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Where Is The Open Territory For My Brand?

Wee Willie KeelerThe question comes up all the time. A widget manufacturer faces stiff competition. It struggles to find a way to differentiate its offerings. How can it find its market when all the customers seem to prefer the other guys? The answer lies in the old, baseball adage, “Hit it where they ain’t.” The competition can’t be all things to all people. They can’t be everywhere at once. Somewhere there’s an opening that this widget builder can exploit. It could be that, somewhere, there’s a portion of the market that is underserved by the big guys. That sector would welcome a new player that specializes in their concerns. Or it could be the challenger business builds its widgets with a distinguishing feature, or by using a new process or because of a unique history – or something. The differentiator is there. It always is. The trick is to sleuth it out.

When positioning a brand, you need to emulate Wee Willie Keeler, pictured above. Wee Willie earned his nickname by being perhaps the shortest pro baseball player in history. Standing at a diminutive 5’ 4”, he couldn’t really hit for power. But he’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame as the sport’s greatest place hitter and bunter. He won the National League’s batting championship for the 1897-98 season. When asked how a young player could find his kind of success with a bat, he famously replied, “Hit it where they ain’t.” Keeler could find the gaps in any defense. If they played back behind the base paths, he’d bunt it short and run out the throw to first base. If they played in, anticipating his bunt, he’d pop it over their heads. If the infielders were spaced too far apart, he’d smack it through the hole. Keeler specialized in situational hitting, making the ball go to exactly that spot in the park that the fielders couldn’t cover.

Concentrate on finding the most promising gap in your competition and place your brand there. That comes from knowing your competition, the market, and your own business, equally well. When armed with that kind of market intelligence, you can uncover your true competitive advantage. True competitive advantage is the one benefit that you can deliver to the market that no one else can match. But you have to really do your research because, very often, your true competitive advantage is not what you think it is.

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How many times have you asked a business owner why you should buy from him and he answered: “Because we’re the best.” You can bet his competitors also give that same reply. Our piano sounds the best. Our jelly tastes the best. Our tires run the best. These are not differentiators. They don’t give the market a real reason to buy from you.

Having written about it extensively on this blog before, I won’t go into the brand exploration process now. But a brand exploration will uncover the real reasons customers buy your piano, jelly or tires. It will show why your brand is preferred. Or not preferred. Or preferred by only in one set of circumstances or by only one sector of the market. In short the brand exploration process will reveal the truth. And the truth will reveal the gaps in the defense.

MooreI once advised a woman who, while working for one of the big consulting firms, became an expert in developing emergency planning for manufacturers. When a massive tornado flattened a good part of Oklahoma City in 2013, her affected clients were back in business in no time – fulfilling orders, making money. That’s because she had built them alternate supply chains and work flows. Her clients quickly moved their manufacturing to partner facilities, sometimes even to competitors’ shops (who enjoyed reciprocal guarantees). They warehoused in alternative sites. They even had backup banking in place.

This woman had left the large consulting firm and opened up her own practice. She came to me because she could not see how to differentiate her business. She was convinced that everybody in her line of work was pretty much the same. It seemed obvious to me she could position as a boutique firm and target small and middle market businesses that couldn’t afford Deloitte or McKinsey. But I kept that thought to myself at first. Instead, I asked her to take me, step by step, through her process. How does one go about building a plan to get a client up and running again after an emergency? When she got to step five in her process, she mentioned, as a nonchalant aside, “By the way, we’re the only ones in the world who do it that way.”

Stop. Wait a minute. I had to ask. Why do you do it that way? Her answer revealed a reasoning that clearly would have immense appeal to her market. When I pointed that out, she realized she had been overlooking a huge edge. She did have a valuable differentiator. It’s just that, because she thought of it as a boring, internal economic process, she was blinded to how much of a competitive advantage it was. She knew now she had to wrap all her messaging around this one process – a benefit she could deliver her market that no one else could match. She learned how to “hit it where they ain’t” and position her brand for commercial success.

Brand positioning is best achieved by knowing your own strengths as they compare to your competition. A brand exploration process will draw that out. Wee Willie Keeler didn’t need to be a home run hitter to make it to the Hall of Fame. He could play the game his own way and still become a legend.

Best Branding Reads – Week of May 6, 2019

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