What exactly is comp-friend-tition? A smashing of two words – friend and competition. Or a play on friendly competition, taking it to the next level. Amongst the devastation of 2020, we witnessed something extraordinary. Competitors helping each other. As businesses struggle to survive and learn to pivot their business models, unlikely companies reached out to help each other rather than use it as an opportunity to crush. With indoor dining restrictions, restaurants that never had to offer take-away meals now found that doing so was the only way to survive. But if you’re not geared for this distribution channel, how do you package your meals? What do you do if you don’t have any take-away supplies on hand? A fine dining restaurant in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley –  L’Auberge Provencale confronted such dilemma. Roma’s restaurant, a local competitor came to their rescue offering to-go bags until some could be procured. Small businesses are recognizing there is strength in unity and finding support among industry peers when it is needed the most.

There have been many platitudes about banding together during COVID-19. And then there are doers. The ones who have inserted “friend” in the middle of competition, reaching across the conventional view that competitors are the enemy. Friend is the antonym of enemy. In circumstances where business owners put aside their fears to extend a helping hand, the true meaning of the word “friend” may have emerged. The word “friend” is of Germanic origin and has existed in the English language since its founding in Old English.  Back then, ‘friend’ existed as ‘frond’ which was the present participle of the verb fron, ‘to love.’ While this may seem a bit melodramatic, the examples of competitors caring about each other’s livelihoods demonstrate the better side of our human nature and our capacity to do the right thing.

When we typically think of our competitors, we envision companies that are going after the same customer, sale, and profit as us. We look for ways to differentiate and distance ourselves from them. It can be an all-out war or putting them on ignore as if their presence is of no consequence. We may continually look over our shoulder, only to find them ahead of us. If we approach our business from a place of scarcity that sense of fear permeates our culture. Businesses that align themselves, despite the possibility that they will compete understand the bigger picture. As the aphorism says, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” Plus, it is smart business.

Sometimes, unrelated businesses form strategic alliances. Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream teamed up with Nike to market “Chunky Dunky” sneakers and a chance to win a pair. Two powerhouse brands collaborating to cross-market their respective customer base. Though certainly not mutually exclusive (read: we can wear Nike and eat Ben and Jerry’s at the same time), each brand reinforced the other. But can out and out competitors join forces? Yes. The caveat is to realize that unless it is a full-on merger, clear objectives and rules of engagement must be spelled out and agreed to in advance of the dance. This way, neither company wastes time worrying if they’re letting in a Trojan Horse or sharing their secret sauce. Whether licensing, joint venture, or outsourcing, strategic alliances can be a powerful tool for success.

There are many benefits and examples of competitive collaboration. Companies like Ford and Toyota, Samsung and Sony, and Microsoft and Apple are all examples of successful co-opetition (yes, a legitimate word). Same industry but they figured out a way to mutually benefit. Competing airlines cooperate through a codeshare program – flying each other’s customers around the world. Through collaborative competition, companies can experience economies of scale, complement each other’s business strategies, and leverage each other’s strengths within a given market. In certain marketplaces, larger companies often overlook smaller customers who are underserved. A collaborative competitor might serve these customers, aggregating them, and workshare by outsourcing a portion of the service.

All out competition is not healthy for a company, community, or its customers. There’s a lot of energy spent on winning in a market that can host more than one winner. Sometimes a crisis reminds us that civility goes a long way.  Some may wonder what was in it for the Roma restaurant helping a competitor. Maybe just a sense of peace knowing they did a good thing. There’s a time when we need to insert a “friend” in the middle of competition to create a “comp*friend*tition.” It is where we create value, sense of community, and build better businesses.

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