, or in the B2B world, a second source.

Significant information to determine a competitor’s position

First of all, you don’t need to know the confidential information industrial spying might uncover. Nor is financial data all that important to establish competitive positions.

You want to know two things from two points of view:

* How each company wishes to be perceived by its most important stakeholders?
* How successful does each company believe it is in fulfilling the promise of its brand.
* How stakeholders (usually customers and prospects) perceive each competitor.
* How stakeholders believe each company is fulfilling the brand promise they believe each company has made.

Competitor-generated information

To get each competitor’s insight into their branding and positioning goals, plans and actions, turn to the materials and messages they send to their various stakeholders – prospects and customers, investors, the media, their suppliers, their distribution chain members.

Check annual reports of publically-traded companies. Then track down articles written by management, press releases, association papers and panels, promotional materials of all kinds. Study material for at least four oe five years duration to get a feel for what they’ve promised and felt they’ve delivered. Also, look at the products they’ve introduced and how the companies have spoken about them during their lives.

It is likely there are ex-employees of your competitors working for you or for companies allied with you. Take the time to interview them and ask questions specific to branding and positioning.

If a competitor has a multiple-industry, multiple-category presence, attempt to isolate those aspects of the brand that are applicable to the industry/category in which you commonly compete.

Trade shows are a good place to both gather competitive materials and hear competitive points of view about the industry.

Try to determine the strategies competitors have developed to promote their brand(s). Most of these are self-evident with some study of their history and current situation.

External views of your competitors

Your prime source of information will probably be the customers and prospects you share with your competitors. Those folks will usually be helpful, as long as you’re not asking for confidential information. Purchasing personnel usually encourage competition, so if you’re a newbie, they’ll welcome your short, to-the-point questions.

You’ll probably want to begin with a questionnaire and telephone. Ask the easy questions first. First ask them to name your most significant competitors once you’ve informed them of your particular product/service category. Then for each they name, ask what their particular strengths are. Then probe about other competitors they haven’t named. It’s best not to ask about negative experiences, and be careful not to begin comparing your company/products with others. You’re gathering information, not making a sale.

From this questionnaire you’ll get some feel for how customers and prospects believe your competition is positioned. And positioning, when all is said and done, is a function of the collective minds of your market participants. You’ll also get a feeling for what gaps in the positioning grid are still open.

You’ll probably want to follow up the telephone interviews with a dozen face-to-face interviews with significant customers. Here you can probe more deeply to elicit stories about dealing with competitors, both the good and the bad.

I’d supplement these interviews with talks with editors of trade publications in your field as well as association execs, standards committee members and if appropriate, government regulators.

Sift, consolidate, compare, summarize the data

Once accumulated, your task is to determine for each competitor:

What position are they after.
What they’re doing to capture or defend that position.
How their stakeholders perceive them.
How their stakeholders think they’re doing.

From this info you can determine if you currently have a strong and defensible position. You can identify attractive, unfulfilled positions to which you can aspire. You can forge branding strategies that differentiate your business/product/service in unique and productive ways.

In short, this competitive intelligence and analysis can lift and separate you from your competition.

And coupled with the other planks of your brand platform, your brand could well become stronger and more durable than your competitors.

Next week, the competitive platform plank for consumer products.

Martin Jelsema

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