When you want to “beat the competition”, do you focus most on what it does or the customer’s problem? Here’s why the latter can help you make a real difference.
“It is hard to see a great product that is sitting on the shelf and it is not moving simply because you don’t have the resources to help move it.”  This is how Martin Ekechukwi; Village Tea Company’s (VTC) founder, talked about one of the challenges of being an entrepreneur, in 2011. Put back in the context of the interview he was then giving, the “resources” he wished he had were “advertizing dollars”.
How do you convince customers to buy your product or service? How do you get people to say “I want one of those”, when your resources are limited? Even more in a context where, usually, you’re not the first to take on a market or not one of its Goliaths (e.g. the “big brands”).
“WELL, IF YOU WANT TO BEAT YOUR COMPETITION…”
In terms of strategies, “how to beat your competition” when it’s time for a customer to make a choice often comes down to a few key advices: “You need to build something that is faster, cheaper, better than your competition”, “Find yourself a competitive advantage. Let it be quality, price or service” and “Make sure your brand is distinctive from your competitors’ own”. Atop of “Find a business opportunity”. Such opportunity often being referred as something your competitors don’t do or don’t do in a faster-cheaper-better-way than you would.
All this proved to be enough for some people who have started and grown companies that thrived and made them a decent if not a very good living. However, all this might not be enough to create a truly compelling selling argument and backstory. At least, if making a difference in other people lives in what you’re looking for.
Something companies like Apple (in its early days), Virgin and Nike have become masters at. A smaller company like Clif’s bar too. Not because they’ve set their eyes only on what their competitor’s did, but on what they disregarded.
[If interested, you can read about Clif’s energy bar’s backstory here and here. Plus, in this TED Talk, starting at the 7 min mark, Gary Erickson; Clif’s founder, talks about his epiphany moment. He was on 175 miles bike ride with a friend, and had already eating 5 energy bars. This was way more than what he would usually eat on a similar ride.]
IT’S ABOUT THE CUSTOMERS’ PROBLEM. NOT THE COMPETITION’S FEATURES
Taking these examples in consideration, the challenge then isn’t “how do I beat my competitors in with product’s features or brand’s characteristic that will convince customers to buy my product over theirs”. It has more to do with “what specific problem can I help a group of customers with, and how can I make that problem less threatening or painful – in the most efficient and remarkable way possible”.
Because the competition won’t buy your product. Maybe except to put it in pieces, see how it works, and try to do something faster, cheaper, better. On the other hand, customers will buy your product. So, if customers are to buy your product, should you spend time and money in finding a way to make their lives better or that of your competitors’?
Doesn’t mean you have to pay no interest in what your competitors do. It only means that what they do and their product’s or service’s features don’t have to be your primary focus.
Here are two stories to illustrate the difference.
In the first story, Martin Ekechukwi recounts how he started Village Tea Company’s (VTC).
“I’ve always been interested in tea because tea was something that has always been in my household. And also my grandmother used to serve tea in Central Europe, when I was living there all the time. So for us, it was always like tea be like a medium, a bridge between people. Like you sit down, you have a conversation and have tea. You don’t have coffee. Because coffee is more like a quicker product you kinda just take and you move on. But tea it’s more like simmered. There’s a tradition to it.” Then, in his last job, before starting VTC, “I looked at different beverage lines, did a lot of research with the tea, and I just saw a fantastic opportunity within the market to introduce a new brand.” (…) “So people that drink our products line always want a good tasting product. So we never really talked about how our stuff tasted. We always talked about the health and wellness part of it. So people would buy our product and the after-fact was “I was buying it because I thought it was good for my skin or as an anti-oxidant… but I didn’t realize how good it tastes.” So why are we not leading with the taste piece of it? So now, we’ve flipped it, leading with taste. Leading with fact that it’s not your grandmother’s tea company. It’s really more of an everyday young person’s tea product. And ever since then, it’s been an uphill climb. We’ve put ourselves in the health and wellness but now we’re getting out of it and feel lot better.“ 
“Boiled down” (intentional pun), Martin’s motivation was at first to make the best of an opportunity he saw: market space available for a new tea brand. Good health and wellness were the arguments he’d use to stir people’s interest in his product. As things evolved, so did Martin’s motivation, sort of speak. “So why are we not leading with the taste piece of it? So now, we’ve flipped it, leading with taste”, he said. Going from a source of good health and wellness served in a cup to a tasty cup of tea. For someone who doesn’t like the bitterness or harsh taste of some teas, it can be a great option.
