On the Shoulders of Giants

by Brian SperonelloIcon

Polarizing Your Market Position by Using the Competition's Schema

One of the keys to success in marketing is being able to set yourself apart from your competition in the mind of the consumer. Two great books that provide different strategies for polarizing yourself from your competitors are Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout, and Crossing The Chasm by Geoffrey Moore. While there are some differences in execution, both strategies rely on a common tactic — using your competition's schema to simultaneously define and differentiate yourself.

"Schema" is a term from psychology, and it means the set of generic properties that define a concept or category. For example, movie genres are a type of schema. If I say I saw a horror movie, your mind automatically generates a pre-concieved idea about the movie's traits, since you know what "horror movies" are like. You picture something with dark lighting, lots of blood, and shocking moments that make you jump. That's your schema for horror movies.

Both Crossing The Chasm and Positioning employ the idea of using the competition's schema in order to polarize yourself.

From Positioning:

The first step...is to bring the product out of the closet. To deliberately polarize the situation by using a negative name like soy butter. – p.75 in the 2000 printing.
A negative name doesn’t necessarily include a negative term or paint the opposition in a negative way. It's a name that indicates you are similar enough to be a substitute for the product you're trying to beat, while also different in some key way. In the above example for soy butter, the name does two things. First it says the product is enough like butter to be a substitute (competitor), but it's also completely different from butter because it's made of soy. The name uses the idea, or schema, of "butter," but then clearly distinguishes itself as an alternative to butter with the word soy.

To continue with the soy butter example, soy butter is trying to get people to spend their "butter money" on soy butter instead of regular butter. Therefore, they need to speak the same marketing language as regular butter to indicate that they're an appropriate alternative. That's why the product name "soy butter" is so fitting. While it may have been tempting to try and come up with a more catchy name, "soy butter" conveys exactly what the product is and exactly what it's designed to replace, all in two words.

Another interesting side effect is what the name soy butter does to the name for regular butter.  All of a sudden, you have to start referring to butter as "regular" or "normal" butter, instead of just "butter."  Not only does the name soy butter enhance its own position, but it also downgrades the position of the established product.  All of a sudden the standard becomes "normal," or "regular," and that can bring connotations of blandness and boredom for some consumers; opening a hole in their worldview for soy butter to fill.

So, using your competition's schema gives your message context. It will put you in the same spectrum as your competition, while using a negative name will put you at opposite ends of that spectrum.

In Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey Moore says that in order for a disruptive new product to successfully cross over from the early market of Visionaries (or "Early Adopters") to the mainstream market of Pragmatists (or the "Early Majority"), a company needs to do something that seems counter-intuitive — create competition for their product.

Most companies dream of being the first product to the market, with no competition to speak of. The problem is that the mainstream market wants to buy from the leading company in a market that is established and mostly stable. If you don't have any competition, the market for your product won't appear to be established or stable to the Pragmatist buyer, and they will continue to wait for the market to mature.

Moore says the key to successfully crossing into the mainstream is referencing existing companies and technologies — in other words, existing schema — to contextualize your marketing efforts for the more conservative mainstream buyer.  Specifically, you need to create both a Product Alternative and a Market Alternative.  Just like Ries and Trout suggest with using the negative name, this is another way to "polarize the situation" using the competition's schema.

The Market Alternative is where you paint your product or service as a solution to the prospect's problems in a given area. If you're trying to sell the first computer-based word processors, then the market alternative would be typewriters, and you would try to use their schema to define and differentiate yourself. Using the Market Alternative provides context by highlighting where your product is superior to the older technology (You mean I can delete something when I make a mistake?! AWESOME!), while not overwhelming the prospect with an entirely new idea. Another way to think about it is which budget you're trying to steal from your competition. You're trying to get your prospect to spend whatever money they would have budgeted for a new typewriter on a word processor instead.

The Product Alternative is where you position yourself as the market leader in the newer market. You show that, of all the different brands selling computer-based word processors, yours is the best choice for the consumer. This is where, if you're Microsoft, you highlight all the ways Word is superior to Corel's WordPerfect.

Setting up the Market Alternative allows your prospect to analyze your product in reference to something they already understand, like typewriters, and makes it easier for them to envision how it would fit into their way of operating. Setting up the Product Alternative shows you are the leader in this new, established market by referencing your competition. Using a negative name defines your product by what it's hoping to replace. In all three of these methods, you are polarizing your product from the competition, while using their schema to provide the context.

This post stands on the shoulders of:

Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath: The concept of schemas from psychology

Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout: The negative name

Crossing The Chasm by Geoffrey A. Moore: The idea of the Product and Market Alternative


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