Shake off the ‘First Mover’ myth

Charlie Spargo's picture
by Charlie Spargo
Leigh Tymms

Leigh Tymms, Strategy and Planning Director at marketing communications agency Clarity, rejects the notion that being first to market necessarily means you'll lead the way. Instead, brands should focus on observing and managing trends, and making sure they're always adapting. 

First mover advantage: The notion that whoever is first to market with the shiniest product innovation will be the trailblazer that defines, and ultimately wins, in rapidly evolving markets. 

However, being at the pinnacle of newness is a risky, expensive business. Those first to market typically serve to educate the consumer base, and prove whether a new concept works - but this doesn’t mean they automatically win in the long term.

In fact, Forbes notes that 50% of all first movers fail and only 11% go on to dominate market share. Netflix, for example, was not the first to the on-demand market, but has quickly become the most well-known, garnering almost 10 million subscribers in the UK alone. Consumers were aware of online media streaming after using services such as BBC iPlayer and 4oD as early as 2006, with Netflix first available in the UK six years later.

Why success doesn’t always start with being first

Being a leader in innovation, product development or even creating a new business model, is only part of the equation. Developing a strong brand and sustainable business requires a more holistic approach - to differentiate, to be customer-centric and to have mechanisms in place for continued change management. At present, the current pace of change in most markets means there is little room for resting on your laurels, even as a market leader. It requires the right mix of laser focus, proposition refinement, audience segmentation and channel management. 

Why is brand agility the biggest definer of success? 

Clarity believes the largest definer of success is brand agility. That is, the ability to observe trends - how they affect specific segments of the market as well as product and service types - then navigate them to an advantage.

In a recent survey, we asked 1,000 consumers about disruption. Only 4% of respondents identified with being an early adopter. Yet the only constant is change. Year after year, people naturally adapt to improve their situations and markets evolve to supply for this demand. For some time now, consumers have been in a perfect storm of instant gratuity, information overload and evolving media - and this is impacting our relationship with brands. 

It’s easy for brands to put all their efforts into delivering the next all-consuming shiny new hero fad of today, and not necessarily adapting their approach to the subtleties of what’s happening in the wider market context, which will pave the way for a successful tomorrow.

Having the mechanisms in place and a finger on the pulse is key - whether this is via company development, customer sentiment, market requirement or competitor dynamics. It sounds simple, but really doing this well means joining the dots, applying true insight, and being genuinely customer-centric. That’s far less straightforward. 

The seamless feeling of incremental innovation

34% of consumers said they think there isn’t anything causing disruption in retail - despite the seismic shift taking place. Moving under the consumer’s radar with innovations can signal success in some instances.

For instance, increased convenience should feel seamless and a brand’s integration into daily usage should quickly become routine, with people soon forgetting a change even took place. This is because most gradual incremental innovation will leverage trends or design thinking to build around latent customer wants and needs. 

The iPhone is often cited as an example: smartphones existed, but through great design, a bigger screen and the App Store, Apple stole the show. Every move thereafter has felt seamless in the adoption of new features and benefits - raising the overall industry standard.

How can brands stay on top of consumer-driven trends? 

Over-disruption is an unwanted by-product of change. Lots of choice is great for consumers, but too much choice is terrible for brands. Brands that fail to stand out fall first in over-disrupted and cluttered markets. It’s vital to avoid becoming a commodity, or worse, no longer relevant. 

Countering this requires building brand value and communicating this very clearly with consumers. Casual dining is a sector where 37% of restaurant groups are making a loss, so the need to innovate, mostly in the experience, is crucial. Wahaca has its convenient tab-splitting payment app, and McDonald’s installed queue-busting ordering screens. Both are small contributors to create stand-out in an over disrupted market.

If a brand isn’t presenting itself by using the right message, at the right time, in the right place, it'll get lost in the noise and overlooked in favour of competitors able to make their individual value clear. Intermediary comparison sites instantly provide all the information consumers crave, making it easier for them to cut choices from their list.

There will always be losers in a zero-sum game - if a brand can't stand out, it’ll be squeezed out. 

To achieve constant relevance, always ask challenging questions and test - rapidly, minimally, and adapt accordingly. It’s important to work with real evidence and move away from subjective opinion, knowing what to handle yourself and where to tap into the expertise of others. When moving forward with an approach, do everything you can to maintain integrity against the specific insight and avoid dilution.

Being the first brand to change can bring rewards, but large-scale innovation for innovation's sake doesn’t always bear fruit. Instead, watch macro signals, monitor trends and listen to consumer demands to stay relevant as markets move on. It’s all about monitoring constantly, before making a strategic response.