Understanding product competition
Why levels of competition matter in product management
As a product manager, it’s important to understand that your product will be competing with others when it hits the market. It’s easy to forget the competition when you’re developing your ideas and committed to a vision. Having a decent grasp of what others in your space are up to will help you not to be caught off guard. It can give you the inspiration you need to improve your product, how not to do things, and even help you to develop some understanding of why people are choosing them over you or vice versa (wahoo!).
When thinking about the competition, there’s usually some obvious direct competitors. Adidas vs. Nike. Mercedes vs. BMW, etc.
But sometimes the competition isn’t played out as a simple choice between two brands or which toothpaste to pick off the shelf. Sometimes your competitors aren’t even in the same “industry” as you. Google competes in multiple industries with its Google Maps product, and Apple competes with banks and FinTech companies with Apple Pay. BMW and Toyota will be watching over their shoulders as Google explores launching their first cars. Apple has been exploring this space as well, although it’s still not clear how they want to approach it.
Finding out who else your target customers are going to go to (if not you) and who they might be choosing to help them solve their problems is key to building a successful product.
The four levels of competition
One useful tool that you can use to extend your view of the competitive landscape is the diagram below. It looks a bit like a target on a firing range. And right at the centre of your sights, is the direct competition. We call it the levels of competition.
A concept developed by Philip Kolter, the four levels of competition include product form, product category, generic, and budget competition. At the product form level, companies compete with variations of the same product, offering different features, designs, or specifications to cater to specific customer preferences.
Product category competition encompasses a broader range of similar products that serve the same need or fulfill a similar purpose. This level of competition involves positioning a brand within a specific market segment and differentiating it from competitors.
Generic competition occurs when companies compete within a larger market or industry, where various products or services can satisfy the same customer need. It emphasizes the need for companies to build strong brands and unique value propositions to stand out from the crowd.
Lastly, budget competition focuses on capturing customers based on price and affordability, with companies vying for customers seeking the lowest-cost options within a particular market. Understanding these four levels of competition helps businesses navigate their market positioning, develop effective marketing strategies, and create sustainable competitive advantages.
The rest of the diagram is designed to take into account factors outside your direct competition, and can stimulate thinking about the less obvious needs of the customer. By splitting the competition into four levels, it’s also useful in identifying other competitive threats that aren’t immediately obvious.
Direct or indirect product competition? It all counts.
At the centre, it asks you to look at direct competitors (i.e. the same product form) all the way to things that are competing for budget or “share of wallet”.
In the example here, you can see that the most direct competition for the PS4 is the Xbox One. The two take the same product form and each is a popular and well recognized gaming brand.
More widely in the product category level we can see that other gaming devices exist, including the iPad and Nintendo handhelds.
At the generic level, there are all manner of entertainment devices. Smart TVs, Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire Stick all compete if the job-to-be-done is to ‘be entertained’.
Around these outer two levels of the circle is where things get a little less defined and become more subjective. You might not consider a smart TV to be the competition for an Xbox, but Microsoft might. Furthest from the centre of the circle is the budget competition or share-of-wallet level. This is where you would categorize anything that would compete against your product for your customer’s money. Again, you might not consider a packaged holiday to be competing with a home improvement budget, but your customer might.
And because the customer is the one who has the choice, and who pays, they’re the people you have to win over. How do you get them in your sights? The levels of competition might be one way to help.
Using the levels of competition
You may be pleased (or displeased) to hear that there is no set method for doing this. However, we would advise the following. This is a thinking tool. It can be applied in many contexts and at many different scales, and may be applied to an individual product as well as to the whole organization. Depending on the application, some of these scales may be more interesting to explore than others.
- If you find it easy to think of your direct competitors first, start in the middle and work your way out.
- Use resources that describe the competitive threats to your product/industry to figure out the other levels of competition (industry analysis/news).
- If you’re doing this for the entire company you might find that you have a number of different products and services. If so, to get a corporate view you might split the target into quarters and think through different major product or service categories, or, maybe, customer segments served. You may find that you even have some competing products when examining the world through different lenses.
- For the levels of competition further out, you might want to return to your customer research. What is the underlying need or what is the customer hoping to achieve by using your product or service? Thinking about the jobs-to-be-done may also shed some light on what alternatives the customer can use.
- Collaborate and discuss. The Levels of Competition will only benefit from discussions with others around you. Customers and wider stakeholders can all help you to figure out just what competition you have to worry about.