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PHOTOS: Magnum Ice Cream Pop Up Shop | Brand Experience


2014: Five marketing tips to prepare for the year ahead

It was in 1964 when science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, author of over 500 books, visited the World Fair. Impressed by General Electric’s “Futurama” stand, showcasing electrical appliances from the previous four decades, he wrote an article in the New York Times predicting what life would be like 50 years later, in 2014. Not all his predictions have come to

World Fair -Isaac Asimov's predictions.

1964 World Fair Ticket. Predictions from 50 years ago.

fruition, certainly my house doesn’t have “walls that glow softly, and in a variety of colours that will change at the touch of a push button”. But his guesses – ranging from frozen meals and coffee machines to satellite phones and Skype to 3D TV – seem pretty Nostradamus-like. He concluded that humans will be relegated to “machine tenders” because computers will be able to do work better than humans, creating a society of “enforced leisure”. (Note to self – tell the boss!) This would predictably result in mankind suffering badly from the disease of boredom, “a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity”. Of course what Mr Asimov failed to predict was Sir Tim Berners-Lee unleashing the internet onto the world and creating the ultimate cure for boredom, whether work induced or not. It brought with it possibly the greatest change to how humans interact with each other and their environment. But, while the way in which we interact has changed dramatically as a result, humans have evolved very little over the last 50 years, which helps somewhat when offering marketing advice for the year ahead.

1.     Marketing is getting harder. That is good

Oh, for the old days – when you just put an ad in the Sunday Times and another on TV (on one of the three available channels) and the entire market had to watch. It made for easy marketing if you were a big spender. Small companies with more modest budgets struggled to be seen in the concentrated but overcrowded media marketplace. Now, however, marketers have an almost infinite number of options. As a result, contemporary customers expect a tailored, personalised approach when you communicate with them. This has levelled the playing field somewhat for small marketers who can now trade intellectual firepower against the bigger advertiser’s financial firepower. You can personalise and offer specific messaging. A whole raft of media agencies well versed in the niceties of sweating smaller media have appeared as a result.

2.     The social honeymoon is over

No one is impressed with your social media activities any more. No really, they aren’t. It’s just a ticket to do business these days. Just another channel you have to manage but not get excited about. In fact, the traditional social media channels are showing signs of having peaked; Facebook is struggling to keep younger members, Twitter is losing celebrities with millions of followers due to the sheer volume of communication required at significant time and cost. And the supposed value of social media, namely the fact that the communication is a two-way conversation giving real people power to influence, has started to show its darker side. Troll tweeters raise the risk of using this channel.

Social Media - the honeymoon is over.

Social Media – the honeymoon is over.

Many marketers, whether celebrities in their own right, or on behalf of brands, moved from traditional paid-for media to social channels which were hailed as being “free”. But, as my mother always used to say, you get what you pay for. The relative costs have started to equalise. It now costs virtually as much in time, effort and money – given the risk of negative response – to communicate on social media as it does on any other media. That is how the world works.

3.     Less is more Attention spans have shortened. Your market is used to Facebook with short written status updates, 140 characters in a tweet, photos on Instagram and Snapchat where a photo is automatically deleted after 10 seconds. It’s an instant gratification thing. Consumers also receive information in huge volumes, most of which isn’t commercial. This means your marketing message has to add value and get the message across instantly to compete. A picture is worth a thousand words. And the expectation is that you will add value to recipients’ lives, be it a joke, a stunning photo, deep relevant discount or interesting infographics. As social media channels grow paid-for advertising, expect resentment to grow. This can only be countered by adding (instant) value greater than the inconvenience imposed. Don’t think “advertising”; think “offering valuable (visual) content”. Those who give shall receive.

4.     Traditional is still lekker

Media consumption has certainly shifted, but that doesn’t mean traditional marketing Afrikaans albumsolutions no longer work. In an era in which multi-screening has become the norm –  watching TV, browsing the web on a tablet and checking social media on a smartphone, all at the same time – traditional media suddenly looks attractive again. Drive-time radio still gets your market’s full attention while they are trapped in traffic. “Out of home” billboards and other in-situ opportunities still offer the benefit of being able to associate your message with a specific context, medical aids in gyms for example. Specialist print publications, well-entrenched within your target market, still offer good value as ad rates face pressure from the proliferation of media types. En ander tale werk ook baie goed.

5.     Smartphones are smart marketing Your customers and their smartphones are inseparable. This adds location and context to your ability to communicate with them. It also means that large numbers of consumers are now connected 24/7. The impact on marketing is profound. Marketers are only limited by the bounds of smartphone user’s acceptable privacy limits. That said, in South Africa, most websites aren’t even optimised for phone-sized screens, and most marketers overlook location-based search optimisation. Consumer connectivity means your customers can compare prices online while viewing merchandise in store. It also means they can rate you on Google+, affecting your search rankings. Or trash your reputation on a recommendation site or social media platform. Or, embarrassingly, circulate that one spelling mistake in your advert (it only takes one!) If there is one marketing mantra for 2014 it is “only dummies underestimate the power of smartphones”.

This article was first published in Your Business magazine.


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



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.


Don’t let your success hold you back – It’s time to make some marketing resolutions for the year ahead…

Your business has been in operation for a while. You’re frankly rather successful. For an established business of any size, one of marketing’s biggest enemies is lethargy. Clearly there is value in not fixing what isn’t broken, but markets and clients change slowly over time, and if you don’t stop occasionally to take stock, you risk commercial extinction. A new year gives us all an opportunity to look at our businesses with new eyes.

