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Posts from the ‘Strat’ Category


“Internet of Things” bumps “Big Data” as most hyped technology – Gartner

Gartner’s Hype Cycle Special Report places Internet of Things at the pinnacle of their well known “Hype Cycle”. 

Personally I am a bit surprised. Sure I have seen the vigorous drum-beating by Cisco, and everyone is quoting that $14 billion value of the IoT espoused by Cisco / “multi trillion” valuation by PwC (by 2020), but down here at the tip of Africa, “Big Data” still seems to hold sway by a sizeable margin.

That said, Marketers across the world appear to remain underwhelmed by the real opportunities and threats the IoT offers. I suspect, just like the development of “digital marketing” was effectively driven by technology suppliers and internet startups rather than professional marketers and their service providers – the IoT will again face at best a reticent marketing community, at worse a recalcitrant one.



Press release on Hype Cycle here.

Gartner’s [Free] Hype Cycle Special Report for 2014 here.

PwC report: Sensing the future of the Internet of Things here.







No one wants to date Mr Average

Remember that redhead from school? Or that really tall, thin guy you used to see hanging around all the time? They were different. Memorable. Some would say unique. No one remembers “Neville”, that average, kind-of-invisible guy at the back of the class, who now, oddly, is the convener of your matric-reunion Facebook group.

How about your products; are they first-team players or “Nevilles”? It all comes down to just how unique your selling proposition is. A unique selling proposition (USP) is a description of the specific qualities or attributes that make your product or service different, so that customers want to buy it rather than its rivals. Think of it as the elevator pitch for your offering, a succinct way of describing what you have to offer.

A brief history of marketing

In the early days of the modern consumer economy, if you made a half decent product consumers would buy it. Our great grandparents, pleased to even get the opportunity to own the first domestic appliances, were less concerned about branding and marketing puffery than whether the new-fangled device would work.

Take the snappily named Modell A washing machine offered by German manufacturer Miele in 1903, for example. It came complete with “counterweights to simplify working the central agitator”. Untouched by a marketing practitioner, this exciting addition to the 20th century kitchen looked remarkably like the butter churn the company had been touting a couple of years earlier. This production orientation had manufacturers trying to increase product quality and reliability at an acceptable price.

As you can imagine, these happy times couldn’t continue forever. By the mid-1950’s (in western economies) markets were becoming more saturated, consumers had wised up, competition intensified and companies had to take on more of a sales orientation. However, companies still tried to simply sell what they were good at making. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that Professor Theodore Levitt (editor of the Harvard Business Review) pointed out to marketers that perhaps they should start off by finding out what consumers actually wanted, before making and trying to sell ill-suited products.

Fast forward to today. Unless you are a rare earth miner (outside of China), you face stiff competition. Your competitors can probably replicate your products relatively easily, patent protection is increasingly difficult and expensive to defend, production technology is often commoditised and “innovation” is increasingly really just incremental product improvement. What you really need is an offering your customers can’t get somewhere else – a unique value (or selling) proposition.

Being unique may lose you some customers

Your uniqueness may lose you some business, but it will gain you far more. The reason many business owners fear having a highly defined value proposition is that that it means that they can no longer try to be “all things to all people”. No one wants to exclude potential customers. But if you can’t define what is unique about your product, you risk becoming irrelevant. Neville from school was neither nerd nor jock. He offended no one, but no one wants to date Mr Average.

If you can’t outline what makes your product different in a couple of sentences, then, sorry, but you don’t have a unique selling proposition. If the difference from your competitors’ offering is so arcane that it requires a lengthy complex explanation, then you don’t have anything unique either.

Of course your product is only really differentiated if the “unique” attribute is important to the market. Just being different for the sake of being different isn’t enough. In business-to-business sales for instance, once your product has achieved the minimum purchasing spec, and is therefore fit for purpose, further differentiation is unlikely to offer the purchaser greater value. It goes back to the good Professor Levitt’s advice: ask the market what they want before you spend time and resources on differentiating on something irrelevant.

