Give Yourself a Competitive Edge

Staying one step ahead of the competition isn't just an option; it's an imperative. Every industry is open to unpredictable shifts and unexpected advances, which can result in a snowball effect if you're not on top of your game. For example, Blackberry, once the essential phone for working professionals, failed to adapt as consumers turned in their keypads for touch screens and sleek interfaces. Apple, on the other hand, paid attention to consumer trends and developed a product that blew Blackberry and its lack of innovation out of the water. Having the foresight to see what is coming next and the initiative to act quickly helps to focus energy and dial-down to understand what customers want and need. Gaining that sought-after competitive edge comes down to building an agile organization, paying attention to smaller changes that will lead to big ones, and listening to customers.

While businesses may not be able to avoid the constant march of change or the introduction of new and innovative companies into the space, they can take steps to remain industry leaders and forces to be reckoned with. The following is my blueprint for how businesses can maintain a constant upper hand on the competition.

Be Agile, But Don't Just Jump on the Bandwagon:

Today, many industries, from retail to consumer electronics to healthcare, experience change at an unprecedented scale. In marketing, we've blown past the print ad and snail mail tactics of the past and are currently adjusting to an evolving digital world. While this new phase is exhilarating for marketers, it can lead to major missteps if they are unable to decipher fads from transformative shifts, or if they blindly jump onto trends without leveraging data and customer feedback to inform decisions.

Regardless of industry, businesses must be agile in order to succeed in the long-term. Building an agile organization from the ground up requires preparation and consideration. It begins with hiring people who are versatile and collaborative, and who value transparency. An agile organization responds quickly to change and adapts to it by soliciting feedback, constantly testing and iterating, to make changes that will actually drive results.

Red Bull is an example of an agile company that has expanded its influence and built a strong lifestyle brand by adapting to changes in digital media and prioritizing quality content and interactive experiences that resonate with consumers. The company recently began connecting with consumers through mobile gaming content by sponsoring a new Angry Birds game, a kart racer called Angry Birds Go! In doing so, Red Bull tapped into a rapidly growing digital media channel and reinforced their fun, energetic brand personality in an innovative and authentic way.

Pay Attention to the Innovation Around You:

Remaining nimble is a proactive process. One of the most important parts of developing a competitive edge is to keep an eye on the horizon and identify important trends that are taking root just below the surface.

The demise of Blockbuster and success of Netflix is a great example of this. Blockbuster failed to take heed of emerging technology and the consumer shift to an online world. The company fell from its position as the leader in at-home entertainment and ended up in bankruptcy. Blockbuster did not adapt to the changing landscape of streaming movie distribution, whereas the underdog at the time, Netflix, understood that consumers' entertainment consumption was evolving and adjusted accordingly. Blockbuster didn't have the foresight to change their model early enough, nor did it take advantage of the offer to buy Netflix for $50 million in 2000. In October, Netflix reported that its membership topped 40 million worldwide users.

Businesses need to constantly be looking beyond the industry to track larger trends in emerging technology. One of the best ways to keep a finger on the pulse of innovation is to closely follow interesting startups and individuals, keep a close eye on who is getting acquired by whom, and evaluate how the activities of key players impact the industry more broadly.

For instance, within the search and content marketing space, we have seen an impressive shift towards content as the new center of the digital marketing universe. Google recently made secure search the default, meaning that 100 percent of search engine marketing data is now "not provided." This has significantly altered how online marketers gather data and has signified the single biggest change to the search market since its conception.

Keeping ahead of this paradigm shift required spotting a trend that signaled larger changes -- in this case, it was the decline of keywords for search marketers. Acknowledging the far-reaching impact of this trend allowed brands to invest in a solution well in advance and prepare themselves and their customers for the new world of search.

Listen to Your Customers:

One of the best ways to stay one step ahead of the market is to listen to your customers. Pay attention to their needs, understand their successes and prioritize their feedback. Your customers are in a position to see things from a different perspective. They can fuel your innovation and help you make predictions ahead of the curve.

J.Crew exemplifies the "ask your customers" approach in a notoriously fickle industry. Its' leadership team, led by CEO Millard Drexler, President Libby Wadle and Executive Creative Director Jenna Lyons, have embraced the needs of their customers and have made it a priority to solicit direct feedback. Drexler went so far as to call a customer who sent an email complaining about recent creative decisions and implemented changes that respond to those criticisms. By prioritizing an impeccable brand experience, the executives at J. Crew have transformed the company into an iconic American brand that has managed to stay abreast of changing fashion trends. Fast Company reports that J. Crew's revenue has more than tripled since 2003, and now tops $2.2 billion.

Finding footing in a crowded marketplace can be difficult and standing out amongst others even more so. However, this should not be cause for distress. You can start making decisions today that will spur success down the road.The key to sustainable prosperity is absorbing things that happen in your surroundings, and understanding how the outside world may affect your business.