Alas, American baseball's season will soon come to an end. The song most recognized as this sport's national anthem is "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," sung in most stadiums midway through the seventh inning. Almost everyone knows this song's chorus but almost no one realizes that it has a back story, found in the opening stanzas of lyricist Jack Norworth's 1927 version. Those stanzas have mysteriously vanished from today's version - stanzas that tell you what motivated the heartfelt words we all know:
Nelly Kelly loved baseball games
Knew the players, knew their names
You could see her there every day
Shout "Hurray" when they'd play
Her boyfriend by the name of Joe
Said, "To Coney Isle, dear, let's go"
Then Nelly started to fret and pout
And to him, I heard her shout
Take me out to the ball game
Take me out to the crowd...
We don’t know whether Joe took her to the ballgame or not, but it seems unlikely that he could have misunderstood or ignored her – she’s shouting after all. The modern-day sports fan has never heard her voice at all; these stanzas have disappeared as the song has migrated into pop culture. In the business world, however, companies often fail to hear the shouts of competitors, just as Nelly’s shouts have disappeared from the song sheet. However, many of your rivals are as single-minded and as vocal as Nelly about what they want – if only we cared to listen. The competitor sends unambiguous signals about the intention to enter a market, launches a product, takes market share and leaves rivals wondering why they couldn’t see it coming. But as with baseball’s venerable anthem, there’s a back story. And by paying attention to it, those astonished rivals could have anticipated and maybe prevented their lost market share.
For instance, I have seen many a pharmaceutical company’s clinical trial announced on the US government website, clinicaltrials.gov, which declares a firm’s desire to examine and very possibly enter a particular therapeutic area. Market research and other business intelligence managers typically track such trials and their progress, building timelines that anticipate the launch date. They sometimes discover along the way that certain trials show poor results or that drugs have failed to progress to the next stage of development for some time – leading them to believe that the program has been put on hold or canceled. I have also seen some pharma executives in denial about their rival’s intentions. They assume that one trial failure will severely delay the rival’s FDA approval and, thus, push off the launch date by many months or even years. To their surprise, the rival often overcomes these delays by modifying its clinical trial approach. This Nelly had been shouting its intent all along only to be ignored.
Haier, the Chinese manufacturer of relatively low-priced refrigeration and air conditioning equipment, has established a very solid footing in the American market. In recent years it has surpassed Whirlpool to become the world’s largest producer of refrigerators. This did not happen overnight but neither was Haier’s march invisible or undetectable. Beginning in 1992 it began testing foreign markets by exporting and establishing distribution in Indonesia. By 1997 it moved into the Philippines, where it began to train multinational managers for other markets. In those years it learned how to build local manufacturing, design and distribution models to serve overseas markets. By the time it entered the US market in 2000 it had learned how to appeal to the US consumer at the right price point. This Nelly had been declaring its intentions for a decade, though far from Coney Island.
How can you make sure you can hear these Nellys before they pounce? How can you appreciate the signals or declarations that fairly shout to the market before the damage has been done? Mostly, the answer is watch, listen, and read. Have your employees close to a particular market read local newspapers for rumors or scuttlebutt about the rival – in whatever language they are written in. Ensure, as we do when attending scientific and industrial conferences and meetings, to sit in on key talks and listen to the question and answer sessions for competitive signals that may ride on the coattails of a technical talk. Most important: look for patterns, the direction the various pieces of information may be taking you. It’s a mistake to let any single piece of competitive information dictate your response. Compare and contrast all of the valid news articles, or conference speeches, then examine the signals as you would a large pointillist painting - step back and try to see patterns. Your rivals, the Nellys of this world, do not necessarily shout their declarations all at once but they make them nonetheless – through hiring, through re-launching a clinical trial, by establishing beachheads in new markets.
Come next baseball season, when you are singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame at a stadium near you, think about Nelly and why she – or your rival – so badly wanted to get to the game.