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No Last-Minute Sprints: Marketers, Lead From The Front

The first statue built on Nike’s campus wasn’t of Michael Jordan or Bo Jackson. It was of Steve Prefontaine, the legendary long-distance runner. Pre was a rebel, a renegade in the historically stuffy and antiquated sport of track and field.

Often in distance running, you’ll see competitors take the “sit and kick” approach to competition. They prefer to run in the safety of the pack, drafting off of the leaders, keeping competitors in their peripheral vision, and then sprinting toward the finish only when someone else breaks first.

Pre never ran that way. His approach to competition taught Nike its most valuable lesson about building a business: Have the courage to lead from the front.

This is one of my greatest takeaways from my nearly 10 years at the world’s most valuable sportswear brand. I’ve taken it with me as chief marketing officer at Vivint Smart Home and found it to be a guiding principle that can help entrepreneurs separate their companies from the competition.

Here are a few ways to break away from the pack:

Create A Category Of One
Marketing guru and entrepreneur Seth Godin wrote, “You will never become a category of one if you run with the pack.” There’s a reason most companies look the same: It’s a lot easier to iterate on what’s already out there than innovate to bring something new to market.

The iPhone is the textbook case in building a category of one. Instead of focusing on what Motorola, Nokia, BlackBerry, and Palm were doing, Apple debuted a phone that defied every piece of conventional thinking around mobile phones at the time. The phone had no business-friendly keyboard, no razor-thin clamshell, and in the boldest decision of all, no support for Flash, the browser technology that powered much of the Web at the time. It was a completely different species from anything else on the market, which is why it was able to dominate it.

Overnight, Apple ushered in the smartphone-for-the-masses era and dealt a devastating deathblow to the incumbents who had owned the category for the better part of a decade.

Every company has moments when it has opportunities to stay with the pack or break out and lead from the front. Do the latter. It requires you to embrace risk, but with the right execution, you’ll reap a huge reward.

Don’t Let Your Past Define Your Future
At Nike, Phil Knight was often reminding us to “never forget the voice of the athlete.” It was by discovering the truths of our athletes that we learned they needed more than just the best running shoe; they wanted real feedback on their progress, to avoid the occasional loneliness of running and a much better music experience integrated into their workouts. Conventional wisdom would have said, “But Nike’s a shoe company; it can’t solve those issues.”

Wrong. Nike clearly understood its mission was to bring innovation and inspiration to every athlete in the world. Footwear was just one way of doing that.

Early on the company struck a partnership with Apple to build a data-driven, music-powered, community-oriented running experience. From there, it snowballed into products built around customers’ needs like the award-winning Nike+ GPS Running App, Nike+ Kinect Training and the Nike+ FuelBand. Nike built an entire fitness technology ecosystem with more than 60 million members before Adidas and Under Armour attempted to catch up through costly acquisitions.

Your customers, not your past, should shape your approach to attacking the market. They will always point you in the right direction, even if it means exploring a path you might not have anticipated.

Set A Bold Vision And Execute It
One of Pre’s most celebrated quotes is, “Somebody may beat me, but they’re going to bleed to do it.” Maintaining pole position in your industry is the product of tireless sweat, strategy, and investment.

In the early days of Vivint Smart Home, our CEO Todd Pedersen built a highly effective salesforce but outsourced the rest of the consumer experience—from product and installation to service. When Pedersen pitched his investors on his vision to vertically integrate these offerings to provide a single cohesive and powerful customer experience, they told him to leave that to the big boys and keep doing what had worked in the past.

He wisely ignored that advice. Since that conversation, Vivint was purchased for more than $2 billion and has become a leading smart home services provider in North America. This would have never happened had Pedersen simply stayed the course.

You don’t get a statue built in your likeness—or dominate your field—by sticking with the pack. Like Pre, the only way to separate yourself from the competition is to put them in your rear view. If you build your marketing strategy around reacting to those around you, you’ve already lost. The winning strategy is to lead from the front. You just need the courage to do it.

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