How To Use Use Leadership Strategy To Gain Competitive Advance Post-Pandemic

For decades, executives defined their industry, market, competitive set, and differentiation. Then, several years ago, we tipped into an era defined by the customer, and their wants.

Welcome to the customer zeitgeist. Your customers engage online 24/7, 365 days a year, redefining your competitive set as they do. They ask themselves, Why does your product matter? Why should it matter to me? The power to determine competitive advantage shifted with the tipping point. “Your customers hold the power today, and they aren’t giving it back,” Karla Raines concludes.

Tools like the SWOT analysis and Michael Porter’s industry analysis framework were created before the customer zeitgeist. As a result, they reinforce assumptions that are no longer relevant. For example, fintech proves that industry boundaries don’t determine customer choices. The same goes for Amazon. Another example is the Net Promoter Score (NPS) that concludes Raines. Your company vies for a decimal point spread, knowing a “10” is the only acceptable answer. The score convinces business leaders that benchmarking against known peer delivers strategic insights when, in fact, it reduces companies to compete on comparable attributes rather than embrace creativity to discover what’s new. Recognizing that the old boundaries no longer apply: creative thinking fueled the realization that you compete in more than one industry.

Strategists typically classify competitors as direct, indirect, and substitute based on industry and market. That rubric worked when everyone stayed in their lanes. Those lanes vanished with platform models and hybrids like fintech because customer mindset illuminates the new categories. According to, companies routinely leap over industry boundaries in search of market share and profit margin. “We cannot invent the new within old constraints, routine habits, or outdated assumptions,” says Raines. She believes one of those outdated obligations is that industry boundaries define competitive strategy. “Your customer doesn’t care about your industry. They care about what matters to them.” She may be right – consider how content wars illustrate these new realities. Hollywood never expected to compete with TikTok, much less Amazon and Netflix. Yet the movies and their stars owned the screen for decades, and despite this, today’s consumer wants to star in their own show, and they can.

Companies like to bucket. Purpose belongs to the corporate social responsibility, while the customer belongs to the brand. But here’s the problem with those buckets. Your customers are whole people seeking mission and brand engagement. They expect you to deliver what matters most to them. “Embrace your customer’s mindset, the holistic understanding of their heads and hearts, to deliver on brand and purpose,” recommends Raines. Because as embrace companies stakeholder capitalism, they risk subjecting themselves to what besets the nonprofit sector—the tendency to think every stakeholder is a customer, which confuses their strategic aim. Therefore, understanding if your organization is substantially differentiable or even relevant is mission-critical – and the key to entrepreneurial performance.

According to Dr Selin Kudret, an assistant professor at Henley Business School, a growth mindset is another critical trait conducive to enhancing one’s entrepreneurial self-efficacy and contributing to entrepreneurial performance. She defines the growth mindset as an individual’s belief that human attributes (eg, abilities, skills, and even intelligence) are malleable and can be developed through learning and hard work. She particularly highlights the possibility of learning to adopt a growth mindset. A growth mindset is an accquirable trait, she continues. Recent evidence from a randomized controlled trial implementing a growth mindset intervention shows us that college students in the growth mindset intervention, relative to the control group, reported greater entrepreneurial self-efficacy and increased academic and career interest in entrepreneurship. Thus, we already know the importance of entrepreneurial self-efficacy for entrepreneurial success.

Smartphones changed strategy. Your customer defines your competitive set and your relevance today. How’s that? Your competitors are a click, scroll, or keyword away. Without a compelling uniqueness and demonstrated relevance, companies risk being essentially equivalent, or worse, misunderstood. Hollywood learned that lesson the hard way, courtesy of Netflix and TikTok. Your customer decides what matters most—and if your organization matters at all. If your organization isn’t unique and special—truly differentiated—in a way that matters to your customer, then guess what? You aren’t even on their radar. They’ve scrolled past your offerings and moved on to more compelling options. It isn’t about your business, its products, or why you believe you matter. Your customer is asking themselves, “Why should you matter to me?” Your customer should be the protagonist in your organization’s story. Five years ago, storytelling was sufficient to win consumers’ hearts and minds.

Companies shifted from describing “what we do” to illustrating “why we matter.” Fast forward to the post-pandemic normal. Today’s consumer is the hero of their own story, curating life on their terms courtesy of social media and search engine optimization. They seek an emotional connection and expect to be valued as whole people. Your company’s differentiation success depends on the ability to answer this question, “Why should your company, product, or service matter to me?” Capturing someone’s attention for a moment is the new currency in the age of social commerce.

Your company doesn’t determine its competitive set. A customer mindset brings together two crucial strategy concepts—customer value proposition and competitive advantage. You understand what matters to your customer and what matters most. You also clarify your company’s distinction in the marketplace, its competitive advantage. This is a key component when thinking about starting a business, says Dr Marrisa Joseph, lecturer at Henley Business School. Start-ups and established companies have moved away from thinking about what product or service I could offer. Instead, thinking has evolved to what could I create that my potential customer would want, or even better would do they need.

That unique nexus is the source of differentiation and the cornerstone of your differentiation strategy. A sought-after customer value proposition is revealed through the customer mindset, the holistic appreciation of your customer’s head and heart. Embracing it requires that you appreciate them as whole people. What matters the most to your customer is what matters the most to you too. Watch out for the zone of indifference, and don’t build your strategy around it. Every company has attributes and features near and dear to its hearts. Perhaps it’s the origin story, the internal rally cry, or their hometown. Be forewarned. You cannot compete on differentiation by claiming attributes that are unimportant to your customer. Your customer’s tell-tale shrug the evidence that what you hold dear can’t differentiated advantage.

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