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Compete? Not always. Lessons on how to make co-opetition actually work from the Markets of Melbourne


New business operators often assume that success comes from crushing the competition. However, sometimes we need to work with our competitors for things to work at all.

Co-opetition, they call it.

Co-opetition is a powerful way to develop strategies and identify new market opportunities which would otherwise be out of scope for the one individual organisation.

More common in the entrepreneurial world, four of Australia’s oldest retail institutions have adopted the model in an effort to compete against the supermarket duopoly and raise awareness of their collective unique selling proposition.

The Markets of Melbourne – comprising Prahran Market, South Melbourne Market, Queen Victoria Market and Dandenong Market – came to us with the smart and grand idea of a co-opetitive organisation in 2011.

While each Market offers similar produce, wares and trader mixes and is located in Melbourne which would imply they are tough competitors; their core target audiences are located in each of their immediate vicinities with little overlap.

This key distinction makes them ideal co-opetitive partners.

Australia’s markets are some of the oldest retail spaces in the country. Rich in history, each bring with them decades of stories, success and hardship, along with a vibrant and multicultural atmosphere. This culture is of course part of an ancient global movement.

Markets are also iconic shopping hubs – home to thousands of small businesses that showcase some of our country’s best fresh produce, specialty food items, general merchandise wares and food and artisanal experts.

PWhen the founding members of the Markets of Melbourne came together five years ago, they each recognised the significance of their place in the retail market and acknowledged the importance of maintaining it in the increasingly fast-changing consumer arena.

Having worked together for five years now, this is what we’ve all learned about co-opetition.

1. Open communication is key

One of the most critical factors in making a co-opetitive organisation work is to keep the lines of communication open and free.

When working with other businesses – each with their own set of goals, strategies and budgets – it’s important to be aware of not only the things they are doing well, but also the challenges that they face. Often these experiences are common and sharing them fosters a good sense of camaraderie.

The Markets of Melbourne (littleBIG included) have regular meetings (and exchange many emails and phone calls each week in between) to keep in touch about what each Market is planning and struggling with, and what they’d like to work on together.

Keeping one another in the loop avoids overlap and crossover between tactics and campaigns and also reduces the likelihood of misunderstandings and grievances.

2. Be open minded

The fact of the matter is, in every organisation there are things that everyone can do better.

One of the greatest things about working so closely with other parallel businesses is that you are also able to learn from them. To do this successfully though, you must remain open-minded.

At the Markets of Melbourne, each partner always attempts to be as flexible as they can about the way in which issues, events or marketing ideas are handled or executed.

Listening to and taking in the ideas of your peers is important for your own company’s growth, but also for the collective organisation’s development.

By learning and adapting through the experiences of others, you are able to most effectively and efficiently make decisions, come up with strategies and implement plans. Be sure to keep an open mind, it could lead to a little piece of greatness.

3. Have a robust and unified marketing plan

Remember, as much as you are still an individual business you are also now a part of a collective organisation. Having a unified marketing agenda in addition to your individual one can have a much greater impact on the audiences you are trying to reach.

One of the key campaigns which we implement each year is the organisation of Market Week. Market Week is a weeklong dedicated celebration of all things Markets.

Each member of the Markets of Melbourne hosts special events, activities and giveaways as a special attention-grabbing and enticing offering to new and existing audiences.

Market Week is the perfect example of co-opetition in practice.

It demonstrates how the Markets work together (through planning, scheduling, budgeting, marketing etc.) to create something that they receive both collective and individual gains for in terms of foot traffic and awareness through media coverage, social media, word of mouth and more.

4. Know what to disclose and what to keep to yourself

I know I said keep the lines of communication open and free, but I’ll now add a caveat: this doesn’t mean that you need to tell each other everything.

Being able to differentiate what you need to tell the other businesses involved in your collective (and what can be kept in-house), is also crucial for your company’s progress.

Remember that there is still an element of competition between you all. So keeping to yourself the things which give your organisation the competitive edge is sometimes a smart decision.

At the Markets, this could mean new unique traders, special major events, exciting collaborations, structural redevelopments or rebrands. To your company, it will mean something completely different.

Decide whether or not to share your sensitive/big/unique news on a case by case basis.

In many instances the Markets have found it really advantageous to share their news and get advice and support from other Markets of Melbourne collaborators.

On the flip side, the decision to keep your fresh ideas under wraps is a fair call to make and no other participant in the collective has the right to be annoyed. By the same token, you also can’t expect full disclosure from all parties either (so don’t be mad if this also happens to you).

Also, bringing forward issues that are specific to your own organisation (due to location for example) is unnecessary. Only focus on the matters which affect you all.

5. Engage an external party

As much as we all like to believe that we are rational and objective human beings (and I’m sure that you are both!), when it comes to wanting to advance your business it can often be difficult to put the needs of a group before those of your own. It’s okay to admit it, you are human after all. This is one reason you need external help.

Without completely pumping up our own tyres, we have been able to guide the Markets of Melbourne through campaign plans, campaign implementation, budget discussions, timelines, negotiations and compromises.

By outsourcing all of the extra and necessary work that is required in managing the opinions and ideas of four members, the Markets are each able to focus on their individual marketing strategies while we keep the Markets of Melbourne agenda bubbling along.

We pull the pieces together and keep everything in motion – from website updates and social media to PR facilitation, crisis management and unified marketing strategy.

We are the impartial member of the collective – bringing each idea and method back to how it benefits the entire group (not just everyone’s own agenda).

If you are planning on entering into a co-opetitive agreement, I would highly recommend hiring an external resource to be the objective voice that you need.

Sally Urquhart is the Director of littleBIG Marketing & PR, the founding communications agency for the Markets of Melbourne.