A few questions come to mind, though. Based on the information above, did Martin start Village Tea Company out of wanting to solve (or help solve) a problem? Or make the best out of an opportunity (in the market) that no one seemed to have seen then? Now that VTC has taken out the good health and wellness arguments out of the equation, what will happen when people’s tastes change? More importantly, what is Martin’s leverage point now that a new player – like Teavana – not only plays on the quality taste and flavors of the products it sells but presses even more on the “wellness” argument to stir tea drinker’s interest? [See Teavana’s “wellness” section on its website here]
Could adding new tea flavor mixes on the VTC’s menu or changing the tea store’s set up, or tea products’ packaging be enough? Enough to really create a compelling selling argument? Doubtful. Even though he already has the backstory; his grandmother, tea as a bridge between people, etc.. Moreover, to play the game of “who’s got the most features to offer” could turn out to be quiet expensive for Martin and his team.
Doesn’t mean nothing can be done.
WHAT PROBLEM ARE YOU TRYING TO SOLVE?
When you look at Apple, Virgin, Nike and Clif’s, it’s easy to find a common trait in their backstories: the justification or motive they used for getting started in business. In all cases, it had to do with some level of dissatisfaction if not frustration about a given situation. Because some sort of a lack, the absence or, to put it in other words, because of a missing piece.
In Clif’s bar case, Guy Erickson primarily went in the energy bar business because there weren’t food (or bars, as a matter of fact) on the market that were good tasting but, more importantly, that could provide the level of energy, for the period of time, that he and his friend needed to complete their regular long bike rides. Remember what he mentioned in his TED Talks about his epiphany 175 miles ride: he had to eat 5 energy bars and still didn’t find the level of energy he needed.
So the problem he wanted to solve or help solve had to do with “not being able to have enough energy to sustain a long and demanding physical effort”.
Because he wasn’t the only one to experience such problem, he decided to give it a shot. Addressing the energy level issue in a way the competition didn’t, he then came up with Clif’s bar. As his bike-riding friends and later his first customers found out, these bars were “providing a longer lasting energy level than the competition’s bars”. Atop of that, Guy bars’ bonus feature would be that “they taste good”. Things that led Clif’s bar to be become the leader in the U.S. nutrition bars market, in 2013.  All that in front of food giants like Kellogg’s (owner of “Kashi”) and Post (owner of “Powerbar”).
Using that type of motive (e.g. a problem experienced either by you or someone close) to develop your own solution and make it “the reason for your product to exist” tends to create that compelling selling argument and backstory I talked about. At least, more than if you add another feature to an already existing feature-based product. Like Martin’s own Village Tea Company’s products came to be.
What problem are you trying to solve then?
As Guy Erickson’s story shows, you don’t always have to go far out in your thoughts to get that spark about something that needs to be fixed.
Now, here’s the second story I told you about.
“When my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer, I began volunteering in the daycare center to learn more about this disease. And that’s when I realized there were many people who had the similar problems as my grandma. They often eaten less than they should, and accidents like spilled food and tipped cups were common. That’s the reason I designed and created Eatwell. Which is as very user-centered design that can help to increase food intake, maintain dignity for its users while also help to alleviate caring burdens by making the process of eating as easy as possible. Eatwell is a universal tableware set (that) actually can be used by anyone but especially benefit the seniors with cognitive impairment, small children and caregivers of those with special needs.” 
WHAT IF MARTIN COULD USE A PROBLEM-CENTERED APPROACH?
When you look at Martin’s story, was the fact that there were not many tea brands in the market a problem? Is it that much of a problem that tea tastes bitter at times? For some coffee drinkers, the acidity and bitterness of the drink is actually a sign of quality. But if you take the problem the other way around, are there health problems that could be prevented or better treated with the intake of tea-based foods and beverages, other than a plain cup of tea? Problems that either Martin or people close to him might have experienced on a regular basis. On the other hand, are there physical performances that could be enhanced or benefit from the natural stimulant contained in tea leaves; theine? Maybe some tea-based sports gel, or energy drinks could provide a much sought-after energy boost people practicing extreme or endurance sports are craving for. At least in a better-for-the-health way than the artificially boosted off-the-shelved energy drinks they often rely on.
Whether it’s for Martin or yourself, the problem then doesn’t come from the absence of problems to tackle or help solve. It’s in defining which one is the most compelling for and pressing to you. More importantly, to the group of people (and possibly future customers) you want to help make their lives better.
There are three (3) questions you can ask yourself and people around you to give some direction to your thinking process:
- What is the dissatisfaction I’ve identified about? Something functional (e.g. what you need to do with a product in order to gain access to the benefits it’s supposed to provide) or aesthetical/emotional (how the products looks and how it makes you feel while using it)?
- What would you say this product or service (e.g. the one you’ve imagined) is about? A customer’s problem or a competitor product’s features?
- Does making your product or service available only serve your interests or the interests of other people in a compelling manner?
ON WHAT DO YOU WANT TO FOCUS?
Not everyone rides 175 miles on a bike or has a grandmother diagnosed with Alzheimer. Yet, we all experience these situations – in our day to day lives – where we wish a better solution existed. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. What History proves over and over though, is that whoever focuses on solving a real problem as more chance of making a difference and a lasting impact in the lives of others than if he or she simply decides to make the best out of a passing opportunity or trend instead.
On what do you want to focus most?