When I was very young, I remember hearing the debate in advertising of whether you should mention your main competition by name, or simply allude to them, such as saying "the leading cola brand", or "the leading paper towel", when comparing your product to theirs. While I've often been told you should never introduce your competition into the conversation when with a potential client, the vagueness of alluding to the competition actually has the reverse effect - getting the viewer or reader to think in their mind of just who that leader is, instead of taking in your message - defeating your sneakiness.
If you are a frequent consumer of news or advertising, you can see who is also being smart in terms of setting the agenda by which other competitors are measured, or putting them on the defensive. As a big Apple fan, it is very easy for me to see when Cupertino is pushing the agenda, and when they are not. When they are not, the situation is always much worse. But for any company, if they can set the agenda, and the stage, forcing competition to play by their rules, they have a significant advantage.
The iPhone Agenda: Thousands and Thousands of Apps
First, take a look at the iPhone's success and message:
The phrase "There's an app for that" and the climbing total number of applications has had Apple in a happy place - blowing past 100,000 individual programs. By setting the focus on how many total applications, the handfuls available for the Palm Pre, and the admittedly rapid growing ten thousand from Android seem relatively small. Apple set the stage in terms of how smartphones were measured, not just in terms of forcing a touchscreen, but also in the yardstick being the application store itself.
So long as Apple keeps the lead in total applications, other companies are going to be in a defensive posture when talking about how many programs they offer, or trying to suggest that most people only need a few, or that they have higher quality. It's not a good message.
Verizon's Agenda: Our 3G Coverage Is Better
But look how Verizon changed the game, and threw AT&T under the bus:
After months and months of hearing "There's an App for That", Verizon got sick of it, and started their "There's a Map for That" campaign, saying that Verizon's 3G service is much more widely available than is AT&T. Even if most pundits say that AT&T's 3G service is faster than that of Verizon, the image that remains with people is one full map for Verizon, and a sparsely dotted one for AT&T. AT&T's response to Verizon has been lackluster, not just because they were thrown together quickly, but because they were fought on Verizon's turf, by their rules.
Apple has even had to jump in to bail out their ball and chain network buddy, by trying to highlight the use of the iPhone for voice and Internet at the same time. But the whole time, we're thinking of those darn maps. Point to Verizon.
I'm a Mac, and You're a PC
Sticking with Apple for a bit, the company's Mac vs. PC commercials, as long in the tooth as they are, have set the agenda for how PC users are perceived and how Mac users are perceived, for better or for worse.
Microsoft tried to fight back, on Apple's turf, with it's "I'm a PC" ad line, but that was largely panned and ineffective, because they were unable to wrest control away from Cupertino's mindset.
It wasn't until Microsoft was able to turn the conversation away from "I'm a PC" and to "Lauren" with her low budget to push a different agenda around price that Apple was caught on the defensive.
Setting the agenda is important for any company to promote their agenda. If you are Google, you might once have said your search index is bigger, due to its billions of indexed pages, and that was why you are better - forcing competition to try and show how large their own index was, and coming up short. If you are Facebook, you will highlight your vast population of users, in the hundreds of millions, making competitors fade in comparison.
Will Android Force a New Agenda?
The battle for an agenda is especially interesting in markets that are unsettled, or at a point of change. In addition to the Verizon vs. AT&T battle mentioned before, we are at a very interesting point in the smartphone battles, with Google pushing Android into the market with Motorola's Droid, HTC's Eris and the rumored Google branded phone (coming soon). Droid has tried to make a mark on Apple by saying it "Does" things that Apple's iPhone cannot, but there hasn't yet been a cohesive approach by all Google-powered handsets to promote whatever their agenda will be. Will it be on openness in software? Will it be on openness in terms of supported voice and data carriers? Will there be a killer app that is on Android and not the iPhone at all? And if you are Microsoft or Symbian, or God forbid, Palm... what do you do? You can't win on total apps or touch, or openness, so do you make a new agenda, or call it quits?
I've seen the agenda game play out at previous jobs, and seen colleagues struggle to try and meet the criteria set by the competition - fighting a never-ending battle of certifications and partnerships or benchmarks. While we (and others) spun in place trying to catch up to others' previous mark, the competition nimbly pushed ahead with the new agenda, and changed the game again. It would make more sense to find out, for each of us, what your benefits are and how you can present the agenda to win.