Retail's "Non-Zero" Gameplan

Lately, I’ve been glued to the “Content Connections” series that is running on Not only does it offer spot-on insight into content marketing best practices, but its implications and applications invariably extend beyond content strategy.

Such was the case with a recent article by Sonia Simone called “How to Win a Zero-Sum Game: What to Do if Competitors Won’t Link to You.” Simone borrows the term “nonzero” from Robert Wright who wrote an excellent book on how biological and sociological diversity is driven by mutually-beneficial cooperation. In the article, she takes on the natural tension between cooperation and competition, particularly as digital media make large-scale content sharing possible, but not always comfortable, for zero-sum businesses. For example, in automobile sales, insurance, or real estate there can only be one winner; therefore, drawing attention to competitors by linking to their content or partnering with them in any way is a high-stakes risk.

By contrast, plenty of businesses operate in nonzero environments, including retailers. Only a very small, fixated group of consumers would ever shop exclusively at The Gap or dine only at Applebee’s, for example. The explosion of digital and physical touch points have heightened the dynamic, giving retailers more avenues for earning customer attention while making it impossible to own it.

Until very recently, retailers seemed to only be dabbling in cooperative initiatives despite the nonzero realities of their businesses and their desire to diversify. In this column, I’ve written extensively about how drastically that has changed as retailers make their owned brands available to competitors, partner up on shop-in-shop concepts, launch limited-run co-branding programs, and take proprietary service offerings into competitors’ store environments. The remarkable acceleration in the number and diversity of these deals attests to the fact that retailers are not only putting aside their rivalries, but are actively harnessing the power of partnership and cross-promotion.

Brand marketing is inherently a nonzero environment as well, and is becoming even more so as retailers increasingly value agility over continuity. If the brand environment seems dynamic and fast-paced now, it only promises to become more so in the future, as broad, long-term retail brand exclusives become the exception rather than the rule.

Today, brand marketers have an unprecedented opportunity to synch up with retail by reassessing competitive boundaries and further diversifying its collaborative approaches. Are private, national and licensed brands your competitors or potential team mates in your nonzero game?

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This article originally ran on the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association (LIMA) website.