Don't play games with an irregular competitor

There's a new competitor in your game, but it looks very different to all predecessors.

There's a new competitor in your game, but it looks very different to all predecessors. In fact, I'd say it's an "irregular competitor." It's not as easily noticed as a traditional competitor and can slip in under your radar, but when it successfully enters your game, the effects can be just as damaging. Why? Because irregulars are very effective question marks.

Who are these mystery people? They are not a company that's selling competitive products or services. Instead, they are an organization that "sells" a competitive image of what your company stands for.

Until now, we've known them as activist groups. Organizations such as Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network, Friends of the Earth, The Yes Men, and others have been well known and acting on their agenda for decades; many of them against your company. But now, due to their increased, social media-driven influence, they've been elevated to true competitor status, irregular as it might be. With all the factors - technological, cultural, and otherwise - in the irregular competitor's favor, they've started to score some real points against the corporate image.

Take Greenpeace's March 2010 assault on Nestlé, the first activist campaign organized and conducted almost entirely within cyberspace. This was an attack that played out for three weeks on the Nestlé Facebook fan page, in full view of the world. By my count, a derogatory comment about the company was posted on average every 90 seconds during those 21 days. Such direct action did not go unnoticed by traditional media, adding further corporate image injury to insult.

Then there was last October's "punking" of Chevron via a union of the Rainforest Action Network and The Yes Men. These two irregular competitors gained advance information about the debut of a new Chevron ad campaign and created fake press releases, websites, and other ad materials designed to hijack and pre-empt the corporation's message just hours prior to the kick-off of the legitimate campaign. Not only was Chevron punked, but so were many of the mainstream media outlets who carried the bogus message.

Or how about the spring 2011 assaults by UK Uncut and its American cousin US Uncut against such corporate giants as Bank of America, Barclays, Verizon, Vodafone, and FedEx. Those assaults, accusing their targets of tax dodging, started almost entirely within social media, organized actions via the Web, and coalesced in physical-world demonstrations in London, New York, Washington, and countless other cities around the world. They all gained heavy traction with mainstream media on the Global Day of Action, March 26, 2011.

It's a new game now; one with an advantage to the irregular competitor. So, how do you strategize against this unique adversary?

Unfortunately, no single game plan fits every situation. Sometimes in corporate-activist encounters, a proactive PR or pre-emptive communications solution is best. Other times, a head-to-head defense is what is needed. One thing that will aid invaluably in either scenario is information. More and better information. Learning about the irregular competitor will help prevent future reputation punches or soften the blow of the ones that strike you.

More knowledge is always better than less. Information about a competitor: their strengths, their weaknesses, their general or specific tendencies, their behavioral profile, and other factors are all elements that have helped inform traditional competitive communications strategy and can now help equally well in the area of irregular competitive communications strategy. How could you endeavor to protect your corporate reputation from these new and irregular competitors without knowing as much as you possibly could about them?

Irregular competitors are here to stay. Their influence has become progressively stronger since they first became players in the business game in the early 1990s. And that influence has only grown exponentially stronger since social media has made its way to virtually every desk and palm in the developed world.

So, before the game gets too confusing and you feel like you've lost control, the time to know them is now. Your corporate image scoreboard will thank you later.

Richard Telofski is the president of The Kahuna Institute, a research organization specializing in irregular competition.

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