How unique do you really need to be?

US Patent Trademark Office SealIn the perfect world, you would be able to offer something no competitor can. In today’s markets this is relatively rare, outside patented prescription medicines perhaps. Charles Holland Duell, commissioner of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, is famously misquoted as saying: “Everything that can be invented has been invented” in the early 1900’s. In reality your uniqueness relies on choosing to develop a specific, different attribute to highlight against those emphasised by a competitor, even though both might share a similar overall set of attributes.

Take Korean car brands in South Africa for instance. A decade ago, these cost-effective vehicles didn’t enjoy the quality reputation of their European competitors. This was exacerbated by the (otherwise attractive) lower price point. Astute marketers appeared to recognise this and introduced an extended guarantee, longer than those offered by European competitors renowned for “quality”. The market recognised that a supplier confident enough to extend a guarantee is unlikely to deliver a product that encourages warrantee claims. This has, in my view, repositioned the vehicles from being “cheap” to “reliable at a reasonable price”; an attractive USP.

How to create a new USP

Product features, how services are delivered, how your staff interacts with customers and your reputation and brand can all be leveraged to create a USP. If you’ve exhausted these opportunities, you may need to relook at your offering; here are a few ideas to get you started:

Highlight benefits rather than features or attributes. Caltex petrol contains a proprietary additive “Techron”. The differentiating benefit that interests consumers is “maximum performance and economy”.

Think about your proposition in a contrarian way. You could do this by offering fewer features. While your opposition are packing in more and more features, consider focusing on simplicity. Take cellphones for young children and senior citizens, for instance, in which fewer features and simplicity are a plus. Or think differently about “quality”. Plastic “brass look” house-numbers (rather than the real, metal thing), are suddenly attractive because they are less attractive to scrap metal thieves.

Juicy Salif Differentiated through design.

Juicy Salif – Differentiated through design.

Focus on style and design. Philippe Starck made the humble lemon squeezer uniquely his own entirely through superb design. His famous “Juicy Salif” squeezer retails for about R750, a significant premium over cheap plastic competitors, while requiring exactly the same lemon squeezing effort from the user.

Conform to a stringent standard. Some products, chemicals for instance, increase significantly in value just by being tested and guaranteeing conformance to a more stringent specification. “Pharmaceutical grade” chemicals sell at a significant premium to “industrial grade”.

Personalise your offering. If you enjoy only a small market share and consequently low volumes, consider offering a customised product or service. Larger competitors will struggle to compete given the size and inflexibility of their production process.

Offer unusual combinations.  Consider “WCBO” – the World Chess Boxing organisation. As its name suggest it has combined two very different activities into a truly unique sport!

Every business deserves to have “first team” product and service value propositions that are memorable and stand out from the crowd. They are the foundation of sustainable businesses. The time invested in defining exactly what makes your business unique will doubtless be rewarded through increased market share and profitability.

This article was first published in Your Business Magazine



Internet Trends: Mary Meeker / Liang Wu KPCB

The latest edition of the annual Internet Trends report finds continued robust online growth. There are now 2.4 billion Internet users around the world, and the total continues to grow apace. Mobile usage is expanding rapidly, while the mobile advertising opportunity remains largely untapped. The report reviews the shifting online landscape, which has become more social and content rich, with expanded use of photos, video and audio. Looking ahead, the report finds early signs of growth for wearable computing devices, like glasses, connected wrist bands and watches – and the emergence of connected cars, drones and other new platforms.


Grow Big, | Grow Strong.

Growth. It’s the natural order of things. Those of us who own businesses are naturally ambitious for our “baby”. You may have participated in the business’ birth as a start up and gone through the awkward teenage years together. It is only natural for us to drive our businesses to grow.

How big to grow?

