Friend-Zoning Your Competition: The Art of Selective Comparison

Celine Wee
3 min readMay 12, 2024

When humans (and now, large language models!) explain something, it’s helpful to use familiar examples. So one could explain Olio as “it’s like FB Marketplace, especially for people focused more on reuse/recycle/making sure their stuff finds a home”. Or hearing someone talk about a new company being “like Uber, but for dog walkers/pet sitters/”. Comparisons are such a helpful tool to explain newer things.

Comparisons are also a helpful way of framing a product’s positioning, particularly competitive positioning. One might have seen a sensational headline like “Is this [new product]the [existing product] KILLER??” Very clickbaity and works. I have recently pondered a few different attitudes towards positioning, which I loosely group as Embrace, Allude, and Target.

A few attitudes — Embrace, Allude, Target

  • Embrace: I define this as embracing the comparison and excitedly proclaiming that your product brings a new dawn in that industry. Example: “Our product will end the need for/replace [direct call out of another company explicitly named]”— all over websites, press interviews, linkedin posts, x/twitter etc. It seems common for consumer marketing, and could pique curiosity and potentially increase downloads/testing/usage among the masses.
  • Allude: No explicit mentions, and product is positioned as a holistic, combination of tools from competitors. For example “Our product is a full stack platform, replaces multiple tools that serve [these functions e.g., note taking, organising, team collaboration, project tracking]. There are never any explicit mention of names on company materials/posts/interviews.
  • Target: Selective comparison. No published company materials/websites/platforms, but leadership sales/marketing to know which set of companies to compare themselves too. For example, we’re very much like this [respectable, enterprise, tech friendly, known #1] company, and we compete with them on so many deals. Shows up in sales conversations, tweets, linkedin posts maybe, and carefully, in some leadership interviews.
Photo by Steven Lelham on Unsplash — such a cool photo!

Deep diving into “target” — selective comparison

I’ll focus on “target” today, which I’ve found interesting to observe, both as a seller and buyer in B2B sales. Why “target”, the selective comparison in sales conversations / occasional press interviews?

1/ Achieve positive brand association with a known brand

When a company says“we’re very much like this [other respectable, enterprise, tech friendly, known #1] company, and we compete with them on so many deals” → The implication is that my company is playing in the enterprise space, and are worthy of the (higher) valuation, is equally impressive etc.

Or if entering a market that another competitor is significantly more well known in, to say things like “we welcome comparison to [known US brand]”, in order to get into the minds of decision makers.

2/ Reduce the competition set

The example I hear is “We don’t compete with XXX, they’re focused on the small company segment”. I find that a little silly as that could be your assumption about the competition set, but why should a buyer listen to your assertion about that? [1] Upon reflection, it might work to flatter an inexperienced buyer. And assumed that flattered buyer doesn’t do their homework, it’s a way to reduce how many companies you’re competing against for a deal.

Other comparisons

Overall, targeting the right comparison to a set of competitors is helpful in positioning, especially for different audiences with varying levels of understanding of your product. And even if not directly calling out competitors, comparisons can be made to:

  • Different industries: “we are the AWS of [insert industry]”
  • Target markets: “we focus on software/developer tools”
  • Functionality/features:we focus on subscriptions, accounting etc”

All of the above can be adjusted to the audience, and speed up the understanding of a product.

[1] However, the irony is when I hear “we don’t compete with XXX..” I’m like — they probably compete the most with that competitor and feel a need to try to exclude them 😆 !

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Celine Wee

Opinions are my own: a collection of Go To Market, Payments, Biz Ops learnings across Stripe, Coinbase, Twitter. I also write @celinewee.substack.com