Study the industry greats, learn from them, and innovate to beat them

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Every competitor you face has external forces working to strategize, encourage, and boost their performance. Do you have support? Who is in your corner fighting for you?
This series of articles has focused on the parallels between playing chess and selling products on Amazon. We uncovered many links between the approach to a chess match and the ways you can improve your Amazon sales. But what if that was just the beginning? What if the levers you can pull and pieces you can control were only half the battle? In our last article, we talked about the importance of making a plan but anticipating instances where you would need to optimize or pivot. All of our focus up to this point has been on the game board and the pieces. The pieces are all critical but don’t forget to look up from the board and realize you are playing against actual people. And if you look a little closer, you might see your opponents have coaches whispering in their ears. Or fans cheering them on. There may be outside forces influencing what happens on the board, at a level beyond your control.

This article is about taking back that control.

Study the Industry Greats

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Kasparov pitted wits against the world’s first supercomputer. As you forecast and plan your sales, build an adaptive strategy to prepare for competitors you can’t even imagine yet.
Albert Einstein famously said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” He makes a good point. The more you learn about the industry, your category, and trends, the better you can analyze your situation. In other words, you can’t solve a problem if you can’t appreciate it fully. This isn’t the first time we’ve talked about studying opponents. In our first articles about level playing fields, we instructed you to begin by learning about your competition. Once you see your immediate opponents (and understand the relationship of your pieces to theirs), the game will expand further only if you broaden your own vision. Most people, even outside the world of chess, know the name Bobby Fischer, the grandmaster whose prowess toppled rivals in as few as ten or twenty moves. Of course, there are others, too. Like world champion Garry Kasparov. Or Deep Blue, the supercomputer developed by IBM that defeated Kasparov in the 90’s when he was the reigning world champion. In modern chess, prodigious young would-be masters are more and more frequently claiming upsets in tournaments. There is a good reason — every prodigy is learning from what came before. They know Fischer, they study Kasparov, and they reimagine famous matches. Like Einstein, they study the problem for 55 minutes. Only in the end make a brilliant, breath-taking move that hadn’t been considered before. And sometimes they win.

How does this apply to the digital marketplace?

Grandmasters earn their rank for a reason. It takes a rare feat of daring to defeat them — hence the name, upset. But the same is true for elite marketers and brands in the digital marketplace. Nike has earned its reputation. So has Apple. Or Ford. What can we learn from the greats?

Nike’s Early Use of Influencers

Nike has always had a powerful brand built upon a singular vision, but their genius came from spreading it to regular, average people. From the start, it was never really about the quality of the product (e.g., shoes), it was about the champions who stood behind it. Influencer marketing is a trendy tactic that can shake up the marketplace conditions among your product and your competitors. When you find someone with a large following who will speak loudly about your product, it can drive a high volume of demand. This external factor is not one of the ‘key pieces in your sales game’ that we talked about, like your product label, photography, and reviews, but it can make a big difference, especially in crowded markets where people make choices primarily based on emotional appeal (think about the fashion industry).  Influencers can drive demand; your sales ecosystem can help you capitalize and profit from it.

Blue Ocean Shifts

Crowded markets are sometimes referred to as red oceans. Think about commodities like headphones. There are many premium brands, and many more second- and third-tier competitors. The headphone market is an example of a red ocean (click that link and see that the category “bluetooth headphones” on Amazon has over 10,000 results alone; other categories include sport, over-ear, on-ear, in-ear, premium, noise-canceling, and more). For some brands, especially in a specific niche, success depends more on changing the marketplace than simply setting up the right sales infrastructure. When brands create a bold new strategy to move into a wide-open, untapped market, it is known as a Blue Ocean strategy, or a Blue Ocean shift.
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Red oceans are crowded markets. A blue shift dives into untapped markets with a bold new approach. Learn more about this philosophy at www.blueoceanstrategy.com.
Think about what Apple did for the music industry. There was an untapped market in portable music (without cumbersome tapes and CDs). So, Apple created both a software (iTunes) and a product (the iPod) to fill the gap. The first, a digital music library, created a new marketplace for digital audio formats by giving customers a way to control, organize, and explore the music they love. The iPod provided a new way to take that music library on-the-go. Blue Ocean shifts like the one Apple achieved aren’t the norm — they are rare moments of brilliance. Typically, they require a little luck and ideal market conditions. But the Amazon marketplace itself is a prime example of a Blue Ocean shift, since Amazon continually reimagines the shopping experience to find new ways to connect customers to the products they need and want.

Where to start

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Nike changed the game not by selling shoes, but challenging the very idea of gravity.
You should absolutely prioritize basics like logistics and building a sales funnel to ensure you capitalize on any existing demand. But once you’ve established the pieces, you can step back and understand your ideal customer, think about their needs, and reimagine an experience to deliver them something they never realized they needed. Like a chess-board, the Amazon marketplace is a confined ecosystem with strict rules and finite capabilities. But outside that ecosystem, there are resources and strategies that can exert an external force on the dynamics of the game. From studying the greats (like Fischer or Nike), working with coaches and partners that specialize in Amazon consulting services (like us), finding influencers to drive demand, or working with a brand consultant to identify your blue ocean shift, your relentless optimization must continue, even when you have the right pieces in place.
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Strategically breaking the rules can make a point, stand out, and gain important attention.
In some cases, breaking the rules can achieve a larger goal or vision for you, when done carefully and deliberately. For example, two chess grandmasters recently sat down to face each other, only they did so by breaking perhaps the most widely known rule of chess. Instead of white pieces moving first, they began with the dark pieces. It became a widespread story about combating racism. It was simple, and it was brilliant. This is the value of Einstein’s approach to problem-solving. The more you slow down to understand the landscape, the more you see of the problem itself — and the ecosystem it lives in. You begin to visualize patterns, to see larger forces beyond the game, beyond the board, and sometimes beyond the players. And then, only then, you make a move.

So, what move will you make?

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