As every sportsperson knows, keeping tabs on what your next opponent is up to can mean the difference between winning and losing. So too in the corporate world, where information is power and understanding your competitors a vital part of staying one step ahead.
Most comms directors recognise that short of sending in a spy or installing hidden cameras in rivals’ boardrooms, the most effective way of assessing their competitors is by using a plethora of media monitoring techniques.
This could mean scanning the press to see how specific products and services are being received, or how a rival company’s reputation is being perceived in the media. Seeing how a rival handles a crisis can also give a valuable insight into the strength of its comms team.
Asda, for example, not only measures how it fares in taste tests and round-ups of the supermarkets’ ‘best buys’, but it also tracks perceptions of its core ‘value for money’ credentials against its main UK competitors: Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Morrisons.
Similarly, car marques will exploit competitor intelligence to track individual models and to monitor share of voice around issues such as their carbon footprint.
According to Fergus Hampton, managing director of Millward Brown Precis, which works with manufacturers including Toyota, car brands also size up challengers to fine-tune timing issues.
‘Automotive firms will look at what their rivals have done in the past to find out whether launching a new or concept model at the Geneva Motor Show is likely to boost their profile,’ he says. ‘Alternatively, they may be interested in when it is best to organise ride-and-drive events for journalists.’
The practise of appraising the opposition lends itself to all types of organisations, from big pharmas and professional services firms to charities, but it is often a case of ‘size matters’.
‘Larger organisations tend to do more competitor tracking because they have bigger brands, a higher profile and more to lose,’ says Jeremy Thompson, managing director of Durrants, whose company works with 70 per cent of the FTSE 100.
Of course, larger firms have bigger budgets, too. Monitoring can be an expensive and timely business, especially if you are keeping tabs on competitors as well as your own brands.
Six months ago, financial services provider Prudential commissioned monthly competitor monitoring and evaluation to understand the coverage trends and to act as an ‘early warning system’.
‘We wanted to track emerging issues and look at the quality and tone of how key messages are put across,’ says the company’s group PR director, Jon Bunn.
This has enabled the company to identify where it is performing well against rivals and where it needs to make improvements. An executive summary of key points is presented to senior management each month, and the process has the added bonus of showing how the comms team has an impact on the business.
‘It’s early days and we need a good year’s worth of information, but already it is enabling us to make more strategic recommendations. We can also measure how PR teams are handling specific issues,’ says Bunn.
Indeed, agencies should be aware that competitor tracking provides a good understanding of how good a job rival PR agencies are doing as well as an in-house PR machine.
Nicholas Grant, CEO of Mediatrack Research, says his firm encourages clients to take a qualitative rather than a quantitative approach to competitor monitoring.
This applies to the number of competitor or peer organisations monitored and the geographical regions and media targeted.
Work on the basis that 80 per cent of influence comes from 20 per cent of media, he advises.
These days, a large chunk of that 20 per cent is likely to be online media. With an increasing number of customers looking to share their corporate experiences through sites such as epinions.com, and with employee blogs becoming increasingly popular, organisations face the challenge of benchmarking online.
‘With the right expertise, these online channels can provide any company with a reliable and hugely advantageous window on the internal workings of its competitors,’ says Infonic managing director Orlando Plunket Greene.
Naturally, it is the relevance and volume of such sources that provide the greatest obstacles to keeping tabs on contenders. But, according to Ann Longley, planning director and head of CSR at brand digital communications agency View, it is a question of defining parameters.
‘It is important to have an assessment model and a framework that interprets information in a way that ties into a firm’s business objectives,’ she explains.
‘We work with firms from all sorts of sectors, from the pharmaceutical industry to confectionary and energy, and we encourage them to use competitor monitoring to find ways of differentiating themselves from their competitors, rather than copying them.’
As with any service industry, media monitoring firms are falling over themselves to keep the new products pipeline ticking over.
Precise Media Group is launching Online Report, a monitoring product that codes information according to client, geography, industry sector, topic, media source and company mention.
‘What organisations want is intelligent advice and the know-how to manage what people are saying about them and their competitors,’ says Precise MD Keir Fawcus, explaining the rationale for his firm’s latest service.
Indeed, it is one thing to have the relevant competitor data and quite another knowing what to do with it.
‘It’s all about the strategic value of coverage, rather than how many hits a company gets,’ says Edward Bird, business development director at Cision, formerly Romeike.
He also points to the opportunities competitor monitoring gives comms directors to speak and act as business authorities.
‘This is not just a PR planning device, but a tool for bringing about change across the whole business,’ adds Bird.
Recently, Cision provided competitor intelligence to online security provider Trend Micro. The firm claims it has helped to boost revenue in the small to medium business market by 21 per cent year on year.
Planning for the future
‘Organisations should be building briefs, thinking about emerging issues and where their business will be, not only in the next 18 months but in the nest five or ten years,’ says Bird.
Other new services include Thomson Intermedia’s newsLive, currently used by Greenpeace, which features an integrated broadcast, online and print service.
‘It is interactive, and because it is subscription rather than price per clipping-based, it suits large-volume users,’ says the service’s head, James Flavin. Further moves are being made in sectors such as financial services.
