Picture this scenario: You've worked hard to get your company executive in front of a reporter, either in a print interview, a radio broadcast or a televised news segment. The questions so far have been great, delving deeply into your company, its market and what makes your product great. It feels like the reporter is going to write a good story about your company.
Then it comes - the question you've been dreading:
"So, who are your competitors?"
It's a simple question, yet so many executives and spokespeople stumble over the answer. However, it's actually the perfect opportunity to frame your own landscape, positioning your company as you see it in relation to others in the industry. It also gives you yet another chance to communicate key messages. Navigating the choppy waters simply requires a closely followed list of "to-dos" and "to-don'ts."
The To-Do List
Here are a handful of ways to gain the greatest competitive advantage in your marketplace:
Categorize: Don't give your competitors free publicity by naming them right off the bat. Instead, start by mentioning the category of companies that can be considered competitive. You can then use the opportunity to stress what makes your particular technology or product unique in comparison - a conversation in which you/your spokesperson should already be well-versed.
Attribute: Often the reporter pushes this vague answer and specifically asks for company names. In this case, it's best to attribute your choices to a third party, such as an industry analyst firm. A line such as "some analysts who cover the space say we compete with Microsoft and SAP..." This leaves the reporter no room to assume you feel threatened by said companies, in addition to making the information factual.
Choose Your Competition: In business as in life, you're known by the company you keep. Carefully choose which companies you name as your competitors. Don't be afraid to compete with the big guys - this can signal your confidence that your offerings are unique and compelling enough to stand up to the fiercest competition.
Reframe: If your competitor's name comes up, take the opportunity to re-position them to your advantage. Competing with an industry giant? Then you're the best-of-breed player with intense focus and the customers to prove it. Competing with smaller companies? Then you're the market share leader with momentum to burn.
Bridge to Your Strengths: If competitor discussion must happen, keep it brief. Don't go into a lot of depth about your competitor's strengths and weaknesses. Instead, bridge back to your company and use the time to highlight your company's unique strengths.
The To-Don't List
If mishandled, the "who is your competition?" question can haunt you. Here are some things NOT to do:
Duck and Cover: While a tempting response, saying "we have no competitors" is never the best course of action. Besides the fact that most reporters greet such answers with skepticism, many media and analysts see this answer as a signal that your market niche is too small to attract other players. And if it's too small, they may get doubts about writing on you at all.
Avoid the Question: If you avoid the question entirely, the reporter will be left to choose your competition for you. Frame the competition on your terms rather than leaving it up to chance.
Bash the Competition: Don't be baited into bashing the competition and risk getting quoted negatively. Take the high road.
To turn the sticky competition question into an opportunity for competitive differentiation, follow this advice. Many executives think they feel comfortable addressing the topic but flub the answer, subsequently giving the competitors unrequited attention. To avoid this unintentional outcome, media train your spokespeople to handle the tough question. Address it from a variety of viewpoints, from generic answers to avoid naming names, to which names you would use if necessary, and to why and how you are superior to said competitors.
This article was written by Shawn Whalen, a senior vice president at Schwartz Communications. He can be reached at [email protected].