• Transform magazine
  • March 03, 2024

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The great convergence

Vincent Roffers High Res Copy (2)

Vincent Roffers, partner and head of strategy at independent brand agency Agenda, discusses the great convergence of brands saying similar things, and offers advice on how this problem can be avoided.

You went to your favourite store. You found the perfect outfit, brought it home, got it pressed and ready to go. You triumphantly wear it for the first time during a big night out, wanting in earnest to look your absolute best… and the person directly to your left is wearing the exact same thing.

When this happens personally, it’s vexing – but you shake it off. When it happens to brands, it’s much harder to recover.

I was recently working with a financial services company who spent a tonne of time internally researching, collaborating, socialising and all the rest to arrive at their new positioning and messaging. It had been burnished over the course of months with some of the most senior stakeholders in the organisation and had the stamp of approval from all involved.

The problem? When they shared it with me, I checked out their top competitor’s website and saw not just similar ideas, but EXACTLY the same language. Word for word. On their home page.

This was obviously unfortunate, requiring them to go back to the drawing board with their tails between their legs, telling everyone they needed to rethink the approach. But thankfully, we were able to help them course correct before they showed up to their big night out wearing an identical outfit to their biggest rival, so to speak.

An unexpected byproduct

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated occurrence. I’ve been seeing it more and more over the last several years. In my observation, one of the really interesting byproducts of the pandemic has been an utter convergence of what brands are saying across virtually every industry. People using the exact same words as their competitors… without even knowing it.

And this is not just about the trends and tropes of the day – shiny stuff like talking about innovation. It’s the more traditional stuff that brands feel they need to say, which oftentimes are better left unsaid.

For example, I partnered with a multinational insurance company who was convinced that their global footprint was a true differentiator. In fact, they even had us calculate how many countries they were in versus their top five competitors. To my recollection, they were in 163 countries and everyone else in the top five were in the 150s. They got super excited thinking, “look, we actually ARE more global!” 

But who cares? Is someone really going to make a buying decision based on presence in a few extra countries? Are those numbers even memorable?

Another one of my favourites is playing the expertise game, companies trying to “out-expertise” each other. One company saying, “we have deep expertise.” The next competitor saying, “we have deeper expertise.” And so on and so on. It’s a race to the bottom of how deep your expertise could or should conceivably be. Something that's even less quantifiable and perhaps more meaningless than how “global” you are. And it’s basically impossible to back up.

A final example of this (and probably my favourite) is the notion we all love so much – client centricity. For some reason, brands have decided that if they create a graphic with a bunch of words around a circle with another circle at the centre that says “client,” it proves they’re an incredibly, unbelievably client-centric company. You gotta love circles upon circles. They’re all the proof you need.

Joking aside, what can be done to avoid this great convergence?

The importance of competitive intelligence

In an environment where brands are saying the same things and visualising concepts the same way, the importance of knowing what your competitors are doing is at an all-time high. But there are some guardrails needed to inform effective, insightful competitive intelligence.

1: Go (as far as you can) beyond the surface

Sure, it’s tempting to have a junior person look at all the websites (at least the first few pages) of your core competitive set and call it a day. Maybe sprinkle in a look at their social presence as well.

Unfortunately, that’s just not how customers experience a brand, nor is it how they are making all-important decisions about their intent to purchase (often before even speaking with you). This qualifies more as competitive perusal than competitive intelligence.

I’m not saying this type of analysis isn’t important as a starting point, but where you really find what others are saying about why they’re different occurs much deeper. It means digging through their white papers. Reaching out to competitors and scheduling time to talk to someone. Gathering materials along the entire sales journey to discover how they’re actually positioning themselves beyond the homepage of their website.

This certainly takes more time, but a layered view of competitor positioning – meaning, what they are saying at the highest level and how that changes as you get deeper into the buying process – can be extremely illuminating. It helps you shape your own story in a way that’s not blind consistency, but progressive and builds over time.

2: Refresh, regularly

Competitive dynamics are, well, dynamic. Everything and everyone is moving in tandem so it’s impossible to look at a single moment in time and have a clear picture of where the white space is.

Add on that typically, from the beginning of an effort to reimagine your positioning and messaging (when a competitive audit is likely completed) to when you’re launching the brand, is on average about six months. What’s the probability that everything you saw six months ago is exactly the same today? Zero.

This doesn’t mean that every brand must invest in some sort of real-time AI dashboard to deeply audit every competitor constantly. Although that would be cool, it would be easy for brands to get lost in it. Instead, just stay up to date. Checking where your competitors are on a regular cadence and seeing how things may have changed over time.

This is different for every industry as the cycles of change vary greatly. Anywhere from three months to a year could be the right frequency for your brand to refresh its competitive intelligence and it’s just a matter of figuring out your sweet spot.

3: Pick your battles

This is probably the most simple but important of the three guardrails. There are too many competitors and too much noise across virtually every market to have everything you say be unique. That might sound heretical, but it’s the truth. The sooner you accept it, the easier it will be to plant your flag in something that is truly you and truly different.

I have yet to find a brand in my career that has more than one, maybe two, sources of differentiation that are not only actually different, but lasting. It’s difficult but essential to recognise where it’s ok to be at parity versus where it’s meaningful to be different. As with my earlier examples, you can trick yourself into believing you’re more global or have deeper expertise, but the reality is much of that just doesn’t matter. Being the absolute best version of you means picking one or two things you want to fight for and nailing them.

Urgency for divergency?

While so many brands are converging, I urge you to follow the path to saying something different by truly knowing what others are saying. Knowing it at a deeper level, confirming it regularly and picking the places that matter most to take your shots. There’s no time like the present to start your divergence.

So let’s get started.