Mymarketmonitor.com, an online comparison tool that was developed under consultation with cosmetics companies such as L’Oréal, Estée Lauder, Clarins and Revlon, this year extended its reach to household goods and the food and drink market. With coverage data on more than 2,700 brands and 35,000 products, the service plans to include the automotive and financial services sectors by December.
TNS Media Intelligence is also revamping its Company Rankings and Financial Rankings products, which provide monthly tables giving firms a score for their media performance.
This information is currently divided into product area, industry issue, media source and journalist, but a more bespoke service is planned for September, says deputy MD Dean Wading.
Charlie Ansdell, senior media relations manager at Abbey, which uses Financial Rankings, says that it is a good way of assessing the success of media projects in specific product areas.
‘It also combines well with the more brand-orientated measurement that we do,’ says Ansdell.
For forward-thinking organisations, monitoring how the opposition performs in the media, it is not simply a matter of managing reputation, but also influencing operational activities and identifying what lies ahead.
As Sandra Macleod, CEO of Echo Research says: ‘Tracking and benchmarking against competitors links in to the whole organisation, positioning communications as a strategic driver of business processes.’?
10 COMPETITOR-RELATED QUESTIONS YOU SHOULD BE ASKING…
01. Are you and your spokespeople getting a fair share of voice?
02. Do individual journalists and commentators talk more often and more glowingly about your competitors than you?
03. If launching a product or campaign, are your competitors about to hijack your communication space?
04. Are you more of a thought leader on industry issues than your rivals? Do journalists come to you for comment when a big story in your sector breaks? Is the head of your organisation a ‘regular’ on current affairs programmes?
05. Are you seen to be saying and doing the right things around CSR and environmental issues? Are you being upstaged by rivals’ CSR initiatives?
06. Can your competitors and peers teach you anything about handling a campaign, programme, emerging issue or crisis situation?
07. How do employees view the organisation and what are they saying behind your back? Are they more impressed with rivals’ pay and conditions?
08. What do existing, emerging and specialist stakeholders such as NGOs, government, regulators and think tanks make of your products, services and brands compared with other players in your sector?
09. Are people discussing operational problems, customer services issues or potential product faults?
10. What challenges and opportunities should you be planning for?
INFORMATION & POWER
EDF Energy has benchmarked itself against rivals British Gas, Powergen and Scottish Power since 2003.
‘We wanted to compete on all levels with our main competitors, and as a young company we needed to be able to punch above our weight,’ says EDF comms director Gareth Wynn (pictured, right).
In addition, Wynn was keen to gain robust backing to demonstrate the value of the communications function to the leadership team, measure progress and justify future PR activity.
Already receiving relevant national, regional and broadcast cuttings, the company approached Millward Brown Precis to analyse the data.
This process has since evolved and now comprises a 12-page monthly report summarising coverage of EDF and its rivals. It looks at circulation, size of article, length of broadcast and corporate mentions.
This information is then broken down by tone and presented in a bar chart showing positive, negative and neutral coverage.
Crucially, each report is backed by written commentary flagging up key drivers of coverage. In May this included highlighting negative media reaction to rumours of a possible takeover of EDF’s parent company RWE. The analysis also placed the organisation ahead of its competitors in commenting on the government’s recently published Energy White Paper.
Headline findings are pulled out each month and presented to the firm’s executive committee as part of the overall company report.
Wynn says the process is an invaluable tool for evaluating his team’s performance and tailoring communications to the media agenda.
He adds that it also allows the firm to manage issues and reputation risks, identify and address any potential operational difficulties and, through brand building, strengthen sales.
CASE STUDY Allianz Insurance
‘It is difficult to see how a PR team can be effective without some robust form of evaluation,’ says Allianz Insurance PR manager, Mark Bishop (pictured, top).
As well as being a major player in the ultra-competitive global insurance market, Allianz has undergone two major rebrands in the past four years – changing from Cornhill Insurance to Allianz Cornhill Insurance at the beginning of 2003, before dropping the ‘Cornhill’ at the end of April this year. It has benchmarked itself against its key competitors – Norwich Union, AXA, Zurich and Royal & SunAlliance – for more than ten years.
At the end of 2005, however, the firm refined its approach on the back of some research and evaluation work with Surrey University. The study identified the areas of corporate performance that influenced stakeholder perceptions of the organisation.
The insurer then surveyed its key audience – its brokers – to identify how they rated these factors. It then took all the findings to its evaluation company, Media Evaluation Research.
The move led to a change in the way the firm monitors its competitors. It now receives monthly updates, examining its performance in the trade press against its rivals.
This data is weighted according to financial performance, products and services, work environment and vision and leadership. Social and environmental responsibility is also included.
The information also looks at whether coverage has been generated proactively through a press release, or reactively. ‘This allows us to demonstrate how hard we have been working in comparison to our competitors,’ says Bishop.
As a result, the firm has tweaked some of its PR output and has been able to identify individual journalists with whom it needs better relationships.
Information is received in a spreadsheet and Bishop provides the analysis for the management board. ‘It’s important to have that degree of independence around the data, but the PR team is much closer to what is going on in the industry, so can put it into context,’ he says.
Key findings are also presented to relevant in-house personnel such as the firm’s product development team and technical advisers. ‘The information enables me to have thoughtful and intelligent conversations with the board,’ adds Bishop.