Accept and address competing products

If you want to be a bad product manager, assume your customers are not aware of your competition. They may not even be aware that there is any alternative to your product, so why should you mention one? If potential customers think you’re the only option, then they’ll have to use your product. Comparing your product to the competition or even mentioning them automatically puts that idea in their head. You don’t want to remind them that there are alternatives, since the more they hear about alternatives, the more likely they are to use those products.

If you want to be a good product manager, realize that customers will be comparing your product to others. You certainly do not want to focus all of your product development and product marketing efforts on comparing your product to the competition. However, in almost all cases, potential customers will have several options to choose from and you need to address how your product is different (and better).

Depending on your market and how your product is positioned, you may choose to address this issue differently. The choice about whether to specifically mention a competitive product, for example, or how to approach differentiation depends on your position in the market and the attributes of the competition.

Imagine you are creating a portable MP3 player to compete with the iPod. Potential customers will of course be familiar with the iPod and it will likely be their default choice for an MP3 player. It would be pointless to ignore the fact that the iPod exists or assume that your potential customers may not be aware of it. As the dominant product in the market, it is crucial to your success to differentiate your product from the iPod. What are the problems that the iPod does not solve that your product does? What are the unique attributes of your product that will provide value to customers?

It would be a waste of marketing efforts to describe the product (“Plays MP3s! Syncs up with your computer! Has a headphone jack!”) as these are things that customers are already aware of and would expect of the product. Instead, focus on how your product is distinctly different — and hopefully in the customers’ mind better — than the competition (“Plays songs purchased from any online music store! Allows high-quality recording!”). This competitive positioning obviously needs to be present in your product development efforts as well as your marketing and promotion. The differentiating factors must be attributes that are important to the customer, hopefully above and beyond any areas you lag the competition.

Most competitive positioning falls at the extremes. Products either refuse to even acknowledge that there is competition and do not address differentiating factors or they focus all of their energy on going “head to head” directly with their main competition. Successful product development and product marketing is somewhere in the middle. A good product manager will understand the competitive landscape and acknowledge the competition without a single-minded focus on it.

Your customers are not idiots — they know that they have several choices, and your product is just one of the options. Accept that, treat your customers with respect, and clearly articulate the differentiating factors. If you have developed your strategy, done your research, and developed your product appropriately, the benefits will be clear to your customers.

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5 thoughts on “Accept and address competing products

  1. Hi Jeff,

    Good points – I would go as far to say that a product should not even start development until the questions you raised above are answered in a formal way in a business plan / product positioning document. Also the product manager should consider putting together a competitive comparison chart for to clearly identify areas of similarity and where there are differences. This can be done in a superficial way by checking out the spec on the web or (depending on your market and product) purchase or hire the product your up against – analyse it by either (again depending on the product) using it or if it’s hardware pulling it to pieces to see what chipsets etc… are used and get the production / manufacturing engineer(s) to estimate how much it cost to manufacture – based on the cost of each component, cables, casing etc.. Then and only then the product manager can confidently request to the board and/or management team the appropriate engineering resources to build the product with a promised ROI. Then – (again depending on the type of product and the time it takes to build) the product manager needs to keep a close eye on the market to see if there are new entrants and products or if the existing products are enhanced and re-launched with added features. The PM will then need to respond by constantly updating her/ his competitive comparison chart and even YES even if the competitive landscape gets to hot stop development and either change course OR take the brave decision to “can” (dump) the project and invest engineering time on a product that has more promise.


  2. A good way to think about positioning is POP and POD:

    POP – Points of Parity – what do you need to be in this market

    POD – Points of Difference – how will you stand out, what problems will you solve?

  3. Your competition isn’t just against other candidates in your narrow sphere of value delivery – but against every other priority in play with your target audience. When considering competition, my guidance is to define it in the broadest possible terms – then see how you stack up. You may be the big kahuna when it comes to comparing your product to others like it, but fail to register a blip on the greater radar. The way to build competitive advantage is to focus on value delivery – regardless of what anyone else is doing.

  4. Linda — The most important lesson if you’re leading is that you have a big target on your back. Everyone’s probably trying to beat you. It’s much easier to overtake the leader than it is to continue to be the leader and grow your lead. If you’re the leader, don’t get complacent, don’t underestimate the competition, and don’t take your leadership for granted. Whether you explicitly mention your competition in positioning or messaging is a separate question (most likely not, though it depends). Even if you’re the leader, you still have competition, though (unless you’re a complete monopoly — rather unlikely), so many of the same ideas would still apply.

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