What marketers can learn from offshore ocean racing

I have been involved in sailboat races, what wealthy people call yacht regattas, for quite a few years. Aside from learning fine skills of navigation, sail trimming, race tactics and such, the sport offers very interesting insights into a nature of competition.

A few years ago I signed up to compete in the 2,200 nautical mile Pacific Cup race from San Francisco to Oahu, Hawaii and spent almost a year to prepare physically and mentally by practicing with selected crew sailing the boat in the Bay and short offshore competitions. We had a good crew, excellent skipper, sound boat and plenty of experience – we were ready to compete.

I was dreaming about this endeavor for years, even re-located to San Francisco to do it, and finally starting day has come, gun sounded, boats jostled for positions to cross the line and the race was on. During the next few hours the competing yachts were fighting for every inch and every puff of the wind, but the ocean is very large and soon we lost sight of other boats as each was following their own navigation plans to reach the destination at the shortest time. We were committed to sail the boat as fast as humanly possible, but without seeing another boat to catch or to leave behind, we were distracted with a beauty around us or mundane tasks of keeping systems running, and stopped focusing on our speed. Every morning we had a radio roll call with race boats reporting their positions that our navigator would plot on the chart and it would give a competitive jolt to start performing again to the best of our abilities…for next hour or two, and then we would slowly start acting again like we were on a pleasure cruise.

I discussed this experience with other sailors after we made it to Kaneokhe Yacht Club, and they all described similar experiences. Apparently it is very difficult to compete without knowing exactly what your competition is doing all the time. The insight into their position and weather conditions made dramatic difference in influencing our own actions and behavior.

Many marketing pros I spoke to are keenly aware of their competition. Moreover, most are staunch believers in measuring satisfaction of their customers with their products or services. However much smaller number of marketers are interested in satisfaction and experiences of their competitor’s customers because such information is usually difficult, i.e. expensive to obtain and it is rarely actionable. I never spoke with anybody who has done such a “roll call” more often than twice a year and only on a very aggregate level that could not possibly generate any tactical action.

This is not an appeal for larger Market Research budgets, businesses and governments already spend tens of billions worldwide. I wonder how this spending helped you to increase your margins. The real question is how can you win long distance marketing races without detailed knowledge of the course conditions?

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