Once grown beyond the survival start up phase, it is time to decide: how big do you want your company to become? It seems self evident that most companies try to grow as big as possible. But larger doesn’t necessarily mean better or more profitable. It may be better to be a medium fish in a small (niche) pond than a large fish in the ocean. You may not know that the acknowledged market leader in Olympic class racing rowing boats is Empacher Bootswerft (boat works) a German family business founded in the 1950’s. They manufactured 10 of the 11 Olympic heavyweight-rowing gold-medal-winning boats at the recent London Olympics. In fact they produced 50 of the 84 boats in the finals – a 60% Olympic market share. Apart from also producing oars for racing rowing boats and catamaran’s for well, rowing coaches, they have focused single-mindedly on this particular boat niche. Given this focus and consequential success at Olympic level, you can imagine which boat Germiston High rowing club would really like to own. Success becomes self-fulfilling. Clearly it limits expansion, but market dominance can reduce risk, and not encroaching on say the luxury yacht market means that retaliation by significantly larger competitors is less likely. Customers like to know that their suppliers are world-leading experts rather than generalists. Sticking to ones knitting does make for exceptional jerseys. But the risk remains that said jerseys might go out of fashion. Empacher boat works has for instance lost its dominance in lightweight rowing class boats. South Africa’s stunning Olympic gold in the lightweight four was in a Filippi boat – an Italian competitor. Is this the end of over half a century of Olympic dominance? The point is that as your company grows, you need a specific intent with regards to: do you want to grow? / how much you want to grow, and if aggressive growth is appropriate how best to achieve this.

How to grow.

Professor Igor Ansoff left us a very succinct (and by now well known) road map for growth, known unsurprisingly as the ‘Ansoff Matrix’. Combinations of new or existing products and new and existing markets give four basic growth strategies:

Market penetration (more of the same – same products into the same market)

Unless you already enjoy a very high market share, the most obvious growth strategy is to simply take market share from your competitors. Your competitors of course will be less enthusiastic about this strategy and may well retaliate by attacking your core customers. This could well drive down market prices and consequently profitability, and as most companies are driven by profitability rather than turnover, consider this impact carefully before attacking a bigger aggressive competitor.

Product Development (New products into your existing market

Hosting Hamish Pringle

Howard Fox and Hamish Pringle Director of ASA UK, former Director General: Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.

A relatively low risk strategy, most organisations drive the development of new products as a matter of course. The primary attraction being that adding products to your existing portfolio increases sales with very little additional sales or administrative cost. It also helps lock in customers by adding to your basket of products – less opportunity for competitors to make inroads on your customer relationships because you don’t stock an item. In many industries the real competitive advantage is the relationship with the customer and cost effective distribution, rather than exclusive access to products. Use these strengths if you have them, to your advantage.

Market Development (New markets for your existing products)

Do you know all the current and possible usages for your product? Seems a simple question, but often products have unintended markets. Baking soda intended to make cakes and baked goods rise during baking is also used to reduce odours in fridges and to clean plastic piano keys, I understand. Could your products be repurposed into dramatically different markets? What about geographically new markets? Is there an export market for your products, or is there significant business in cities other than your current location?

Diversification (new products into new markets)

It is easy to believe that the strong brand you have developed can be leveraged into completely new products in new markets. This is a strategy utilised with significant success by Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin Group. With businesses ranging from travel (soon to include space travel), mobile phones, financial services and entertainment, the only common denominator is the brand and the founder’s personality. Of course many forget that there were numerous failures along the way including (bizarrely) Virgin Brides a wedding dress business launched in England 1996. Richard Branson predictably dressed up in a wedding dress for the occasion but it closed its doors about a year later. Cosmetics, lingerie and most famously Virgin Cola came and went. With reference to the latter Sir Richard admitted: ”That business taught me not to underestimate the power of the world’s leading soft drink makers. I’ll never again make the mistake of thinking that all large, dominant companies are sleepy”.

Even McDonalds. a recognised marketing heavyweight with a hugely powerful brand has suffered when it tried ill-advised diversification. Based on the thought that “Our restaurants serve 74 million customers in a country with a population of 7 million, if only one in 1,000 of those guests choose the Golden Arch Hotel, the project will be a success” McDonalds Switzerland went into the hotel business. However, apparently the 74 million customers couldn’t see the connection between the Mickey D brand and luxury 4 star hotels, with complaints that rooms were “too plastic”. This combined with unfortunate market timing resulted in the hotels being sold off after just a couple of years.

