Competitive Review, the Path to Imitation

I’m often struck with curious bemusement at the technique, used by clients and agency folk alike, of reviewing competitors to inform their communication strategies. Beyond curiosity and bemusement, frustration frequently appears on the scene when, as often happens, I encounter objections to what is a perfect legitimate (if untried) proposal, the objection normally taking the form of one of the two following questions:

“Have any of our competitors done anything like this before?”


“Can you show me some examples of something similar in our industry?”

The response to either question typically ends with the closing click of a laptop lid and another awesome idea winging its way to the virtual bottom drawer. accompanied by an often unspoken explanation that if it had been done before, it would be an imitation, unlikely to cut through or make a large impact. It would be safe, tried, and tested. It would be mediocre.

What drives this obsession in marketing and communications of comparing and benchmarking an organization’s strategy with that of its competitors?

Whilst it makes no sense to me personally, I can only rationalize it to a lack of appetite for risk that tends to be the modus operandi of decision-makers in large brands and organizations, where unfortunately, the downside of a failed risk-taking endeavor is often far worse than the upside from a successful one.

And while I understand the forces that drive this risk aversion, I still fundamentally believe that adopting a competitive review-led strategy is a shortsighted, back-covering approach that should be discouraged. Jeff Bezos sums up my philosophy on this matter best. The Amazon founder and owner of The Washington Post is quoted as saying, “Don’t focus on your competitors because they will never give you any money.”

And so it is, that by focusing on your competitors you are fundamentally missing the point. That point being that you are trying to reach and influence your audience (customers, prospects, policy-makers, whoever they may be). You are definitely not trying to reach and influence your competitors.

Yes, your competitors are oftentimes trying to reach the same audience as your organization, and the truth of it is that sometimes they get it right, and sometimes they get it wrong. But irrespective, you definitely don’t want to adopt your competitor’s strategy. How is adopting your competitor’s strategies going to give you a point of differentiation? How is it going to infuence the audience to make a positive decision in your favor, rather than your competitor? It won’t. It just won’t.

To end, I offer an impassioned plea. The next time you are considering the research required to inform your next communication strategy, or the manner in which you plan to evaluate the next campaign idea presented to you, don’t ask yourself what your competitors are doing or have done before – that’s the path to imitation and mediocrity. Make a decision based on what your audience wants and needs and what’s in the best interests of your organization – be brave and take the path to innovation and success.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.