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Are you losing track of your real competition?


If you’re of a certain vintage (like me), you remember the peak years of the Coke-Pepsi wars.

Coke was The Real Thing.

It went to battle every day against The Pepsi Generation.

For most of the ‘70s and ‘80s, “Taste Tests” were the norm. Brand-to-brand combat was a constant as the top two makers of black sugared water scrapped it out over micro-blips in market share. Coke typically came out on top, but no lead was ever too great.

During this time, in 1985, I began my marketing career as a junior copywriter hoping to change the world of advertising. Early on, I read a quote by Roberto Goizueta, longtime (and legendary) CEO of The Coca-Cola Company.

It has always stuck with me:

“Our vision is for Coke to be consumed all around the
world as frequently and commonly as tap water.”

So the real fight wasn’t with Pepsi at all.

Or Dr. Pepper, Mountain Dew, Fanta, Seven-Up or any other sugary beverage.

The primary enemy was… tap water.

Lesson learned: our greatest threat is rarely another business.

It’s what’s between our customers’ ears and in their minds.


  • The private golf business. Member clubs are stagnating. Millennials aren’t back-filling enough older members as they die, or as their health worsens. Competition isn’t so much among the clubs themselves as with other issues like mortgages, helicopter parenting, kids’ soccer leagues and dance troupes. Even if millennials have the money, they don’t have the time.
  • The fitness business. We might think a hot new brand like SoulCycle is competing against other spin studios or health clubs. But CEO Melanie Whelan says her real competition ranges from an extra hour of sleep in the morning to Netflix at night.
  • The video business. Most video retailers (remember Blockbuster?) have long been chased away not by peer competitors but by changing consumer attitudes. Who leaves the house to rent a video anymore? It’s all on pay-for-view, Netflix, the PVR… or even our tablets and phones.

So what’s the impact on each of us?

It means we can stake our brand position, craft a compelling message, put together a strong sales pitch, even get lots of eyeballs on it.  Only to get crickets in response.

When we ask why, the answers are vague:

“The time isn’t right.”
“I’m too busy.”
“I think I’ll try it on my own, first.”

But these responses are code for something else: our customers are more comfortable with the status quo than doing something new.

Even if we believe that change is good for us, we have to overcome our own momentum. Physics experts know that that when our inertia keeps us in one position, it takes an outside force to get us moving.

The same applies here.

Your real competitors are apathy and indifference.

When someone buys from you, they’re choosing you over three other options:

  • Buying from your competitors.
  • Solving their problem in a different way (buying insurance online instead of in your office).
  • Doing nothing.

That last one is the killer.

Indifference is the real thing you need to worry about, because it’s easier to just “keep on keepin’ on.”  It may not be a perfect solution, but it’s safe and familiar.

We may think we’re competing with the restaurant around the corner, or another financial advisor, or the boutique downtown. Or even the new one online. But, for many of us, our biggest job isn’t to show why or how our solution stacks up to the competition.

It’s to show why our solution is measurably better… right now…  than doing nothing at all.

So ask yourself:

  1. Do you recognize your true competition?
  2. Why should your customers buy from you right now, instead of do nothing?

~ Craig