So, where the market sees a valid connection to the mother brand and believe the relationship can add real value, this can be a compelling growth strategy. Leveraging an existing brand for no additional cost to kick-start a new business is compelling. But it is high risk, with many failures even under the guidance of world-class marketers. So think long, hard and more importantly objectively, before attempting to deploy this game plan.

Blue Ocean Strategies

What about going one-step further than mere diversification? How about creating completely new demand consumers haven’t even realised they have yet, in completely new business categories? This is ‘Blue Ocean strategy’ devised by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne from the Blue Ocean Strategy Institute at INSEAD business school. The iPod is an often-used example – where the market wasn’t even aware of the possibility of managing their own personal music library through buying music tracks individually and digitally downloading them onto a personal listening device. Many recent social media and digital businesses fall into this category. Who could have predicted that half a billion people were itching to communicate in 140 characters or less, the foundation of Twitter? The payoff with such a growth strategy can be dramatic, primarily because by definition, there are no competitors to take a share of the market.

Growing a business is not unlike parenting. It is a roller coaster ride as you try and guide your progeny in the right direction, protect it from adversaries and help build a viable exciting future. Just like bring up children, it is also exciting, rewarding and well worth the investment.

This article was first published in Your Business magazine.


People power: testimonials, endorsements and recommendations

Lance Armstrong. Self admitted drug taker, doper, liar, perjurer and cheat. Tiger Woods, serial philanderer, destroying his (previous) clean cut image. Sir Jimmy Savile OBE: ‘predatory sex offender’ according to Scotland Yard, and paedophile accused of abusing over 300 vulnerable children including mentally handicapped and terminally ill hospital patients.

What all these personalities have in common is that they all held significant commercial and charity endorsements. People like famous people. Marketers like people who people like. Nothing can create a winning product quite as quickly as a strong endorsement from a well-known personality. Take the George Foreman Grill. Or to give it it’s full title, the ‘ George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine’, which has sold over 100 million units as a result of the aging heavyweight world-boxing champion’s popular infomercials. George’s famous signoff line “It’s so good I put my name on it” has entered popular culture. Without his endorsement the grill would have remained just another far less profitable ‘snackwich-maker’. Wouldn’t we all, as marketers, like to share similar success?

People power: testimonials, endorsements and recommendations.

This article was first published in
Your Business.

Of course when things go wrong for the personality endorsing a product, they do go spectacularly wrong. Tag Heuer, Gatorade, Gillette, Accenture, AT&T, Golf Digest, Buick (General Motors), Titleist, and American Express all rapidly jumped from the Tiger ship at the height of his crisis. Interestingly Nike stuck with him. For the rest, the positive attributes Tiger had previously exhibited and which they had hoped would rub off on their brand suddenly became a huge liability. It’s what I call the ‘congressman effect’: the fact that it always seems to be the congressman who extols family values who then embarrasses himself, caught up in a sexual imbroglio – like the aptly named Anthony Weiner, forced to resign from congress having sent an inappropriate photo of himself to a female Twitter follower while his newly married wife was expecting their first baby.

The spectacular downfall of the likes of Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong has not, it seems dampened large brands’ enthusiasm for celebrity endorsements. Nike has just signed Rory McIlroy for a reported $250 million, and produced a rather clever ad with both he and Tiger. Pepsi has just signed Beyonce for $50 million and perhaps surprisingly Chanel No. 5 now features Brad Pitt in its much-parodied $7 million ad.

