Slater’s Strategy

by Ben Perreira

The word “strategy” gets thrown around in the business world quite a bit. I am guilty as well. When I refer to strategy I am referring to competition and the methods that go into winning. When I think of winning, I think of one man – Kelly Slater.

Kelly’s “mind games” are well publicized in the surfing world. He is known for telling the late Andy Irons “I love you like a brother” right before a final at Pipeline in 2003. These mind games may or may not work, but they are not what I think makes KS such a savage competitor.

The key to Kelly beating everyone for the past 20+ years is his adaptability. He understands that in order to beat his competitors he must show the judges that he is better than his competitors (obvious, but stay with me).

Here is how this transpires: Dane Reynolds enters the tour around 2006 and is known for doing big airs in competition. He goes for broke on the first, most critical section, garnering huge rewards is he lands his trick. Kelly sees how this is rewarded, learns how to do similar (not the same magnitude) tricks in critical sections, but continues to do what he does better than anyone else on the rest of the wave.

Slater executed this brilliantly in Bali in June of this year. He was surfing against John John Florence. JJF was doing large carving turns on the open face with both hands by his side, sort of an old school maneuver with new school flair. Soon thereafter Kelly is doing the same turn. I have been watching surf contests for maybe 15 years and could not remember seeing Slater do a turn like that. He was mimicking John John’s innovation and the effect was that John John stood out less than he would have otherwise.

This is what the best brands do in the competitive space. Rather than judges we have consumers evaluating how we perform against other brands. If you are Toyota and own reliability, but want to own ruggedness, you invade Ford’s space.

This is not unlike what you might produce in that case:

The principles of competition translate across disciplines. It pays to be great, adapt, and not be so far ahead of the curve that consumers (or judges) don’t know how to evaluate you.