istock_overheadkick1For the past four years I’ve been coaching football for 4-7 year old boys and girls at a local club. As you probably know, children love to have the ball at their feet and hate to be more than a couple of yards away from it, resulting in a swarm of tiny footballers that collectively follow the ball up and down the pitch.

Despite my gentle promptings to spread out and use the space, they remain magnetically attracted to the ball, each of them fearful that if they don’t go and get it immediately they’ll never see it again. As one of the boys said to me last Saturday after I’d suggested to him that he should stop tackling the other boys on his team and wait for them to pass to him, “But what if they don’t pass?”

I reckon that at any one time, on a pitch of 600 square yards, the children are likely to be able to fit into 20-30 square yards, say 5% of the total area.

Many businesses that I come across are not so different to my young footballers. The pitches they play on are vast and the opportunities open to them are limitless. And yet, they end up scrapping over the same few square feet of turf trying to attract the same customers, with a similar offer to their rivals’ at a similar price.

As a result, we end up with whole markets of me-too, copycat businesses. Banks, supermarkets, coffee shops, airlines, mobile operators, and hotel chains: it is virtually impossible to tell most of the players in these markets apart.

And yet, outside of the market leader, the companies that tend to thrive are those that offer something different and that are focused on the areas of the pitch where there is still fresh, green grass that has not been completely trampled underfoot.

Companies and brands such as Green and Blacks, Innocent, Apple, Facebook, Virgin, Absolut, Ryanair and Swatch have all prospered and changed customers’ attitude to their markets by being different.

They spotted where there was space on their pitch, where, if they were patient, the ball would come to them, and where they could really show their skills and score a goal.

Now, if only I could get my five-year old boys to think the same way.

© Stuart Cross 2011. All rights reserved.