Many years ago, I met an interesting fellow on a flight to the US; we were sitting across the aisle from each other up in the bubble of a 747 heading into Atlanta. At the time, I was working for a pharmaceutical company and he was working for a well-known brown fizzy drinks company. The conversation got interesting when, after dinner, we compared and contrasted our respective industries. Now, the universe for a new pharma drug is fairly well defined – there are only so many people out there with arthritis, hypertension or eye infections. The potential market for brown fizzy drinks however … is a bit more fuzzy.
After we watched a Back to the Future movie (like I said – maaaaany years ago) during which he had been pointing out all the product placements of a major competitor of his, he asked me, “Who do you think is my biggest competitor?”
I pondered for a moment and said, “Well, if you’re asking me, it’s obviously not the obvious answer.”
“Correct,” he said.
I thought a while longer and said, “Perrier. (This was before the benzine scare) Bottled fizzy water.”
he said. “That class would be in the top 5 of our competitors. But our biggest competitor is … Tea.”

Tea. Because 40% of the world’s population drank almost nothing else. Remember the ’11 o-clock Diet Coke break’ advertisements in the 1990s? A masterful example of breaking out of your box. Those nice folks at Coke decided to broaden their thinking and go after the warm, milky, caffeinated drinks market as well as the cold, fizzy, caffeinated drinks. Stunning!

All too often, we get pigeonholed in our working lives. A marketing guy from a medical devices company can’t get hired as anything except a marketing guy for medical devices. He feels this way and the market feels this way. I would say that this person has a deep knowledge of relationship management, of selling to professionals, of selling highly technical products, of responding to customer needs by developing new products. Is there any chance that Dell would find that combination of skills and knowledge useful? How about Morgan Stanley? Otis? Vodafone?

In defining their potential market, Coke and Pepsi start with the question: “How many litres of fluid per day does a human being need to drink to stay alive and how many human beings are there on planet earth?” Pretty broad market …

What’s your thinking about your next career move? “How many medical device companies are there within 50 miles of my house?” A bit narrow …