Walk a mile in your customer’s moccasins

First published in Your Business.

This article was first published in
Your Business magazine.

You may have carefully created a differentiating customer experience when you set out the business, but subtle changes and numerous shortcuts later, your customer experience has in all likelihood morphed into something very different. Be your customer for a day. If, for instance, you run a bed and breakfast, go through the booking and reception process from the guest’s perspective. Have breakfast and sleep a night in the room. Be objective. Is the experience what was intended? How can it be improved? How did your staff handle the process (remembering that they are likely to be on their best behaviour given who the customer is – you!) Make comprehensive notes as you go. Are there areas where service has slipped? Is the business doing anything in an old fashioned way that has been outdated by technology, or become inefficient now the business is a reasonable size? The introduction of novel, up-to-date technology might offer staff efficiencies, but also positions your business as being modern and contemporary. Is your business overspending on any part of the process? Perhaps originally intended to differentiate your business, do these “bells and whistles” still delight your customer or are they just an anachronism?

Fire a customer

I learnt in the second week of my career that one of the most important decisions in business is determining who you don’t want to do business with. Businesses in general and small and start-up businesses in particular are inclined to leap on any offer of an order, even if the customer is less than ideal or the product or service is outside of the intended scope of the business. Clients are not all equal – be objective and determine whether there are some you should donate to your competitors.

Customers worth dumping:

• Simply buy on price and see no value in your product differentiators.

• Have a high risk of payment default. Remember a sale is only such once you have received payment. Otherwise it is called a “gift”.

• Freely pass your pricing information straight back to your competitors.

• Use your product incorrectly creating safety or reputational concerns.

• Have inconsistent off-take; yet expect you to hold high stock levels.

Make 2013 the year in which you focus with greater vigour on those customers with high lifetime-value and stop wasting your time and resources on those who frankly cause distraction.

Reconsider your pricing

Have you maximised your financial and competitive opportunity through pricing? Are you for instance undertaking price discounting “because we always do”; without any evidence that the increased business flows justify the margin cut? Do the calculations again, being objective about how much business such discounts really give you. Remember the significant multiplier effect a price reduction has on a low-net-margin business. I spent a decade in the commodity chemical business where net margins were in the region of 4%. So an average price discount of just 2% meant that sales had to more than double to be justifiable. Do the maths! We’re inclined to be desensitised by the high discounts seen in retail settings. But most retail shops have significant margins and high fixed costs. Shoppers attracted by a sale are also supposed to buy a lot more than they normally would. Do you really enjoy the same return on your discounting?

Reconsider your day-to-day pricing. To learn a quick lesson on pricing, next time you fly ask the person next to you how much they paid for their ticket. Airlines have a unique product: a strictly limited number of seats, a virtually fixed cost per flight irrespective of who is aboard, and a product which if still unsold when the doors close, immediately becomes worthless. They have therefore become adept at dynamic pricing – virtually every ticket is sold at a different price depending on when it is booked. Is there opportunity for you to be much cleverer in your pricing strategy in 2013?

Find one new market

This is classic “Ansoff Matrix” stuff from marketing 101. Find a new market for an existing product, or add a new product to a market you are strong in. Ask your customers about how they really use your products. You may be surprised and they may offer clues for diversification. Be creative and open to new ideas, but remain objective – does a new product make sense? Does it fit with the market and brand positioning of your company?

Learn from Colgate – yes, the folk who make toothpaste, who once tried to introduce pre-prepared meals under the same brand. I am sure the clever marketing people saw some synergy, perhaps “increasing share of mouth”. But it was unsurprisingly an unmitigated flop. The greater risk, however, is not looking closely for new opportunities and just accepting the current state of play.

Make 2013 the year of looking for new viable business possibilities.

Do your housekeeping

It’s a new year and time to do a little spring cleaning. Start afresh. Think about the business as though you are the new owner taking over on the first of January. Clean up your client records. Clean out the product catalogue of those old products you haven’t actually sold in years. Relook your signage – is it showing its age? Are those flags you put up out front in pre-World Cup euphoria looking a little tired and faded? Your website – is it still referring to the upcoming event in July 1998? And does the old photo of the founder in your corporate brochure now look alarmingly like his younger brother?

Add the personal touch

Have you become a little distant from your customers as the company has grown? As companies become larger they become more impersonal. But people do business with people. Is it time to reconnect with your customers? It could be as simple as a plan to phone five important clients per week for the year, or perhaps some form of customer hospitality is appropriate. Most of a company’s value resides in its customer/client relationships, rather than in a unique product or business process. But consider where you spend your time – is it on the folk who pay salaries and make you profits, or is it concentrated on internal processes? Make 2013 the year of looking outward rather than inward and treat those who support your business to a little more of your time and attention.

This could mean getting back in touch with your professional association, or the trade association of the industry your business operates within. Business is social and there are many stakeholders other than customers and clients; look to raise your involvement. Successful businesses are usually well connected and give back to the professions and industries in which they operate. Offer to present at an industry conference, or host an association meeting at your business premises. Sponsor an award. More importantly say “yes” to one or two more invitations to events you get invited to but normally just reject as a matter of course. I can’t guarantee you extra business but I am firm believer in business karma – make 2013 the year to “pay it forward”.

This article was first published in Your Business magazine.


Ferrero Rocher – Christmas Marketing Installation


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.

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