Wednesday, November 19, 2008

How to Attack a Market Leader

By Olu Akanmu

In many instances, we would be launching a new product in markets with existing players or incumbents. Some of these players and their products are already so well known that the task of launching new products into those markets could look daunting. Marketing has many things in common with military strategy. In fact, marketing borrowed a lot of its art from the military. Hence, you find marketers and the military use common words such as campaign, strategy, attacking a position, defending a market. We will discuss how to attack a market leader and win. We will discuss certain rules of successful military or marketing attack.

Know your strength and weakness relative to the market leader or incumbent:
Assess very honestly what you have in your product or your organization or your service that is superior to a market leader. Also, assess your fighting power in a war. Do you have as much resources as the existing players? Existing players will probably have more sales force, more retail outlets and perhaps bigger marketing budget. You must however have one thing that the market leader does not have, that the customers want. If you have this, you are on the way to building a strong attacking strategy.

Do not fight head-on with a market leader unless you have at least three times its resources.
This is one of the most important marketing and military lessons in history. That the defender always has an advantage unless you have at least three times his resources. Remember that the existing players are well known in the market and have built relationships with distributors and customers. The market and customers will always give them benefit of doubt over you. It is the simple rule of the “devil you know is better than the angel you don’t know”. If you want to attack the market leader head-on by claiming that you also do what he does better, you will need to be far better ( three times better) to move the existing players customers. That leads us to the critical rule 3

Successful market attack must exploit the weakness of the market leader.
There is no perfect product. Assume that there are three major benefits that customers in a market want. Usually, the market leader or existing player will be satisfying two of the needs well and will tend to satisfy the third need averagely. This is the way the world is. It is impossible to be tall and short at the same time. If you look closely at the strength of a market leader, you will find a weakness in that strength.

Build your own strength on the weakness of this market leader.
Do not attack him on the areas where his products are already good by claiming you can do what he is good at, better. While this looks like common sense, it is not the way to go. Instead, find the weakness in the strength of the leader; find the things that he couldn’t do well because of what he is doing well. If your market leader product is satisfying the need of tall customers well, design your own product to fit the short customers. As long as there are enough short customers in the market for you to have good business, you are marching on.

Concentrate your resources on attacking the leader’s weakness.
If you have found a solution to the weakness of the market leader, concentrate your resources on attacking the market leader at this position. If because, the market leader is satisfying the need of tall customers, he cannot satisfy the need of short customer well, let all your promotion, leaflets, salesmen and posters just keep shouting “The product that fits the short customer and his need perfectly” In military warfare, resource concentration on the weak point of the enemy is critical to securing beach-head or fresh ground when you land your troops from the sea. It is the same in marketing. If the enemy resources is concentrated in the North (i.e. its sales outlets, sales force etc, attack from the South, and concentrate all your resources there).

Sometimes you may have to attack a niche or a limited area of the market especially if you are small player and you don’t have resources. Niches are areas that the big incumbent players consider (economically) too small for their big size. A small player can find a comfortable home in such areas and do good business provided he can satisfy the need of the niche and the market leader cannot. This is sometimes called flank attack in military strategy. Find a flank that the enemy poorly defends and attack there.

Expand from the ground you have secured using the same rules as above: A war consists of many battles. It is not a one-time battle. So, be realistic. Get a beach-head first. Find a weak and poorly contested territory, attack there and establish your product. Then expand from here but following the same rules as above. No frontal attack. Keep looking for new weaknesses in the market leader’s strength. Look for other poorly defended flanks. Attack them. Concentrate your resources there. Win. Secure your ground and move to the next battle.

Olu Akanmu
June 2006

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