How to strategically out-sell and dominate your competitors

To out-sell your competitors and dominate your market there are specific strategy principles you need to learn and apply. And in today’s lesson I’ll tell you what the most important ones are.

I’ll go even further and state that if you ignore these principles, you put your entire business at risk. Scary stuff, so let’s get into it.

As an introduction I want to show you a retro print ad from the 1960s. But it’s not just any old print ad.  It’s from Volkswagen and was part of that company’s campaign to aggressively grow the VW Beetle in the US market. Now this ad and the overall campaign kicked some serious ass.  Fuelled by the power of this campaign, VW sales in the US went through the roof, with over 177,000 sold in 1961 alone, compared with 50,000 cars sold in 1957.  (Actually, VW sold a grand total of just 390 Beetles in the US in 1951).

More importantly the campaign was crucial in building the Beetle brand’s cult-like status, not just in the US, but globally. Which is a reason why the Beetle campaign was ranked by Advertising Age magazine (the leading publication for the ad industry) as the #1 advertising campaign of the 20th century.

Hell’s bells, let’s put this ranking into context.  Of every prominent advertising campaign ever produced during the 20th century (we’re talking 1,000s of campaigns over that 100 year period ), the VW campaign was voted #1.  It’s a bit like say, Meryl Streep, being given an Academy award for best actress for the years 1900, 1901,1902,1903,1904,1905,1906…..all the way up to 1999! Anyway, here’s one of the ads from that campaign:

beetle ad-1

So why was the Beetle campaign so successful?  First we have to look at the US car market of that era, which was dominated by gas-guzzling tanks.  Indeed, during the 1950s-60s bigger was considered better, as these two ads illustrate:



So, here you have US carmakers building and promoting their large, powerful vehicles…and then Volkswagen comes along with its small, uninspiring Beetle.  What contrast.  It’s a classic case of what I call “attacking the empty space.”  In other words, entering and filling a gap in the market.

Now here’s the reality of the situation.  Great as the campaign was, it would not have succeeded if there was no empty competitive space to start with.  At the time there were few small vehicles, so VW had a huge product advantage which just needed to be exploited.

Bill Bernbach, the creative director of the ad agency that created the campaign, describes the importance of the product advantage this way: “Advertising doesn’t create a product advantage, it can only convey it….No matter how skillful you are, you can’t create a product advantage that doesn’t exist.” -Bill Bernbach

What you have read highlights one of the most important marketing principles you will ever learn, which is that to be successful in business you must first have a product advantage.  Moreover, this advantage must be sustainable and it must be easily conveyed into a benefit that consumers will value.

VW had a product advantage and this advantage was brilliantly conveyed.

Closer to home, here’s another case study for a project I completed in the early 2000s for a small accounting firm.  With this project I analyzed the accounting industry, then identified something that is very common to accountants and the accounting industry generally.  That is,

Accountants are perceived to be very conservative and boring

Using this perception as a baseline for a potential strategy, I developed a strategy grid shown here:

accounting strategy grid

Essentially, my strategic proposition to the client was that if they wanted to stand out from the crowd they needed to establish a brand that was somewhat different to that of your typical accountant.  That is, they needed to make themselves un-boring!

Once I showed the client the empty space as per the grid above, and showed them how to attack it,we then repositioned and re-branded the business with a new name that most accounting firms wouldn’t have the balls to give themselves:


Good news is that StreetSmart has grown in leaps and bounds since its re-positioning and is a leader in the innovative accounting space.

To reiterate the underlying message of this blog post, the magic wasn’t in the new name or brand. The magic was actually in the analysis, identification of the empty space and development of a product concept to enter that space.

Key lessons for you

Find some empty space or lowly contested space, which comes as a result of strategic and tactical analysis and thinking.

Next comes the skill of filling that space. This is the role and skill of product development, which entails creating products that have high perceived-valued product advantages. Actually, the product development role is many and varied and encompasses:

  • Inventing and positioning new products and product categories
  • Re-inventing, refining and enhancing existing products
  • Re-positioning competing products
  • Quickly recognizing when a product is a dog and ditching it before it drains too many resources.

Then comes product positioning and development.  This is the skill of creating and developing products, services and categories that are remarkable.  You need to position your products in such a way that you can dominate or even monopolize a category. It is only when you have identified the empty space, created the right positioning and built the right product can you move on to conveying those advantages to the right target audience using the right channels.