Positioning: Pick a Fight or Ignore the Competition?

There are two main schools of advice I’ve come across when trying to position a product:

Pick a Fight

In Rework, 37signals advise setting yourself up as the antithesis to the dominant market player:

If you think a competitor sucks, say so. When you do that, you’ll find that others who agree with you will rally to your side.


Ignore Them

Cal Newport describes this second theory as the “Steve Martin” approach:

Be so good they can’t ignore you.

Are both right? Can you do both at the same time?


Michael Dell is a very innovative guy, but what really struck me about his book “Direct from Dell” was that he never mentioned a single competitor by name in the entire book . He made vague allusions to ‘other players in the market’ or simply referenced them as ‘competitors’.  In the way back when,  I was supervising two teams of technical support operatives in Gateway and I was interested to hear what Dell had to say about us (we were their main competition at the time). Nada! Zip! He was too busy keeping his customers happy.

The alternative example – I can think of two Irish web hosting companies that always seem to be at each others throats over something or other. As a result, my impression of both is negative – I don’t want to use either of them.

If You Had to Pick One Option?

Spend your time making your customer happy instead of trying to make your competitors mad. Create something that makes their lives easier and then follow it up with great service.

4 thoughts on “Positioning: Pick a Fight or Ignore the Competition?

  1. It is hard to say that one option works better in all scenarios. Positioning is about creating a position (duh?) in the minds of the customers for your product (brand). It helps to position your product as better candidate than the competitors it also helps to clearly tell the customers which jobs your product is competing for by listing competition.

    On other hand, you quoted Dell. There is also Apple which does not position against competition for iPhone or iPad but against PCs for their Macs.

    It depends on stage in product lifecycle, your market position, customer decision making and customer awareness.


    Great points, thanks Rags.

  2. Machiavelli gives the same recommendation: always a pick side (in a war), as you’ll gain allies. Even if you lose, you lose together. Sitting on the sideline, you’re libel to get walked over, ignored or never share in the spoils of the win.

    I’d imagine if you could do both, that would be the best option. A lot of success is based on market-place perception and so by setting yourself up as a competition, people will check you out and if your product is good, then won’t they stay?

    Interesting perspective, I must pick myself up a copy of ‘The Prince’. Just after I posted this I started reading Marc Benioff’s “Behind the cloud”, and he has several chapters devoted to disruptively positioning your company against the market leader. It seems there’s room for both options. :)

  3. I like this discussion. 37signals probably advocates picking a fight because it will help customers clearly see where you stand and how you differentiate yourself (instead of yet another instance of your product category). I think picking a fight makes sense in a crowded market where no one else has adopted that strategy. Maybe the reason it doesn’t work for the 2 Irish web hosting companies is that they’re both picking a fight, instead of using other differentiators?

    In any case, I don’t think it makes sense to do so for a startup until you’ve gotten some validation in customer discovery. Otherwise, who knows if the fight you’re picking is one anyone even cares about?

  4. I’m starting to come around to the idea of picking a fight. I’m not sure it has to be an entirely negative approach. There are two reasons. The first is, like it or not, bad news sells better than good. I’ve been a little big gumpier than normal lately on my blog and I suddenly realised that saying something negative attracts a lot more attention that saying something positive. We might not like it, but its true. When stuck at the coal face, trying to create awareness for a growing business, this fact can’t be ignored if you are really giving your all. This really goes against my style personally. I hate complainers and I can’t even stand to read negative editorials in a newspaper.

    A second, slightly more positive reason for picking a fight is, it instills a bit of passion. People get more engaged when there is a perceived cause to struggle against. I’ve been told that great brands all have a ‘backstory’ and if you believe Shakespeare, there are actually only seven (http://us.penguingroup.com/static/html/blogs/seven-stories-rule-world-matt-haig). The ‘overcoming a monster’ plot is one anyone can tap into pretty easily by picking a fight, allowing you to help people properly understand your ‘position’. Once they have this frame of reference, it build rapore more quickly than if they had to try and understand your position from scratch.

    Keep up the good work.

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