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Competitive Strategy Thoughts

Why marketers need to re-think the term "competitor"

“Your biggest competitor is your own view of the future.” - Watts Wacker

The name “Watts Wacker” may sound like a visitor from another from the future, which some suspect he might actually be. Watts Wacker is a respected futurist, social critic, and author of The Visionary’s Handbook. He is considered one of the 50 most influential business thinkers in the world (Financial Times), one of the 21 best speakers in America (Successful Meetings Magazine), and Time magazine 2006 person of the year. He has worked with many of the world’s top corporations and organizations to negotiate ‘a sea of change.’ And, he is someone I have followed most of my adult life through multiple books on future trends.

Wacker devised a number of paradoxes in business, including: The Paradox of Competition. The paradox is that “Your biggest competitor is your own view of the future.”

Wacker wrote:

“Competition - us versus them - will always be a part of the business world. But the definition of ‘us’ and ‘them’ is in a constant state of flux: competition can come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. To compete today, businesses need to define who they want to be in the future and expand their view of the competition to embrace all other companies who are (or may be) pursuing profits in the same arena.

“At the same time, as world-wide connectivity grows, the economic model is shifting from competition to cooperation and even collaboration with ‘rivals.’ General Electric and Rolls Royce, fierce competitors in the production of jet engines, collaborate in the development of technology and industry safety standards, a course which benefits them both.”

Too often we look at competition linearly with a list of well-defined competitors that we believe are currently focused on taking away current market share. And then a company like LinkedIn acquires a company like Bizo and is quickly in the B2B marketing game, changing your thoughts about the marketing technology landscape overnight. The point is that too often marketers – including me – get tunnel vision and over focus on the recognizable names that we see in sales cycles every day. Those everyday competitors are important to understand and critical for us to help our sales teams to position and sell-against. But, we should be open to future possibilities ….. even ones as unpredictable and currently unlikely as your company partners being acquired by your current your competition. Sometimes your biggest competitor may only be an acquisition away from re-defining the landscape and your entire go-to-market landscape and you haven't thought how your company would respond.

This is why I am a big advocate of an annual “war gaming” program. In this process, companies can examine their competitive landscape, industry trends, and customer needs first hand. The process allows for multiple different competitive scenarios and future trends that may impact your company. These include the emergence of new direct competitors, functional competitors, and new technologies that can change the market landscape and customer dynamics. War gaming is not necessarily a strategic plan for how you would react to a specific scenario but more about examining future possibilities that can impact your company and how your company could react to these occurrences. It is about examining potential trends – not ignoring them – and realizing that your company can be flexible enough to maneuver and respond to future scenarios.

How will Google’s driverless car impact Uber in 4 years? How will live mobile physician consulting effect the urgent care market in 2 years? Is LinkedIn one acquisition away from being a full-blown B2B marketing technology platform?

The Wacker quote is a good reminder that competitors come in many different shapes, sizes, and technologies and and not just other companies with similar functionality. Your most important future competitor may not always be one of your “us versus them” companies you track today.

Amanda Cash-Crowley