Whitespace gets its own square on the Business Buzzword Bingo card. Brand managers and C-suiters use it to describe an almost mythical place where their companies have room to maneuver at will, where their competitors can’t get a toehold.
I can assure you that whitespace is not a myth. You’re just looking for it in the wrong place.
Understand Where Opportunity Lies
The modern business concept of whitespace is usually presented as a Venn diagram with three overlapping circles representing your company, your competitors, and your audience. Conventional wisdom has it that the so-called whitespace is the piece in the middle of the overlap.
It’s actually northwest of that.
That piece in the middle? It’s an absolute war zone. Every other brand leader in your category is using the same Venn diagram to map the same opportunities in that same space. If you’ve thrown some new SKUs onto retail shelves and you’re wondering why a few of them win, and a bunch of them fail, it’s because everyone else is throwing darts at the same circle.
We’ve seen this kind of hit-or-miss product performance from large multinationals with extensive brand portfolios. These big players have spent the last decade realizing they are not good at innovation and disruption, but instead excel at dominance through distribution and ad spend. This has made a marketplace where companies are acquiring, not organically building, the next generation of the brand portfolio. Some have been wild successes and others have struggled and been sold off at a loss.
Perhaps it’s time to learn from this experience in order to incubate and grow organically toward whitespace.
The Retail Voodoo Whitespace Map
What if your opportunity was not in the middle, but at the intersection of what you rock at and what the consumer wants and buys? It’s hallowed ground: The place where your brand’s mission connects deeply with an audience that shares those values. What we call Beloved & Dominant brands meet important needs for their people, and do it narrowly and uniquely enough to define their category.
Pursuing opportunity within this overlap results in sharp positioning for your brand because you’re playing to both your strengths and your audience’s desires. Your brand will become virtually competition-proof, because other offerings in your space are just background noise to your core group of devotees.
When we work with brand managers seeking fail-safe, we’re-not-just-guessing-at-this opportunities, there are three paths we can follow:
1. Brand Positioning
If everyone in the category is leading with this feature or that benefit, what makes you different? Positioning is the distillation of your brand’s WHY — your promise and the way you keep it — and your audience’s needs and values.
Think of how you can extend an open invitation for people to belong to your brand, not just buy your products. Beyond product attributes — they like vanilla chai flavor — what does your brand bring to their lives? Who do they get to be when they’re with you?
Look at the outdoor outfitter REI, for example: Anything REI makes can be purchased online or even at Walmart at a lower price. But when you shop at REI, you belong (literally). And that belonging is worth driving to the mall, walking into an actual store, and knowing you’ll pay a bit more. Consumers have an elevated sense of personal responsibility that comes from their connection with the brand.
In our industry, the beverage category — alcohol, water, soda — is ripe for this kind of affinity positioning. Are you a Coke person or a Pepsi person? One is about, Life’s good! Whereas the other is about, Here’s the next cool thing! As canned colas, strictly speaking, Coke and Pepsi are commodities. But their positioning allows them to pursue opportunities based on their audience’s preference for one brand over the other. That’s capital-B Branding.
2. Product Innovation
Brands often look for whitespace when evaluating which new products to introduce. Using innovation as a portfolio management tool allows you to attract more net consumers to include your brand in their consideration set.
Again, let’s look at a massively congested category: Performance drinks. Monster is a brand that’s leveraged product innovation and line extension to find their whitespace and dominate the market. Monster used to be just three flavors of highly caffeinated drinks. If you had asked me two years ago if Monster should be in the coffee drink space, I would have said no. But now they’ve built out the portfolio in a way that all kinds of iterations make sense: the original Monster Energy plus a whole suite of subcategories like Monster Rehab (post-workout recovery drinks), Monster Muscle (protein), Monster Java, Monster Juice, and even a canned sparkling water. All of these product lines straddle a set of maxed-out categories, but together they ladder up to a bigger promise: The right energy at the right time … every time.
True product innovation is not about selling more stuff to the same people; it’s about getting more people into the brand. Monster’s leadership has thought this through and made a long-term play in a category that looks at 12-month increments, and it’s brilliant. When you walk up to a refrigerated case in a convenience store, the wall of Monster products is awe-inspiring; everything else is an also-ran.
3. Consumer Data
You probably have mountains of consumer and category data, and it’s probably languishing in a spreadsheet somewhere. What can the numbers tell you about whitespace? Plenty.
Using data as a pathway to opportunity means taking your time to gather insight into adjacent categories to see what the smart play is. Is the category still growing even if it’s crowded? Can you take a tiny part of it and win because of your larger brand story?
Usage & Attitude studies, which tell you how/when/where people are using your product, can point you to new products you haven’t yet imagined. Look at Califia. Leaders of this category-killing plant-based milk brand had data that showed that their stark-raving fans were making coffee drinks with their products. So that led them to RTD cold-brewed coffee — not just blended with plant-based milk but also straight-up coffee. The move gives the brand an opportunity to make really strategic small adjacent moves to get net new consumers, who may or may not be non-dairy milk drinkers.
Beyond Features & Benefits
The mojo of our alternative whitespace map lies in the overlap between your awesomeness and the consumer’s desires. It’s about finding an opportunity where you are not competing on features and benefits, but on something bigger: your brand’s WHY. The key to the win is claiming the emotional territory that nobody else can claim. If the brand itself doesn’t hold an emotional position, it doesn’t make sense to line-extend because you’ll get micro-incremental gains instead of charting new categories.As baseball Hall of Famer Willie Keeler said, “Keep your eye on the ball and hit ’em where they ain’t.” Play the whitespace game right, and your competitors won’t even get onto the field. If you’re on the hunt for opportunity, we can be your guide. Let’s get in touch!