Sharpen Your Marketing Axe

Strategic Marketing

Sharpen Your Marketing Axe

Abraham Lincoln once said, “give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” I thought about the underlying message and what it meant if I applied it to my profession, i.e., strategic marketing. It was clear to me, that in my case, the act of cutting down a tree was doing the actual work, i.e., implementing marketing strategy while sharpening the axe was preparing to do that work well and improving the chances for success. We spend a lion’s share of time moving from one tactic to the other while underestimating the importance of sharpening the message that is being delivered and the means of delivery.

But, how do we sharpen our message and find the right channels? We do it by regularly comparing our products and services to others and how they are being promoted in a fluid competitive landscape. This entails finding evolving points of differentiation and benefits that customers value, and then delivering that message through appropriate channels using emerging ways to reach audiences. Determining an insightful value proposition requires performing a thorough competitive analysis.

A competitive analysis is a process of identifying your main competitors and evaluating their products/services and commercialization strategies to determine what they do well and what they don’t compare to you. The emphasis is on relative and not absolute strengths and weaknesses. You may have a good quarterback on your team but if the opposition has a future hall-of-famer, this position is a potential liability for you. The goal of the competitive analysis is to gather the intelligence necessary to find a gap that your product fills or an area where your product outshines others. There is only one requirement. Your customers must find that advantage to be relevant, a worthy differentiator. I was selling an anti-hypertensive drug once and with great enthusiasm showed a physician how my drug was more efficacious than a competitive product. The doctor looked at me and said, “Brad, that may be true, but it is clinically irrelevant.” I never brought that up again with this customer.

What you want to learn?

  • Who are the major competitors to keep an eye on:

Make a list of direct and indirect customers. Direct customers have three things in common with you. Similar products, selling to same customers, in the same geography. Indirect customers have some things in common but not all three. Concentrate on the direct customers while not totally ignoring the indirect ones. In time, they may jump into your lane.

  • Leadership teams:

Read bios of the leadership teams on the websites and LinkedIn profiles. Are they serial entrepreneurs? Do they have a business, science, marketing, or financial background? Do they come from large Fortune 500 companies?  Level and type of experience? This would shed light on what their focus or natural inclinations would be. Scientists gravitate towards technology, businesspeople towards commercialization, and serial entrepreneurs towards the next opportunity. This greatly impacts a company’s culture.

  • Product portfolio:

Make a list of products offered by major players of interest. Create a table with a list of products in the first column and names of competitors in the first row. Then check the boxes based on which types, classes or groups of products each company has. Also, look at what is in the pipeline.

Greater detail brings clarity. What should we focus on? Where can we go on offense and where we need to defend? What are the mechanisms of action, scientific principles, or technology that are being used? Are there inherent advantages or disadvantages in a particular technology in terms of sensitivity, specificity, cost, speed, ease of use, reproducibility, or scalability? How are products positioned? Are claims dubious or misleading? Is the science incontrovertible?

Other product-specific information to gather is who is the market leader, what are market shares, distribution networks, reimbursement, etc. Most of this information can be gleaned from the website, press releases, and earnings reports.

  • Marketing mix:

Research and gather information about online and offline activities. Website is the first place to start:

  • What is the voice or tone of the messages?
  • How are the messages delivered? Do they have product videos, webinars, and messages from the leadership
  • Do they portray themselves as subject matter experts by providing information resources, analysis from experts, tutorials, FAQs
  • Do they provide case studies or testimonials to showcase real-life impact
  • Do they have dedicated landing pages for major products
  • Types of advertising campaigns and PPC
  • Competitiveness and position of ads on important keywords
  • Can you gain any insights on their lead-generation strategy?
  • What trade-shows do they sponsor and attend and their activities?

  • Content Strategy:
  • Do they have a blog? How often do they post?
  • Do they have a podcast?
  • Do they have whitepapers?
  • Are they on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Youtube etc. What topics or themes are they covering? Is it educational, promotional, or mostly announcements? How active are they? Is there lot of interaction with the audience? Are engagements positive? Content virality? Number of likes, follows, shares etc.
  • Do they customize their posts to the audience of a social media platform or post the same thing everywhere?
  • Use of rich media, graphics, photos
  • Voice and tone
  • How is the content promoted?

  • Conduct a simple SWOT analysis:

With all the information gathered, it should be easy to conduct a simple SWOT analysis where you gauge strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Remember, a SWOT is a snapshot of today; it is not a list of things you should start doing tomorrow based on what you have learned from competitors. So, deciding to now add a new portal to your website to educate customers is not an opportunity. An opportunity is something that has happened in the external environment that is beneficial to you and can be exploited. In all likelihood, you had nothing to do with it. For example, someone in academia has identified a gene mutation that is predictive of Alzheimer’s. There may be an opportunity to collaborate with the discoverers to develop a new test for Alzheimer’s disease.

The accumulated market intelligence updates the knowledge base about the landscape you are operating in and generates actionable items which sharpen your marketing axe. You determine where you stand and the strength and sustainability of that position versus competition. Now it’s time to start cutting down and removing obstacles for growth and reach business objectives.