Brand Strategy: Be First By Being Second

Walker SmithAugust 27, 20124 min

Is there really much advantage in being a first-mover? There is a lot of research in academic circles about order-of-entry, and brand marketers are always monitoring the competitive landscape for breakthroughs that could help or hurt their chances to be first.But is being first worth the time and attention, particularly when it comes to all of the technological wizardry whizzing around these days?

Technology evolves at the bleeding edge, but technology followers not leaders are often those who realize the marketplace advantage from technological advances. Google was not the first search engine. Facebook was not the first social network. Windows was not the first operating system. The iPad was not the first tablet computer; it wasn’t even Apple’s first tablet computer. And while Apple has led the way in smartphone technology, Google Android and Samsung Galaxy have eclipsed its market position.

The evolution of technology is a leapfrog process in which first-movers frequently get left behind by fast-followers. This is what made Steve Jobs so brilliant. He could leapfrog like no one since Thomas Edison. His ability to bring an innovative perspective to cutting-edge technologies and turn them into compelling offerings is legendary.

Part of the reason for the success of second-movers is that technology leaders tend to focus on the technology while technology followers focus more on the business model. Followers get the advantage of seeing the marketplace before launching; leaders have to launch sight unseen.

For most brand marketers, the issue at hand is a mix of bringing their own new technologies to market and putting new technologies from other categories to use in their own, but either way they face the challenge of whether or not to be first. While this is an especially difficult challenge in today’s digital marketplace, it is not a new challenge for brand marketers.

I worked at Texize in the mid- to late 1980s, doing research for brands like Glass Plus, Fanstastik, Spray ‘n Wash, Pine Power, No-Pest Strip and K2R Spotlifter, among others. Our brand marketing at that time was niche-oriented, and our focus was on needs-gaps too small for big players like Procter & Gamble but big enough for niche brands like ours. This strategy recognized that P&G would often wait out innovations introduced by competitors. If these new products proved successful, P&G would then follow, bringing with it huge marketing support that would overwhelm the smaller innovators handicapped by fewer resources, less scale and weaker retail relationships. Indeed, this happened once or twice to us.

(By the way, it should be added that other companies own and manage these brands nowadays. The old Texize strategies are no reflection whatsoever of the ways in which these brands are managed currently.)

Through its culture and processes, P&G operates in a manner that recognizes it need not always be first-mover to be the market leader. Its portfolio of brand marketing skills and methodologies includes scanning and imitating no less than discovering and inventing. This is not to overlook the fact that P&G has a strong and long-standing commitment to leading the way, but P&G knows that pioneering something wholly new through discovery and invention is but one way of dominating its categories. Sometimes, it is much smarter to be a copycat by scanning and imitating. Too few brand marketers have this orientation or these skills.

This pattern of leading by following has bigger, macroeconomic implications for brand marketers, too. The leapfrog pattern of technology evolution is one reason why developing economies are catching up with developed countries, including the U.S. The adoption of a particular technology entails embedding the infrastructure to support and utilize it. But that very infrastructure creates future obstacles. The costs of transitioning away from current infrastructure can be astronomical, so the places that get the advantage of new technologies are those not invested in prior technologies and preexisting infrastructure. These days, such places are all in the developing world, which is why Africa, the stepchild continent to the world, is the global leader in mobile payments. This is why the BRICs may benefit most from the digital revolution now in full force. The BRICs are far less invested in the analog infrastructure that, despite all the changes of late, remains deeply embedded in key parts of the social and economic foundations of the developed world.

Brand marketers are heading into a future of mammoth changes. But an itchy trigger finger is trouble. Discovery and invention will be needed, but this must be balanced by a parallel patience to scan and modesty to imitate. Brand marketers need both boldness and reserve to ensure themselves an opportunity to lead.

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Walker Smith

One comment

  • Anthony Boyd

    September 1, 2012 at 7:08 pm

    I see this often trying to reinvent the wheel as if in this market sometimes it has already been tried. We often though as you pointed out with P&G revert or modify the already existing idea/item and just make it more adaptable. I feel you highlighted the cautionary tale of balance in innovation and reservation very well.

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