When trying to create competitive advantage, many companies fall into a familiar trap – they allow themselves to be defined by the limitations and assumptions of “the business that they’re in.”

For example, consider the soft drink industry – Coca-Cola, Pepsi and other smaller regional brands. This industry is faced with growing media scrutiny and public concern about the health effects of high fructose corn syrup, the main sweetener in most soft drinks. In response, some of these companies are reacting defensively – and in the process, they’re painting themselves into a corner because they’re making the conversation about defending corn syrup instead of making the conversation about their products, their brand, and their unique competitive positioning.

In one of Seth Godin’s recent blog posts, he makes the case that the soft drink industry should realize that they’re not really in the “corn syrup delivery” business, they’re in the business of “delivering joy in a bottle.” Instead of playing by someone else’s script (“big soft drink companies defending the status quo”), there’s an opportunity here for soft drink companies to write a new script – and talk about their unique packaging, their unique product offerings, their unique customer experience that brings joy to people all over the world.

And there’s the famous quote from Steve Jobs back in the mid-1980s that Apple was not in the business of building “computers,” they were building “bicycles for the mind.” At the time, this was a revolutionary concept – after all, most computers at the time were big bulky mainframes, crunching numbers and running spreadsheets – “business machines.” When Steve Jobs first started talking about computers as “bicycles for the mind,” the average computer looked more like a tank than a bicycle.

But today, computers are much more nimble, more elegant, and more focused on getting people where they want to go with sleekness and aesthetic appeal – and Steve Jobs and Apple have been the biggest drivers behind this. Talk about a competitive advantage!

Maybe that’s where Apple’s real competitive advantage comes from – not just innovative designs and stylish marketing and well-engineered user interfaces, but from their unique and deeply rooted understanding of what business they’re really in.

Sometimes the best way to find your competitive advantage is to completely redefine the terms of what business you’re in. You need to rethink not just your own company’s competitive advantage, but the innate purpose and bigger significance behind your entire industry.

How does this apply to your business?

  • If you run a bookstore, maybe you realize that you’re not really in the business of selling books, you’re in the business of creating a community of like-minded book lovers.
  • If you run an IT consulting business, maybe you realize that you’re not really in the business of technology, you’re in the business of alleviating people’s stress and anxiety about technology.
  • If you run a car wash, maybe you realize that you’re not really in the business of soaping and rinsing cars, you’re in the business of making cars more beautiful (and making their drivers feel better about themselves).

No matter what business you’re in, there are ways to re-think your strategies so that you don’t get boxed in by the limitations of “the business you’re in.” Think bigger. Think loftier. Are you building “business machines,” or “bicycles for the mind?”

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