Not all endorsements are world-class sports and media personalities. The introduction of social media has increased the importance of recommendations from ordinary users of your products and services. The world has become a more transparent place. A place in which consumers are (even) more cynical of what marketers tell them, and more trusting of advice from ‘friends’ even if such ‘friendship’ is of the more superficial Facebook variety. The average Facebooker has 190 ‘friends’ – a far wider influencer set than ten years ago. Sadly, consumers may take more cognisance of a Facebook friend they haven’t physically seen since school than overt product information from an advertiser. So given this context and the reality that most organisations don’t have millions of dollars to spend on celebrity endorsements, what opportunities do endorsements, testimonials and recommendations offer?

Market research based recommendations can be powerful, provided they are credible, relate to a recognised body of respondents and you have verifiable independent evidence of your claims. Of course they need to be stated in a non-technical and impactful way. Examples that come to mind include: “Sensodyne is the No.1 dentist recommended brand for sensitive teeth” and “Panado – The GP’s choice”. Risks include your competitors contesting the independence or validity of the research your recommendation is based on, or perhaps even worse, you losing the support of the market and consequently the endorsement over time. If you operate as a market leader in a more niche market, research of a viable sample by an independent research company could be a relatively cost effective way of building a powerful positioning which would be very difficult for competitors to replicate.

Ever wondered why you see so many serious looking ‘experts’ in white coats in adverts? The current Life Buoy ‘Clini Care 10’ television ad being a great example as a whole auditorium of white-coats applaud their hero – a bar of hand soap. By association viewers associate the product with an endorsement or recommendation by doctors. Without being disingenuous, are there positive associations you can create through imagery for your brand?

Awards also offer opportunities to present evidence from a third party that your product enjoys wide recognition and support. The Sunday Times Top Brands Awards being a fine example. Multiple brands annually leverage their good showing in the various categories of this award in their paid-for adverting, while their PR companies send out a flurry of releases to gain exposure. Advertising agencies are famous for being defined by the awards they win. This is because a service, particularly one as intangible and subjective as advertising gains huge credibility from commendation through awards. Given that there is (to be cynical) virtually a whole industry of ‘awards’ of various stature, there is likely to be one your product or company could leverage to competitive advantage. One caveat: beware tying your brand to an award of obviously dubious credibility. If you have effectively paid for an award, your competitors can too, or more damagingly, point out your award’s lack of credibility.

Recommendations by known experts or organisations, if they can be negotiated for acceptable cost, add significant stature.
Pope Leo XIII famously endorsed ‘Vin Mariani’, a patent medicine containing cocaine, in 1863. Clearly such a recommendation would be rather more difficult today, but Gordon Ramsey’s endorsement of Checkers’ butchery adds huge credibility to a previously undifferentiated offering. BP Ultimate’s “Recommended by the AA” as the only fuel endorsed by the Automobile Association of South Africa distances the product from competitor products, which frankly were delivered through the same pipeline. Are there similar opportunities within your industry or market? Here again, operating within a specialised niche might bring the cost of such a recommendation within budget.

While the term ‘endorsement’ normally applies to support from a celebrity, ‘testimonial’ usually relates to ordinary customers. Testimonials in my mind started running out of steam 20 years ago, (remember those old OMO ads where a women told us all that she “nearly died” with embarrassment from the lack of cleanliness of her bowling dress?) but have revived in the last 10 years as social media has become ubiquitous. Testimonials can be an important part of communal marketing via social media. Its has become the expectation that customers tell other customers about their experience. Amazon explicitly leverages this on their site offering product recommendations exclusively from customers. A powerful variant of this is their product recommendation engine, which automatically cross-sells on the basis that “customers who bought product A, also bought product B”. Instil similar thinking across your social media platforms. Make it easy for happy customers to tell other customers about their (positive) experience. And of course leap on any customer complaints before they too are multiplied.

This article was first published in Your Business Feb 2012.


Ghost in the machine

We’re losing the battle, forfeiting our power. Our mojo is weakening. Marketers are being squeezed-out by the machine. Consumers are being assimilated (like the Borg in Star Trek) into the interconnected collective of the market.

