What Makes a Great Business Drama?

As a business strategist, I find competitive battles like the Apple iPhone vs. Google Android vs. Blackberry pretty fascinating.  It’s like watching the playoffs or the latest season of Dexter.  Ok, maybe not quite that intense.  But some business stories really do take on a life of their own.  Boeing vs. Airbus.  Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft.  Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and now Apple in the ebook reader market.  What makes them stand out so vividly?

Great companies

Clearly, companies that are executing at the top of their games are fun to hear about.  I think a lot of people marvel at Steve Jobs’ career the same way they look at LeBron James’ stat line.  It’s just fun to watch excellence.  There’s a little bit of a cult of personality involved, too.  Just look at Jack Welch and his admirers.  It’s just too bad that he didn’t really have a worthy adversary.  In contrast, car companies and airlines are often in bitter competition, but most of them seem too dysfunctional to really get emotionally invested in.  In the airline industry, the only exceptions seem to be discount competitors like Southwest, JetBlue, and Virgin.

Cool products

Dueling fertilizer products don’t exactly capture the imagination.  And although Pepsi and Coke are great companies, the cola wars don’t have the same attraction either, because they’re mostly played out in the trench warfare of distribution and advertising.  That’s why Jobs could make his sugar water pitch to John Sculley.  Big product launches require good strategic guesswork – where is the market going to go, what’s the competition going to do?  Good to Great did a good job of romanticizing some otherwise mundane companies (sorry, Gillette, Walgreens, and Kimberly Clark – let’s not even talk about Fannie Mae), but that’s the exception to the rule.

Different positioning

This goes without saying based on the previous point, but to be captivating, companies need to take different approaches to the market.  Me-too plays are just boring.  This is another reason why the cola wars can never really be all that interesting – there’s not that much potential to truly differentiate cola.  In contrast, it’s cool to see how Boeing and Airbus have staked out fairly different positions with the 787 Dreamliner and the A380

Plot twists

This one is self-explanatory.  A good contest features punches, counter-punches, and doubt as to the outcome.  The iPhone is selling like crazy, but wait, Android’s gaining share even faster!  The A380 is delayed, but wait, so is the Dreamliner.  Which one will be ready first?  The PS2 is unstoppable.  But wait, the Xbox 360 came out before PS3 and has a better game line-up.  What’s going to happen?  No, the Wii is killing everyone!  And now the Kinect is a huge game-changer in the gaming industry.  These stories go beyond basic competition and sometimes even evolve into something truly compelling.

What else defines a great business drama?  What other companies should we be following?

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