The Myth of the Level Playing Field

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“We’ve need a level playing field!”

How many times have you heard this little phrase? It’s usually uttered by a staffer of a challenger brand that’s at some disadvantage relative to the market leaders. And every time I hear it, a little piece of my soul dies.

Here’s the thing about the level playing field: It’s a myth. And it’s not the point of the game. Do you think your larger competitors are trying to keep the playing field level? They’re certainly not. And neither should you.

The Un-Level Playing Field

You don’t want a level playing field. You want to unlevel it. You want to play to your strengths and their weaknesses. Within the appropriate legal and ethical guidelines, you want to define and play the game you can win.

Consider the words of Sun Tzu, that master of brand strategy, excerpted from The Art of War:

In ancient times those known as good warriors prevailed when it was easy to prevail.
Therefore the victories of good warriors are not noted for cleverness or bravery.
Therefore their victories in battle are not flukes.
Their victories are not flukes because they position themselves where they will surely win, prevailing over those who have already lost.

In general, I’m no fan of war as a metaphor for business. But read Sun Tzu’s words closely. He’s telling us to choose our battles carefully. To think and plan before we act. He’s telling us to unlevel the playing field.

It Can Be Done

“But Matthew,” you protest, “that’s impossible! My competitors command bigger budgets, better awareness, a top sales force. How can I even level that playing field, let alone tilt it in my favor?”

Airheads Level Playing FieldI feel your pain, because I’ve been there. In my days as marketing manager for Airheads candy, we faced two massive competitors, Skittles and Starburst. Each brand had the advantage of very deep pockets, spending as much on their marketing in two weeks, on average, as we spent on Airheads in any given year. And, as part of Mars, Inc., each enjoyed a powerhouse distribution system; their capacity to get their products onto store shelves was just this side of pushing a button.

So, despite these considerable disadvantages, how did we grow Airheads into the fastest-selling non-chocolate candy in the country? You guessed it: We unleveled the playing field.

Attempting to trade blows with a stronger puncher would have been a strategic mistake, so instead, we played our own version of the game.  We followed two simple rules which will come in handy if you’re looking to tilt the playing field in your favor:

1 – Get focused.

Know what you stand for and who you serve. Clearly establish your point(s) of difference and benefits, and even re-visit your fundamental business definition.

For Airheads, that meant identifying a user group that was younger than the teens that Skittles and Starburst catered to. We clearly defined our core benefit for those kids – and we stayed laser-focused on that benefit in everything we did.

2 – Get creative.

Learn the “rules” of the industry or category you compete in. Then decide which ones you’re going to break. Once you’re clearly focused on who and how you serve, you’ll find it comes almost naturally to zig where everyone else zags.

We focused on grassroots distribution for Airheads, a dynamite way to reach our younger consumers. We launched innovative products like White Mystery Airheads (a white bar with a mystery flavor) and a six-bar pack for grocery; both have remained in distribution for 15 years. And we priced our products at 15 and 89 cents, when most candy sold for 50 cents.

All these decisions flew in the face of prevailing industry wisdom, but – as evidenced in brand growth – they were right for our consumers.

If you seek only to level the playing field, you’re not trying hard enough. Get focused and get creative, and you’ll be able tilt the playing field in your favor.

A version of this post appeared in the July 25, 2008, Business Courier of Cincinnati, in the column “That Branding Thing.”

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2008 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.