How to go where your competitors can’t

Thanks to the new Netflix drama The Queen’s Gambit (and the fact that new TV shows are starting to slow to a bit of a trickle), there’s been a lot of interest in chess recently.

Now in general I think chess analogies map quite poorly onto business – as do those of military and sport. People love to envision business as a zero-sum battle, but in reality it isn’t like that.  The market is not like a board, a playing field, or a battle ground; it is open, rather than closed, and thus more accurately mirrors an ecosystem than a competition.

Nevertheless there is one chess scenario, which I do think has a business parallel, and can be devastatingly effective for those who master it.  The pin.

In chess an opponent’s piece is pinned when they cannot move it without exposing a more valuable piece to attack.  In other words they are paralysed: they can see what they want to do, but your manoeuvres have left them unable to act without incurring severe damage.

In business, the pin occurs when you make a strategic play in the market which your competitor wants to copy, but can’t – because if they were to do so it would undermine their current position.  This presents them with a catch-22: either sit still and allow you to enjoy uncontested market space, and all the rewards that come with it; or follow you, adjust their brand positioning, and in doing so jeopardise everything they have.

Needless to say most will simply leave you to it.

Clearly then, a successfully orchestrated pin is pretty desirable.  The question is how we do it.  How can we possibly uncover a strategic brand positioning which is both effective, but also uncopyable?

The answer lies in the concept of contrarian value.

We all understand, I hope, the benefits of bringing new value to the market.  That’s pretty self explanatory.  Give people something new, which only you offer, and the rewards will flow like water.  The problem with new value however is that it generally doesn’t remain new for long – if it’s effective, the competition will come piling in.  Contrarian value on the other hand is a little bit different, in that not only is it new, but it is new in a manner which disagrees with the conventions of the category.

Businesses who offer contrarian value take a metric which everyone in their category agrees is important, and decide to attack it – not only by failing to offer it, but by questioning its very validity.  They effectively become walking rebukes of their own industry – and in doing so also enable themselves to offer new value which is directly opposed to the one they reject.

We can see contrarian value at play again and again when we analyse the great strategic successes of business history:

    • Nintendo attacked the value of ever greater performance in the console wars, creating a deliberately underpowered console (the Switch) which was then able to be made portable due to its smaller size
    • Dyson destroyed the accepted price limit that people would be prepared to pay for dull appliances like vacuum cleaners, and thus were able to introduce the concept of luxury into the market (a similar strategy to that of Tesla, who decide to frame electric cars as luxury performance vehicles, rather than economical runabouts as had been customary before)
    • The Savannah Bananas, a minor league baseball team, decided to stop investing in playing performance, and to instead focus resources on the fan experience (which ironically resulted in such hugely improved revenues that they ended up being able to improve the team as well)

Sometimes contrarian value can be found in the most superficial, and seemingly silly of ideas.  For instance the fast growing canned water brand Liquid Death do nothing special at all, other than rejecting the universal convention of water brands presenting as clean, pure, and wholesome.  This enables them to embody an utterly distinctive “heavy metal” aesthetic which no other water brand could dream of copying.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter what you question, just so long as it’s something central to the brand positioning of your competitors – since this is what will make them unable to follow.  No business is going to willingly gut itself of one of its key strengths, and so this is what makes what makes contrarian value strategies so defensively strong.

That then is how you engineer a business pin.

Still, strong as such strategies are, they are also rare.  Understandably so.  It takes a lot of bravery to neglect something which common sense suggests is a crucial part of your brand’s offering.  To many, it will come across as suicidal.

But, as with anything, it is this high barrier to entry that makes the rewards so large.

If you want to develop a strategy like this, but do so in the most de-risked way possible, then Basic Arts can help.  We specialise in uncovering the contrarian value which your business is already offering (generally not deliberately), and helping you lean into it purposefully so it drives a powerful wedge between you and the rest of your category.

For more information on this, check out the resources in the downloads section of this website – particularly “Make Companies Without Competitors” – or simply drop an email to, and let’s chat.

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