Your Competitive Set is a Springboard (Not the Target)

Often, the break-out success of a new competitor brand, line extension or package change triggers a call to us. “Help, it’s time for a packaging refresh, or a line extension!” This very well may be an appropriate response, but not always.

Our studio is full of bottles and packages. I’m sure yours is too. We have competitive sets for each project we are currently working on, and our clients have shelves full of key competitors. We study their packaging design, analyze their messaging, and – okay, sometimes sip and nibble them. Brand managers routinely track their brand performance against competitors. There’s nothing wrong with any of that. You can’t create and build brands without understanding competitors.

However, there’s a productive way to use competitor reference, and a counter-productive way to use it. Too often I see marketers, or their senior management team, look at competitor packages and messaging as a target. i.e, “Their sales numbers are up! They must have a label that works! Therefore, we need something the same, yet different….”

Emulating Competitors Leads to Commoditization

Looking at competitors messes with our heads, and can pull us off course. It’s easy to get seduced into chasing trends, or reactively changing our strategy. It’s human nature – our insecurities rear up when others show fast growth.

If a competitor’s package is more successful, it’s tempting to mimic their look. Fear-driven decisions are not usually good ones, however, and copying what the competition is doing leads us down a slippery slope towards homogeneity and commoditization.

When a brand begins to look like other brands, it loses its voice and becomes undifferentiated. By becoming more similar to competitors, it ends up with no real discernable product or image difference, leaving consumers to choose based on price.

Consumers crave authenticity. A brand needs its own, unique image to stand out in the market – and give consumers a reason to care.

Adopt The Proper Mindset When Assessing Competition

Of course, understanding the competitive landscape is an important step in developing a design strategy. Context does matter, and consumers will compare your brand to your direct competitors. Blindly staying the course while competitors evolve can lead to irrelevance.

Adopt an attitude of curiosity, and use competitors to assess the market’s response to design, messaging, and product strategies. Markets shift, consumer taste changes. Brands must continue to grow to remain relevant. Use competitors as a market barometer, an indicator of what is resonating with consumers.

When we approach them with an investigative mindset, competitors provide us with valuable insights. Ask yourself:
• What is your competitor’s success telling you?
• What is the underlying brand benefit they’re conveying?
• What emotional need are they satisfying?

Has a new product style captured consumer interest? If so, consider whether adding such a product to your brand fits with your brand essence. Proceed with caution and think long-term. When brands try to leverage their equity to launch tiers and product types that are not aligned with their brand essence, they undermine the integrity of their brand.

In many cases, the reason a competitor leaps ahead is that they’re doing a better job of communicating their underlying value proposition. This is where it gets tricky. Premium food and beverage brands often share the same underlying benefit with their competitors. There are only so many ways to achieve superior quality: superior sourcing and/or ingredients, superior craftsmanship, superior production methods, or a better recipe.

This means we’re all trying to convey the same benefits through our visual and verbal communication. It does not mean we should all use the same visual story-telling devices on our packaging.

If you do refresh your packaging, you don’t want consumers to see it and think, “I’ve seen this one a million times.” There are many ways to tell a story. Any story is based on one of just seven basic plots, and yet these universal stories are reinvented continuously, making them fresh and engaging to us. Our previous article, Classic Wine Archetypes, Reinvented, looks at fresh ways to tell classic wine stories. This is the point when we put the competitive set away and look to our brand essence for inspiration.

Develop a Unique Brand Voice

Standing out means being different. Being different requires courage. When looking at a competitor lineup vs. your packaging, yours should catch people’s eyes by disrupting part of the pattern that makes up the “norm.” And, it must be believable within the competitor shelf set. Not “fit in,” necessarily, but be believable.

To capture consumers’ attention, we must have differentiation. Then, once we have their attention, we need to gain their confidence and trust. It’s the second part that scares senior management. The easy way to instill confidence is to look familiar, similar to what we expect. But if we try to ensure the package instills confidence through familiarity, we become a “me too” and lose our unique brand identity. Don’t let your insecurities drive your assessments. This leads to chasing competitors, rather than staking own territory.

When you put that competitive set on the table, approach it with a mindset of curiosity. What clues does it offer about what is working in the market today? What does it tell us about what doesn’t work?

Separate the underlying communication from the style, then find a way to say it in your own style. Don’t use your competitors as a target. You’ll end up giving away your brand’s power. Your brand voice must remain distinct in order to attract loyal consumers. Otherwise, you become interchangeable. Be curious and courageous. Build a brand with a distinct voice, and inspire a devoted following.

Your Competitive Set is a Springboard (Not the Target)Sterling Creativeworks
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