It used to be that marketing was about people – we even graciously added them to our “marketing p’s” when we expanded from four to  seven p’s. Obviously they weren’t so important that they made it into the initial quadrumvirate, but we’ve grown to understand people. Research and insight teams helped. People liked us and our brands. It’s been a great century together, driving the economic miracle of consumption-driven capitalism. They were simple creatures these ‘people’. They diligently consumed traditional, mass media and didn’t talk back. Importantly, businesses selling to people need marketers with our addiction to expensive advertising and promotions, while media owners since Guttenberg have happily provided the setting for this love-in.

This article first appeared in 'The Annual 2012'.

This article first appeared in
‘The Annual 2012’.

Party-pooper Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee, OM, KBE, (‘Tim BL’ to his mates) gatecrashed the party with his Internet thingy. He seems like a bright guy – what was he thinking connecting the world like that? The tyranny of search. Price-comparison engines. Online shopping. It’s changed the game. Gone are the days when marketers decided what consumers would know, and where the only feedback was monthly brand awareness scores from the research house. Pay-per-click advertising’s explicit stats effectively writes its own copy. Comparison engines determine viable pricing. Social media feedback issues prompt snotklaps to campaigns that miss the mark.

The technologising of marketing is accelerating. The ‘Internet of things’, first proposed by Kevin Ashton – an expert in RFID (the technology that makes your staff access-card work) in 1999, will hasten this trend. Once virtually (pardon the pun) all marketable items are systemically identifiable within the ‘collective’ that is the Internet, the rules irrevocably change. Your fridge, having ascertained your habits, restocks itself automatically. Location-based services centred on consumers’ cell phones, combined with social media profiles such as “Klout”, will ensure automated marketing discount systems only offer free cappuccinos to those with high influence. Google, already ubiquitous in search, geospatial data (e.g. Google Maps, Earth) and consumer advertising behaviour reveals its true intention with acquisitions such as ITA Software, which offers “comprehensive airfare pricing and shopping options”. Sounds like marketing. Not sure their mantra of ‘don’t be evil’ will protect us.

Human assimilation into the marketing collective is next. For the duration of the 2012 Olympics, the London Eye ferris-wheel radiated the prevailing Olympic sentiment of the Twitterverse. An algorithm determined whether tweeters were collectively positive or negative, displaying their sentiment in the colour of the wheel’s illumination.

Combine this simple depiction of the current zeitgeist with individual consumer’s thoughts and assimilation would be complete. Emotiv, an Australian company, has developed a ‘revolutionary new personal interface for human computer interaction based on the latest developments in neuro-technology’. The $300 EPOC headset, according to its manufacturer, interprets facial expressions and emotional states in real-time while it reads and interprets a player’s conscious thoughts and intent.

So in my favourite scenario, your Internet-enabled fridge’s twitter algorithm notes an inconsistency between a particularly positive public spirit and lamentably low stocks of Champagne for a Friday night knees up. Checking your own sentiment from signals emanating from your neural headset, it determines you too are indeed in the party mood. Inviting your Facebook friends currently in town, (perhaps asking you to confirm those perennially on your “b-list”), it calculates the quantum of supplies needed. Utilising price comparison engines, it flashes a shortlist of three your favourite brands onto your computer. Your headset detects your reaction, picking your favourite. Later when only the hangover remains, your ever-helpful kitchen appliance tweets the attendees a survey, checking not only whether you did indeed choose the favourite Champers, but checking your personal party brand standing as well.

Marketers, we had better start learning machine language.

This article was first published in The Annual 2012.


Study Tour of China with MBA students


Competitive Intelligence

Competitive intelligence – “CI” sounds sexy. Sounds very James Bond. It isn’t really. I have worked with a company who had a chief competitive officer. He spent most of his time in front of a computer screen analysing spreadsheets. He did spend a fair amount of time outside competitors’ plants counting rail cars to estimate their output, and he did do in depth analysis of the competitor’ senior managers. But he didn’t carry a gun, and I never saw him in a tux.

In my experience, it is left up to marketers to tackle this issue rather than ‘Competitive Intelligence Professionals’ (see It should be part of the external analysis component of every marketing strategy.

