There’s only one thing tougher than having loads of competitors: having no competitors at all.

Although the presence of other brands similar to yours comes with lots of challenges, it’s easy to forget the advantages it confers as well:

A generic business starts its life with a huge amount of implicit knowledge “baked in” thanks to the work of similar enterprises that have gone before. Little education is required, little risk is taken; you know the prize is there, the only question is whether you can outmanoeuvre the other brands and take it.

Highly innovative businesses however, they can take none of this for granted, and as such the approach they need to take is very different.

I’ve enjoyed working with a few brands like this: brands whose primary challenge wasn’t overcoming competitors, but taking their innovative idea mainstream. Making the new seem normal. Establishing a market which, in time, would attract competitors of its own.

Based on this experience, there are three key tips I would recommend for any other companies facing such a challenge.

1- Normalise the weird

The general rule for brands who existed in crowded categories, with many similar competitors, is a simple one: weird the normal.

Their job is to take something that people are familiar with, and break their inertia – spinning it in a dramatic new way never seen before.  You see the world really doesn’t need another toothbrush, another orange juice, another recruitment agency.  So if you’re going into one of those fields, you’d better make sure you’re delivering something new.

Genuinely innovative businesses however need to play the opposite game: normalising the weird.

Because their product is fundamentally unusual, their job isn’t to make it feel radical and exciting, but rather friendly and safe.  They need to teach people to use it, since they can’t rely on pre-existing habits.  Hence “normalising the weird”.

This is not straight forward, and as a result most of these businesses fail: not because the product isn’t good, but because they never found a way to make people “get it”.  Often such products are open to many different interpretations, and there will be tensions within the business over which to emphasise, leading to muddle and confusion.

The ones who get it right find a clear and intuitive way to frame their innovation – which slips into the public’s consciousness without them even realising.

2 – Know your indirect competitors

A good way to normalise the weird is to deeply understand your indirect competitors, and borrow their codes and norms.

Although innovative brands may lack direct competitors – companies doing exactly what they are – they will still have indirect competitors. This means other brands which are superficially different, but who people may buy instead of yours because they offer similar value, just in a different guise.

Most brands have “invisible” competitors like this.

For example, it’s been said that the true competitor of Harley Davidson is not Yamaha or Honda but a conservatory. This is because people who buy Harleys don’t do so because they’re shopping for motorcycles; they do it because they’re looking for an exciting way to spend excess cash when they reach a certain age.

Equally the true “competitor” for a banana isn’t a mango or pineapple, even though they are all superficially in the category of “fruit”. It’s more likely to be a chocolate bar, seeing as they both occupy the same usage territory of “handy on-the-go snack”.

When it comes to new product concepts the same idea applies.

You will invariably have indirect competitors, and these will be your greatest asset in communicating the point of your idea.

We had a big breakthrough using this idea when I was working with MOJU, the brand who popularised the new category of juice shots in the UK.

MOJU’s product, despite superficially looking like juice, actually occupied a similar space to “performance products” such as multivitamins, energy drinks, and even some over-the-counter remedies.

This realisation allowed us to adjust the company’s positioning and NPD strategy in a way that made it far clearer and more accessible for consumers – even though the product itself was very unfamiliar.

3 – Flip the hierarchy

For products in crowded spaces, brand is of paramount importance.

In the absence of tangible differences, this is where you’re often able to get leverage, and as such brand tends to rightly dominate comms and pack design.

For new product concepts however, this hierarchy should often be reversed – with the brand taking a back seat to a clear description of what you’re selling.  The last thing you need at this point is to overload people with messages.

This “does what it says on the tin” approach has worked fantastically for Bio-tiul Dairy, a client of mine who have been at the forefront of the huge growth in the kefir market in the past few years.

By far the dominant message on their packaging in their early years has simply been the word “kefir”, which coupled with their clean and unfussy aesthetic was crucial in establishing a clear benchmark in the category, and making the product a staple in thousands of households.

The logic is simple: brands sell commodities, whilst product ideas sell non-commodities.  Yours is not a commodity, therefore it is the idea that should do the heavy lifting.

In time, when the category becomes established and a multitude of competitors start to emerge, this might evolve – but by then the trailblazer will be established as the centre-point of the industry (the “Coke”, if you like), and will already have a strong defensive position.

Conclusion

Launching a new product idea is a huge risk.

It’s a leap into the unknown, where it’s impossible to predict how the market will react, and therefore extremely difficult to lay down a firm strategy.

Therefore the best approach is always to leave some wiggle room for the idea to find its natural place – without second guessing it, or forcing it in the direction you think it should go.

The above techniques allow you to do this, and in time as you learn, enable you to become more and more proactive in your decision making, until you’ve come to define and dominate a whole new category.