Competitive analysis – a path to mediocrity?

Mark Busse – No Comments

The following article by Mark Busse was published in May 2012 in Design Edge Canada Magazine.


I recently met a fellow design firm owner in the U.S. with a particularly salty view of competitive analysis. In his firm, if a designer is caught going online to research a client’s competition before a concept has been developed, they are immediately fired!

When he told me this—and trust me, he was dead serious—I was taken aback, but he explained that it is part of the employment contract his designers sign.

I was trained to view qualitative and quantitative market analysis as a vital step in a comprehensive design process. My studio has always used it in an effort to identify opportunities to differentiate clients in their marketplace. And like many of my design education colleagues, I’ve been propagating this methodology in my classroom for years.

The argument for competitive analysis has always been that it provides insights into market context, shedding light not only on what others have done well or poorly, but revealing audience behaviours, best practices, and opportunities to meet business goals.

However, my new friend’s argument was that scouring the work of others too early in a design process is not only lazy, but leads to mediocre work inspired by trends rather than being an authentic solution. Taping up prints of competitors’ logos, collateral, websites, etc found via Google searches not only lacks critical analysis, but can be more dangerous than helpful. He compared this process with looking for inspiration for an identity project in logo books—also verboten in his studio.

I think he might be right. In fact, in my gut I know he is.

I know what you’re thinking, so before you start bitching at me about how offside this is, consider the following: Every day we spent in design school, and every day following, was training so that we could respond to a project brief with appropriate and effective design solutions. Each graphic design project is another opportunity for us to better understand best practices—what works and what does not.

The longer I’m in this industry, the more convinced I am that our core value as creative professionals comes from our ability to ask smart questions and really listen to our clients. We’re translators as much as we are consultants or strategists, diagnosing and validating business problems that can be addressed through the use of visual language.

Certainly part of our job involves inquiry, but not as inspiration at the beginning of the design process. And to be blunt, I question most designers’ ability to properly conduct a comprehensive brand audit or competitive landscape analysis in the first place. And what do we really know about the audience and performance of these competitors?

Competitive analysis, done poorly or too early in a design process, undermines our ability to solve a problem authentically, and worse, results in solutions that falsely differentiate from others. Often the resulting work is nothing more than modified appropriations of others’ ideas. There is a time to examine the competitive landscape, but I argue that is only AFTER a project has reached an initial concept phase.

If goals, needs, feelings, and language have been agreed to by both the client and designer, THIS is the time to begin exploring visual graphics in pursuit of a genuine solution. Only AFTER all parties agree to the solution should we look outward to test how it stands out against the marketplace. Iterate as needed.

So on your next project, try resisting the urge to see what everyone else is doing until you have a solid concept you’re ready to test. Certainly ask your client to identify their competitors and provide insights into what about their brand or marketing they like, dislike, and why. Gather as much useful intel as you can, but resist the urge to scour the internet looking for ideas; instead develop your own ideas based on your design training, experience and best practices.

My bet is that if you trust your own instincts more, and view competitive analysis as a test rather than a source for inspiration, you’ll find your work provides your clients with a genuine competitive edge and better results than merely responding to—or worse, appropriating—the work of others.

Now I need to decide what to do the next time I find one of my design team buried in Google, claiming they’re “doing research”.