The reality though is that most serious sports teams know more about their competitors than a lot of businesses. How much do you know about your competitors? How much should your know? And as I hope to point out in this article – how much could you know?

First principles

Ok competitive intelligence is legal. Overstep the legal line and it becomes industrial espionage. Not good, because it exposes your company and to you personally to legal sanction. The legal line may be open to debate, and certainly your competitors if they become aware of nefarious activities are likely to read the situation in its most damning light. So before you get serious with competitive intelligence activities, you need a very clear definition of what you believe to be legal and what isn’t. If in doubt, get proper legal advice. If you delegate competitive intelligence activities to your staff, ensure they have a very clear, specific mandate and a clear unequivocal prohibition on anything illegal. Remember if a staff member steps over the legal line and it appears on the face of it that he did so in the normal course of his duties, legal responsibility is likely to remain with the company and its directors and executives.

Of course not all activities which are legally permissible are morally so. It is possible that you will have to take decisions as to the moral appropriateness of CI actions. My stance has always been that you shouldn’t do anything, which would cause embarrassment if it became public. You should certainly never misrepresent whom you are to get information. Personally I also rely on the “what would my mother say” test.

The CI process:

The CIA Intelligence Cycle includes: Planning and Direction; Collection; Processing; Analysis and Production, and Dissemination.

I prefer the simple four “C’s” competitive intelligence model, not only because it is simple and easy to remember but also actually includes an element of doing something with the intelligence, which the CIA appears to have overlooked! :

  • Collect the data
  • Convert the data into usable information (or to impress call it ‘intelligence’)
  • Communicate the information
  • Counter the competitor activities identified


Collect the data

For obvious ethical reasons we will concentrate on publically available information

Bronwyn Nielsen CNBC Africa Anchor

With Bronwyn Nielsen Executive Director and Anchor CNBC Africa, on the occasion of the filming of the inaugural episode of “Meeting of the Minds” in South Africa


The web has certainly made CI much easier. Look hard enough and there is a remarkable amount of data about both your company and your competitors floating around in cyberspace.

Here are just some of the easily accessible data sources to consider:

  • The competitors’ websites (obviously), but also which will give each competitor’s website’s ranking compared to your own and other competitors, changes in web traffic, in which country web traffic originates and how many inward links the site has. As with most data it is the trends that are more informative than absolute numbers. It has to be said that these comparisons can be affected by companies’ SEO (search engine optimisation) efforts so use with discretion.
  • The “Wayback Machine” at will show you all the changes to your competitor’s website since 1996. Most companies seem to think that once they have taken something down from the web it is eradicated forever. That’s not true. Your badly designed website in orange lives on in perpetuity.
  • Google search has so much data that volume is the biggest problem. Use the advanced search and “unwanted words” function to cut the responses down to just the useful stuff. You are unlikely to find much you don’t already know in the first few pages of results, but lower down more obscure and often interesting data emerges. Don’t forget to search images and video. Then set up Google alerts on all your competitor’s names. Google helpfully emails you as soon new data is placed anywhere on the web. Consider placing alerts for directors and senior management of competitors, then as soon as they are quoted in the digital domain you Google will send your the link
  • Google’s Street View, allows you to digitally poke-around your competitors premises anywhere in the world simply based on a physical address.
  • Check the wikipedia entry for your competitors. Some companies give away more about their strategic intent than they should.
  • Online recruitment sites sometimes inadvertently give away the identity of the company recruiting, as they hint as to who the employer is. It may be worthwhile reviewing the senior positions within your sector from time to time.


  • Register for competitors’ electronic newsletters. You may need to consider using a neutral email address such as GMail for such, but remember it would be unethical to misrepresent yourself.
  • Setting up an internal CI email account will allow staff that come across interesting information to rapidly send it through to a centralised point for interpretation.

