In discussions with a bioscience client the other day, we noted that many firms in the life science service sector are concerned about a very narrow aspect of their competitors’ marketing: the feature list.

“If ‘those guys’ have a list on their web site, we better have a list too.”

It is easy to see why everyone pays attention to this aspect of competitors’ marketing. It is one of the few quantifiable metrics available. To ensure that the competitors don’t look superior, firms tries to match their competitors on each and every metric. Ironically, it doesn’t seem to matter whether either firm is positioned with a core competency in providing the services on the feature list; everyone just wants to ensure that their competitors’ lists aren’t longer then theirs.

And so the lists grow as each firm tries to ensure that their list isn’t shorter than anyone else’s…and so the entire sector ends up filled with firms that look exactly the same… like adolescents trying to be different without being too different.

Firms in the lifescience services sector ought to pay more attention to what their customers want and to their own marketing claims (are they sustainable, unique, authentic, verifiable and effective?) and less attention to what competitors are claiming.

An example from the past illustrates this point nicely.

I was advising a brand manager once, and upon hearing my recommendations to provide a certain feature set in an offering under development, he asked, “Does XYZ (the market leading competitor at the time – with a reputation for innovation) have an offering that includes what you are suggesting?”

“No.” I said. “Here is a chance to bring this innovation to market before they do.”

He replied, “Well, if they’re not doing it, we sure won’t be doing it.” By choosing to stay with the herd, he was making the safe choice.

Six months later, XYZ introduced a new offering with the features we had been discussing, an introduction that reinforced XYZ’s market leadership position. My client was forced to include the same features in a subsequent offering, only now these features appeared to be a “me too” competitive response.

I am not suggesting that innovating is always the right thing to do. There are lots of innovations that the market doesn’t want. But whether or not the customers would have been interested in the features under discussion wouldn’t have been difficult to determine… all we would have had to do was ask them, through some simple market research that wouldn’t have been too expensive. The customers would have told us whether including the features was a good idea.

My point is this: grab every opportunity to pay attention to your customers rather than your competitors. You should be less concerned about matching your competitors’ feature list and more concerned about starting dialogs with your audience. This will put your focus where it belongs.