If you were like me growing up, you may have found yourself in the school principal’s office from time to time due to some misbehavior or offence. For me, I recall one particular occasion when I was on the losing end of a playground brawl with one of the larger boys in my school. Of course, my parents got involved, and I had to endure their long lecture about how picking fights was not such a good idea – especially with kids bigger than me!

I don’t want to discount the many lessons I learned from my parents: they were, and are, very wise. But in translating this experience to the business world, I would suggest that picking a fight might be one of the best things your company can do.

Be Remarkable

In the world of business it’s hard to stand out. Increased competition and globalization have created a multitude of players in every industry, each vying for the attention of buyers. Add to that advances in technology and communications that inundate your buyers with a constant flood of marketing messages. How do you get your messages through? How do you get your potential buyers to take notice of your company?

Marketing gurus like Seth Godin suggest that the only way to break through the noise is to be remarkable, be different, and, in some cases, be on the edge of outrageous to get the market’s attention. In his book Purple Cow, the key lesson is that if your buyers drive down a highway and see brown or black or white cows, they won’t take notice.  But put a purple cow in the field, and people will stop and say, “Hey, is that a purple cow?” Now you have their attention.

There are many examples of this, from the bikini models featured by GoDaddy web hosting to the Red Bull cars driving around with the oversized can perched on top. In fact, one of our clients, a window cleaning company, is currently making a huge splash in western Canada after having rebranded as Men in Kilts Window Cleaning (with the slogan, “No Peeking”). This firm is getting attention and PR coverage throughout North America.

A Little Healthy Competition

Another way of being remarkable is by picking a fight, either with a competitor (often the industry leader) or some other element of the industry that is an annoyance or roadblock for the entire sector.

Here are a few examples of being remarkable by picking a fight with a competitor:

  • Starting in the 1960s, Avis Rent-A-Car picked a fight with industry leader Hertz. This strategy led to its extremely successful “We Try Harder” campaigns that drove the firm’s significant growth for over a decade.
  • From 2006 to 2009, Apple picked a fight with industry giant Microsoft. In fact, this fight was not just with Microsoft but with all suppliers of computers known as “PCs” that used the Microsoft operating system. The fight was staged on television and on the web in the extremely popular episodic commercials that always began, “Hi, I’m a Mac.” “And I’m a PC.” The fight picked on, in a humorous way, PC reliability and compatibility issues, and supported Apple in doubling its market share of new computer purchases through the period.
  • And who can ignore Pepsi versus Coke? From the early campaigns where real people were “taking the Pepsi challenge” to more contemporary commercials depicting the Coke employee being caught surreptitiously enjoying a Pepsi, Pepsi made significant inroads through its history. Coke responded and remains the market leader, but one could argue that both firms benefited from the battle.

Overtly picking a fight isn’t always about engaging with a competitor. Successful strategies have also been built around picking fights with industry perceptions or particular customer issues:

  • One of our clients, Generation Homes, attacked two major issues that existed for all home builders in their market: price creep and schedule. In response, Generation reengineered its entire building process and created a marketing campaign to address these two issues, and then guaranteed a move-in date and a fixed price budget from contract to completion. This strategy took company revenues from $5 million to $100 million in a five-year period.
  • Sony Corporation, in its early days, picked a fight with a perception: that Japanese products were low quality. Sony fought against that view, allowing it to grow to become the industry leader in consumer electronics through the 1980s.
  • A more recent example is Salesforce.com. On its website every page header has an image expressing “No Software.” Really? Isn’t Salesforce.com a software company? Yes, but the idea of a software company picking a fight with software is quite remarkable, even outrageous, and it’s getting attention. The real battle Salesforce.com is waging is with traditional software supported by customer-owned servers and networks, versus software and data hosted in “the cloud.”

Closer to Home

The “pick a fight” dynamic is present in all industries, including the oil and gas industry. The most prevalent is the major battle that has been waged for years against fossil fuels. Both environmental groups and so-called “clean energy” companies have picked a fight with traditional carbon-based energy, and in so doing have made significant progress in public perceptions and politics. In response, producers and industry players have both individually and collectively reacted with campaigns of their own to educate, inform, and influence perceptions. No matter which side of this fight one is on, there is no question it has been remarkable, getting attention from consumers and the public at large.

Key Questions

As leaders in organizations, how can we use these lessons? I would suggest that, in your next strategic planning session, you consider asking these three questions:

  • How is our firm different from the industry leader (or nearest competitor), and how could we leverage that difference to create some remarkable, conspicuous conflict within the industry?
  • What major sticking point exists for all players in our industry, which – if it could be resolved – would provide one company with a significant strategic advantage?
  • Who’s looking to pick a fight with us?

Just as a crowd quickly gathered around my schoolyard scrap, so, too, could audiences be drawn to your firm if you find ways to be remarkable, to stand out, and to create some attention-grabbing conflict by picking a fight.