Social Media

  • Linked In gives invaluable information about your competitors’ senior leadership teams including sometimes-detailed CV’s. Just bear in mind that the fact that you visited their profile is accessible to them. I find the function “ Viewers of this profile also viewed…” particularly interesting as it hints at possibility links between otherwise unconectable individuals. “Groups and Associations” links hint at interests and possible mindsets.
  • It makes sense to follow any competitors’ staff that tweet. The interestingness of the tweets will vary significantly depending on the individual. Those who have enabled the ‘location function’ may unwittingly be revealing more than they intended.
  • If you can track down competitor managements’ blogs on sites such as WordPress they can be worth following.

Real World

  • Back in the real world, annual reports are a mine of information on public companies (be honest now, when did you last read your competitors’ annual report cover-to-cover?). These are usually available from the Company Secretary’s office and now often online. If you have a particularly interesting JSE listed competitor, consider buying a minimum number of shares, and enjoy invitations to annual and interim results presentations and prompt notification of all shareholder related issues.
  • Aggregators of published financial data such as McGregor BFA ( may offer valuable information sources particularly with regards to historical financial data and comparisons between different entities.
  • JSE’s ‘SENS’ – stock exchange news service (see promptly sends out all statutory required information regarding listed companies. Listed companies are for example required to publically announce any instance where future profit projections have materially changed – very useful to know!
  • Industry reports from consulting houses and industry bodies can be particularly insightful – make sure you are familiar with what is available.
  • Visits to competitors’ exhibition stands, and the collection of publically available brochures and sales literature may be of interest. (Say after me – I will not misrepresent who I am…)
  • If you are competing against imported products, import/ export statistics and trade data can be very useful. Some countries are far more open than others, and while they won’t provide data by company, it is often self-evident which shipments relate to your competitor.
  • If you use a media agency, ask them to provide you with the advertising ‘Adex’ data for all your competitors. This data gives advertising spend by value and type, per company. Trends here can be very informative. Just remember that the advertising value figures supplied are gross ‘rate card’ figures rather than what they really spent.
  • A media clipping service such as Newsclip will provide all editorial media mentions of your competitors for a monthly fee. Monitoring companies such as Ornico not only provide monitoring of editorial competitive mentions, but will also directly track their advertising as well. They ‘Newcomers’ service notifies you as soon as a new campaign breaks under a brand or category you have expressed interest in.

Converting raw data into usable information

The problem with competitive information is either that there is none, too much or it is passed on too late. All are equally unhelpful. What is needed on a day-to-day basis is a succinct, recently updated couple of pages, which actually gets read. Occasional deeper focus may be appropriate for competitive product launches, corporate actions or substantial market changes.

Raw data only acquires value once it has been converted into useful information:  assessing what is happening, why it is happening, what might happen next, and how it impacts on your company. What you really want is insight into your competitors’ strategic intent. Information acquires real value through well-considered interpretation. Industry specific experience really counts here and there is value in having a single (preferably marketing) person act as a consistent analyst of competitors. This lets them detect trends and acquire a feel for the subtleties of each competitor.


Communicate the information

Competitor knowledge is only valuable once it has been shared within an organisation. Ideally there should be processes in place to share the longer-term interpretation of competitor intelligence on a regular basis (perhaps a quarterly or monthly report) as well as more tactical responses to immediate issues. A central repository of all collected data becomes increasingly useful over time as reports build up. A simple shared folder on a central server or within SharePoint would serve well.


Countering the competitor activities identified

Clearly, acting on the information gathered is vital. Without a vigorous response, there is little value in collecting the competitive intelligence in the first place. It is surprising how often strategic plans are created without reference to the competitors’ current actions and furore intent. Use what you have found out.

Building respect for your competitors and using competitor intelligence as the foundation for your strategic planning is almost certain to improve your competitiveness, speed of competitive response and consequently your profitability. Even more importantly is dramatically reduced the risk competitors pose to your business. Forewarned is forearmed.

First published in Your Business magazine.


India visit


Representing the Gordon Institute of Business Science at the QS MBA ‘World Tour’ : Nairobi Kenya

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