graph for outsmarting your competition
May 3rd, 2016

A Design Response to Competitor Innovation

What to do when the competition blindsides you with a new innovation? A survey of 98 companies showed that, faced with what they saw as a disruptive innovation, two-thirds responded by adopting the same innovation–either through a separate business or their existing organization. And some chose to do nothing.*

Competitive pressure is never-ending, and disruptive innovation can change the very foundation on which your business is based. Navigating the turbulence requires a thoughtful response. You can often design your way around a competitor’s product innovation. First, evaluate the innovation on two scales:

  1. Degree of innovation—Is it merely an incremental change, or an industry disruption?
  2. Amount of overlap—Is it merely a tangential category, or a direct competitive threat?

All competitive introductions warrant a strategy regardless of where they fall on these two scales. Some require an immediate and direct response. Others might bear watching and waiting. And there are those that are fine with keeping business as usual. If you deem the threat to be real, then consider these design approaches that can work to your advantage.

Better Design at a Better Price

If the competitive innovation involves a price cut, then lowering your price may be in order, but first consider design updates. Design refinements can be small nuanced visual differences that communicate something new or they can be deeper product design revisions that provide more value. Don’t just race to the bottom of the price range. You’re only as good as your last price. Consider better design AND a better price—a powerful contender in any market. With a smart design strategy, a brand new design may have minimal impact on your cost of goods. On the contrary, a re-design can reduce cost while enhancing design. For Perfect Flame gas grills we created a design family that offered these advantages: reduced cost through selective use of materials, built collective power in the brand through a consistent family look, and created a design that Newsweek Magazine called “a five burner beauty…perfect for avoiding BBQ envy.”

Design Patents

Work to achieve an original design that warrants a design patent. While utility patents were historically considered more valuable, the design patent has protected billions of dollars in market share for companies like Apple since it launched the iPhone in 2007. And for our clients, most of whom are mid-sized manufacturers, design patents around our designs have created strong competitive barriers.

Raise the Bar

I still laugh at the absurdity of the razor wars. Gillette and Schick volleyed for years—the Sensor 3 to the Quattro, the Fusion 5 to the Hydro 5. Now six-blade razors are the avant-garde. Silly as it may have seemed, with each added blade, Gillette and Schick invested in design. Sculpted colorful aesthetics, gender segmented designs, ergonomic handles, lubricating gels, easy-attach cartridges. The battle of the blades spawned loads of cool design and user benefits, changing the category beyond just the blade. Use your competitor’s innovation as a means to an end—a catalyst for design innovation. Watch their product, do your homework to understand the end user’s interactions (pro and con), and one-up them with meaningful design.

Don’t Design

Look hard at your competitor’s introduction. Then look at your own product line. If your design strategy is still sound and your brand is still strong after the competitor’s product gets over its initial buzz, just stick to your guns. Use the money you earmarked for redesign to invest in a reinvigorated marketing campaign. Gillette and Schick offered consumers innovative design plus an extra blade. Smaller razor companies got swept up in the brawl and redesigned with just another blade…and the big guys just got bigger.



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