Originally published by Katya Andresen on LinkedIn: The Best Way to Compete Is Looking Beyond the Competition
I wrote a book on marketing a few years back, and it included a section on competition. In that chapter, I told the story of Gold Toe socks. As the name would suggest, those are the pairs with the distinctive gold thread at the toe. The reason for that signature look is a great lesson in how to think about competition.
The company gained its toehold in the sock market during the depression, when it began weaving strong Irish linen into the tips of its socks so they would last longer during hard times. In the 1930s, a department-store buyer told one of the company's founders that the durable toes were great, but customers couldn't tell which brand had them. In a stroke of genius, the company decided to wrap gold acetate thread around the linen so its strong toe—now a Gold Toe—would be immediately visible to consumers. The company made its competitive advantage recognizable and unmistakable. That decision has helped make Gold Toe Brands a top sock manufacturer for decades.
This is a rich illustration of how to think about competition. First, we have to know our strength. Second, we have to be different in some important way that matters to the market. And then we need to make the differentiation as clear as if were adorned in gold thread.
Notice that in this story, Gold Toe didn't obsess about how to be as good as others. They spent a lot more time thinking about how to stand out in both form and substance.
Maybe this sounds like obvious business strategy. Yet when it comes to competition, it's easy to forget. We sometimes start studying our competition as if it offers the roadmap to where we need to be instead of realizing it represents a path already taken. The more we worry about keeping up, the more we fall behind the more important race to define our unique gifts and put them to work on a problem that needs solving in our own special way.
I think the pitfalls of competition extend not just to business strategy but also to professional identity. Whether defining a product strategy or distinguishing ourselves in a job market, we can waste time worrying about being as good as everyone else. But competitive strategy should focus on who we're trying to benefit while taking into account the competition, not the other way around. We don't win solely by reacting to our competitors but rather outperforming them in meeting our audience's needs and wants.
Let me put it more spiritually: We win by being the best version of ourselves in order to uniquely matter to someone else.
We can't achieve that aim if we're endlessly keeping score in relationship to the others who seek to matter. If there's a full accounting to be done, it should be within ourselves. And we have to be unafraid to find what is wonderfully different and put it out there, on full display, gold thread or not. That can feel uncomfortably daring. And if it does, we are probably on the right track.
In a wonderful commencement address, the brilliant Maria Popova sums it up this way:
Here’s the thing about self-comparison: In addition to making you vacate your own experience, your own soul, your own life, in its extreme it breeds resignation. If we constantly feel that there is something more to be had — something that’s available to those with a certain advantage in life, but which remains out of reach for us — we come to feel helpless. And the most toxic byproduct of this helpless resignation is cynicism — that terrible habit of mind and orientation of spirit in which, out of hopelessness for our own situation, we grow embittered about how things are and about what’s possible in the world. Cynicism is a poverty of curiosity and imagination and ambition... The best defense against it is vigorous, intelligent, sincere hope — not blind optimism, because that too is a form of resignation, to believe that everything will work out just fine and we need not apply ourselves. I mean hope bolstered by critical thinking that is clear-headed in identifying what is lacking, in ourselves or the world, but then envisions ways to create it and endeavors to do that."
If you are struggling to compete, don't look to what others have done. Discover what is missing in the world or incomplete within yourself and apply all your energy to the worthy endeavor of filling that unclaimed space better than anyone else ever could. Find your difference, and you will make a difference.
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