Don’t Blindly Follow Your Competition

Never, ever blindly follow your competition. I see people do this all the time – both in the writing world and the martial arts world. It’s a huge mistake, for multiple reasons.

First of all, successful marketing is very personal. A few years ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine once – a local gun store owner. I’ll never forget what he told me:

You and I could be marketing the exact same product at the exact same price with the exact same marketing – down to the same wording, phrasing, and imagery. And it might work for you, but not for me. Or the reverse, it might work for me but not for you.

My experience since has proven this statement to be 100% correct. When you’re not Disney or Coke or Microsoft, one of the gigantic brands of the world, successful marketing is personal. And if your marketing doesn’t connect your customers with you on a personal level, it won’t work.

Blindly copying your competition is highly impersonal. You’re not being you anymore. You’re being them.

Now, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. Of course it’s worth keeping an eye on your competition. If they start doing something interesting, take a look at it. Just don’t blindly copy it.

Because it may not be working for them, either.

To illustrate the point, I want to return to yesterday’s story about the early years of my dojo.

I did something I didn’t want to do: I opened a class for 4 and 5 year old students. I resisted it. I’d taught this age group before, and the reality is that most kids at this age just aren’t ready for this kind of class. But my wife and I sat down, thought about it long and hard, and decided to give it a go. We put a ton of effort into it. We developed a special curriculum just for that age group, structured the class differently than we’d ever done before, altered our expectations, and altered the belt promotion timeline. If we were going to do it, we decided that we’d do it right.

We only had one teacher available for that class: my wife Morgon. Due to the times we scheduled the classes for, I couldn’t get out of my day job to teach it. And preschoolers require tons of attention. So to ensure that we maintained a good class, we capped that age group at six students per class. Also, because we only ran it once per week (vs two sessions a week for our normal classes) and also for a shorter duration (45 minutes instead of an hour), we basically charged half what we did for our normal classes.

Read that second paragraph again. From both a business perspective and a martial arts perspective, the class was a failure. It never really made enough money to be worth the time. And we never managed to get the class quality up to our standards. The latter reason, more than anything, is why we eventually shut it down. I didn’t feel good about offering a class that I didn’t believe in 100%.

But there’s more to the story. Right before I opened my dojo, another dojo opened just up the street. And when I say right before, I mean right before. In fact, I originally wanted to get their space. They beat me to it. When I inquired about the location, they’d already signed a contract. No worries for me – I just found another space and made do.

But I did keep a close eye on them, and I’m dead certain they kept a close eye on me. And when I started advertising my “full” preschool classes, lo and behold, they started pushing their own preschool classes. Hard.

The school’s owner made a classic mistake: he assumed that because I pushed this so hard, it must work for me. In reality, it was never working very well at all. I just made the best of the situation I’d found myself in.

That dojo closed down more than a year ago, and I’m still running. This single decision, obviously, isn’t why – nor should it be taken as a slam against them. This is a tough business, and I salute them for their time in the ring. But it was definitely a mistake – one that you and I can, and should, learn from.

Whatever latest thing your competition is trying may be working really well. Or it may not be working at all. It may be brilliant. But it’s just as likely that your competition is moronic. When you see your competition try something new on the marketing front, the very first question you should always ask is, “is it working?” If it is, the second question must be, “why?”

If you can’t definitively answer both questions, then be wary of it. That doesn’t mean don’t do it at all. Maybe it’s worth experimentation. But keep your experimentation cheap until you get good data of your own.

Even then, before you try it you need to ask one final question: “Is this compatible with my own brand?” It’s very difficult to repair damage to your brand once it’s done. So you want to work to keep your brand solid in the first place.

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