By Abhay Padgaonkar, President, Innovative Solutions Consulting
As a marketer, it is easy to feel overwhelmed when going up against much bigger rivals. The big dogs can have an impressive legacy, unique branding, and deep pockets. So, if you are an underdog, how do you market effectively with low or no marketing budget?
Philip Kotler, the father of modern marketing, said: “Marketing is not the art of finding clever ways to dispose of what you make.” Unfortunately, putting the cart before the horse has become far too easy in today’s social-media frenzy.
The good news is that there are many examples of upstarts outflanking much bigger rivals. But it requires a fundamental rethinking of a company’s place in the customer marketplace.
History has shown that market leaders can be their own worst enemies. Their soft underbelly can present opportunities in three areas for those who dare to be creative and passionate:
- Scope: Larger companies, with my-way-or-highway attitude, often ignore certain customer segments because they may be unprofitable or difficult to serve. Smart marketers need to develop product or service offerings to help these underserved or neglected non-consumers. For example, Southwest Airlines started with three planes and targeted those passengers who couldn’t afford to fly and were either driving or taking the bus instead.
- Service: Big companies can install customer-relationship software, but instilling a customer-first culture is often difficult for them because of unwieldy operations, multiple locations, internal politics, inward focus, and misplaced incentives. For example, Chick-fil-A, which started as Dwarf Grill in Hapeville, Georgia, has managed to keep customer loyalty and employee engagement front and center in an industry where fast food is synonymous with unfriendly service and high attrition.
- Scale: Larger rivals can make huge investments, but they can also have blinders on about bigger and better customers. For example, Paychex saw an opportunity to make payroll outsourcing easy and affordable for small businesses after realizing that heavyweight ADP’s product offerings, internal processes, information technology, resource allocation, and incentive structure were all geared toward serving larger employers with 50+ employees.
If these examples of upstarts outwitting the incumbents appear one-off or outdated, think again. Clayton Christensen, one of the world’s top experts on innovation and growth, has done in-depth research on how industry leaders get blindsided—precisely because they focus too closely on their most profitable customers and businesses.
According to Christensen, successful companies relentlessly move up-market by pursuing “sustaining” innovations aimed at demanding, high-end customers and by making better products that can be sold for more money to them. When they do so, however, they unwittingly open the door to “disruptive” innovations at the bottom of the market.
Mark Twain knew this more than a century ago. He said: “The best swordsman in the world doesn’t need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn’t do the thing he ought to, and so the expert isn’t prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do; and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot.”
The caveat for low-budget marketers is to avoid taking the Goliaths head-on by going into battle with a sword. Instead, the trick is to develop an unconventional, five-smooth-stones strategy that would make the established rivals laugh and say, “Yeah, right!”
So, put on your ignorant antagonist hat and think carefully about what you want to market, to whom, and why before worrying about how to market it.
Remember the time when established mainframe computer makers labeled the personal computer a toy, when digital cameras were mocked by professional photographers, or when online education was pooh-poohed by major universities?