You may think you know what your competitors are doing, but what do the implied meanings indicate about their competitive behavior? Here’s how a little mental jujitsu and criminal profiling can help you see the motivations behind their moves.
My first martial-arts instructor was a short, fat accountant who could toss a charging 250-pound person across the room without breaking a sweat or a spreadsheet. Size didn’t matter to him. He knew that throwing a person is all about leverage. The harder you came at my instructor; the harder you’d hit the ground. I love that about martial arts.
If you want to toss a person charging you, you’ve got to look beyond the overt person-charging-you information. Subtle cues or inconsistencies, invisible to the untrained eye, tell you the deeper story of your opponent’s trajectory. The leverage you need to toss the person is in the deeper story.
The same deeper story applies to your opponents in the marketplace. Your competitors provide you with a constant stream of messages and information: advertisements, quarterly statements, analyst reports, and much more. You can learn a great deal about your competitors by looking beyond the overt meanings (charging) to implied meanings (subtle or unintended cues).
Everyone understands overt meanings. The advertisement says this; customer-satisfaction policies say that. Overt communication is intended and designed to be clear.
Implied meanings are unintended, implicit messages that the skillful reader infers from overt messages. What does that advertisement imply about the competitor’s target market segments? Why is the competitor changing its customer-satisfaction policy?
I say “the skillful reader” for the same reason that I said an untrained person cannot deflect a charge: neither task is easy. Gleaning unintended or implied meaning from a competitor’s communications requires two things:
1. The communication actually does have an implied meaning.
2. The reader can correctly detect the implied meaning.
The first is difficult because the reader must know how to detect an anomaly or an inconsistency. In other words, is it unusual for this competitor to say or do whatever they’ve said or done? Why is it unusual?
The second is difficult because the reader must comprehend the wider context. In other words, what conditions must be present for this anomaly or inconsistency to be true?
The art and science of criminal profiling (think television’s “CSI”) can help people read the implied meaning in corporate decisions, strategic direction, and the overall corporate cultural milieu.
Criminal profiling infers a criminal’s psychological attributes from clues at a crime scene, and what those attributes mean in the context of the crime. Imagine that you are in a CSI episode. You see the scene of break-in where the criminal broke a window to enter a house. If the broken glass fell inside the house, you’d conclude forced entry. If the broken glass is outside the house, you’d infer the crime scene was hastily staged and that the victim might even have invited the criminal in. The broken glass’s story is the leverage to understand this scene (and, ultimately, to toss the crook into a jail cell).
Similar sleuthing can profile a corporation from its history, its cultural setting, how it differentiates its products, and its corporate ethos (its character). It examines overt and implied messages to infer motives and intentions. The profile gives clues to the company’s likely future behavior just as criminal profiling helps detectives find the likely perp.
Let’s look at Chevron as an example.
Chevron came from the 1984 merger of Standard Oil of Southern California (SoCal) and Gulf. At the time, Gulf was struggling to maintain profitability. According to Chevron’s corporate history, the parties committed to the merger in a matter of hours, citing the corporate raiders who wanted to grab Gulf at a distress-sale price and sell it piecemeal for a quick profit.
Chevron’s website says, “With these strengths [of the combined companies] came a companywide enthusiasm to fulfill a corporate mission of being ‘better than the best.’” “Better than the best” is a particularly telling clue in this “crime” scene, for it implies pervasive fear within Chevron’s boardroom at the time. Why fear? Because suddenly size no longer protected against destruction. The fear in the Chevron boardroom inspired action and drove decisions. The board’s focus on profitability even appears to have launched the career of a young profitability analyst, John Watson.
John Watson is now CEO of Chevron. That, in the context of the company’s history, is an implicit message in itself.
Profiling through implied meanings, not just overt messages, helps you anticipate how your competitors might act on their own and how they might react to you. (By the way, try profiling yourself to see how your competitors might view you.) Start cultivating these habits:
1. Don’t just figure out what competitors are doing; think through why they’re doing it. They’re not acting randomly. Whatever they’re doing, they’re doing for a reason. It makes sense to them.
2. Notice competitors’ actions, overt and implied, that seem out of character. Don’t assume such actions are meaningless anomalies.
When you start down that path you might feel like a little kid asking why, why, why. But when you start tossing competitors across the room, you won’t mind.