Being Where Others Aren’t

Apologies right away if football or sports analogies make your eyes roll. But the following approach developed by a Hall of Fame NFL coach is critically relevant to standing apart from your competitors no matter what industry you’re in. And it’s a strategy that’s especially worth consideration if you’re an enterprise that doesn’t have the deep pockets or resources that your market leaders do.

The late Bill Walsh, the revered coach of the San Francisco 49ers football dynasty in the 1980’s, introduced a revolutionary concept to the way the game was played when he arrived. He developed a strategy that came to be known as the “West Coast” offense that relied less on the strength, speed, and athleticism of players and more on putting players in parts of the field that weren’t often used for plays. These areas, known as the “flat,” are located approximately 10 yards downfield from the line of scrimmage and between the right/left hash marks and the sidelines.

Traditionally, the vast majority of offenses in the NFL at the time were designed for powerful running backs to run the ball through the middle of the field or have strong-armed quarterbacks throwing the ball far downfield to speedy wide receivers racing along the sidelines. In other words, the success of an offense usually depended on the physical advantages of its players over those on defense. But rather than having to rely on his players overpowering or outrunning defenders, Walsh designed an offense that enabled his quarterback to throw short, easy passes to running backs or wide receivers in the flat, where there were fewer defenders and often plenty of room to gain additional yards and first downs. In short, he changed where the game was played on the field—and rode the innovation of the West Coast offense to six division titles, three NFC championships, and three Super Bowl victories in just nine years.

The West Coast offense approach can be applied to brands in highly competitive categories. While making your product stand out in predictable ways—value, quality, availability, prestige, etc.—can work if you have the bottomless budget and marketing muscle to battle it out on these fronts, you’ll be lost in the crowd if you don’t find new territory to compete on.

Instead of targeting the same prospects as your competitors, is there a segment among them with needs that aren’t fully met? Rather than selling your product in the same stores where you’ll find the big names, have you explored alternative retail or direct channels? If most of your competitors are packaged in similar ways, why not make yours shaped, bottled, encased, bagged, or displayed in a way that’s different?

Bill Walsh turned an underused patch of the field into his platform for success. Brands have a far more expansive palette of options to change the game to their advantage if they are willing to look in those directions.