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The Moriarty Complex

  • January 29, 2001, 12:00 AM EST
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I was sitting in another brainstorming meeting, trying to figure out a new way to invigorate sales when the brand manager began discussing his main competition. For someone who was getting his butt kicked on a regular basis, this guy spoke rapturously about his rivals.

They had smart ideas. They had a great sales force that could be counted on to do what they're supposed to. They had a great brand with a great heritage. They had a strategy, a media plan, a creative profile that rocked the free world.

By the time he finished, we were ready to give up.

I've worked with dozens of clients, and I've worked with their competitors. None of them have it all figured out. This isn't news to anyone. What is news, however, is that all of them think that the best and the brightest, the smartest and the swiftest, the best looking, thinking, dressing, dancing people in the world are working for the competition.

And that, of course, means they have the smartest, best and most effective systems selling the cool est, greatest and most wonderful brands.

This is what I call the Moriarty complex, and it's garbage.

The Moriarty complex is the belief that the competition is peopled by evil geniuses. It's based on the character from Arthur Conan Doyle's stories. Moriarty was the brilliant mastermind behind every bad thing that happened.

Clients think of their compet itors the same way Sherlock Holmes thought of Moriarty. While this may, in some strange way, fuel their egos ("It would take a real genius to stop me!"), the ultimate result is a sort of helplessness in the face of a juggernaut. It's often followed by a desperate attempt to ape the actions of the competitor whose success the brand manager desires.

But there is another way: Think about what your competitor fears.

Look, nobody has it all figured out, not even the competitor who's eating your lunch. There is something he's worrying about, some problem he's compensating for, some storm cloud lurking on the horizon. Figure out what it is.

How? First, look at the landscape from your competitor's perspective. Then let that old paranoia sink in. The one where you recite the litany of genius that is the competition. Only this time, that competition will be you.

Suddenly, you will see the myriad opportunities available; opportunities that will be twice as effective because they are striking at the heart of the competition. Opportunities that will generate more fruitful creative challenges because they cover new, uncharted territory. Opportunities that are more strategic because they take a broader, category-wide approach.

Just do it. You will make your brand stronger. You will remove your competitors from the Mount Olympus on which you've placed them. You will make them vulnerable, assailable and a lot less intimidating.

Sounds easy, doesn't it?

It is. In fact, it's elementary.