You can’t plan a battle without a map of the territory, yet every day marketers fumble through planning their growth strategy without a map of the competitive landscape of their industry. Topographical intelligence is one of the deciding factors in any major conflict. Making decisions without a map is like playing chess without seeing the board. Once you have a map you can see the position of pieces and where they can move to, which is fundamentally what strategy is about.
One technique that has proven useful in the market research community is building a ‘brand perceptual map’. It involves surveying customers in the category about competing brands, in order to relate them to a set of descriptors (memes). Southwest Airlines might be described as ‘affordable’ and ‘on time’, and American Airlines associated with ‘business’ and ‘delays’. There’s no ‘right’ label for each brand, and labels can be as granular as needed. Ideally they’re granular enough to show differences, without being too sparse to gain insight.
This can also be done manually by an analyst based on publicly available information, or purchased datasets. For example analysts can manually categorize the copy used on each competitor’s website, in their ad campaigns, or on their third-party marketplace listings. Inductive coding is used to identify patterns and see what memes are common / rare across the industry. These are potential points of leverage where your brand can either copy competitors to match what consumers expect, or differentiate to innovate in an area where you have an unfair advantage.
Associations between categories can be used to display strategic trade-offs. Logos are plotted on a 4x4 grid based on dimensions chosen by the analyst. For example you can’t usually be both low cost and luxury, reliable and comprehensive, or fast and comfortable. True strategy is a choice between mutually exclusive options, that you’re forced to make under conditions of uncertainty and limited resources. There are usually only a handful of important dimensions that account for most of the potential variation in outcomes. Maps can be presented with more than 2 dimensions – showing more associations – but this quickly becomes hard to interpret.
Statistical techniques like ‘correspondence analysis’ can be used to reduce the number of dimensions in a way that still explains differences in labels. Multiple memes can be mapped onto fewer dimensions, with the similarities or differences between brands indicated by the distance between them. It’s also possible to use advanced data visualization techniques – color ranges, bubble sizes and radial maps – to fit more factors on the chart. Finally use of animation or control sliders can show changes over time, or forecast the potential results of strategic actions.
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