If you are leading a business, your top priority must be defending your brand from competitive attacks.

People love to focus on growth.  Business teams spend months developing marketing plans designed to deliver incremental sales and profits.  Brand managers flock to conferences that explain how to use social media to engage customers, drive growth, and develop new products to address unmet needs.  As P&G CEO Bob McDonald said in a 2010 interview, “We’ve got to grow; that’s the main thing.”

iStock_000021046954XSmall.jpgFocusing on growth at the expense of defense is a risky move; ignoring competitive threats can lead to long term decline.

Defense is important for three reasons.

First, a new competitor can do incredible damage to your business and the stronger your business the more likely competitors will attack and try to get a piece of it.  In the extreme case, new entrants can destroy your company.  RIM, maker of Blackberry, is reeling from competitive attacks.  The stock is down from close to $150 per share in 2008 to about $7 today.  Nokia, Kodak, Blockbuster, Dannon, and Best Buy are struggling, too.

A competitor that manages to capture even a small part of your business can do significant damage.  When you calculate the financial toll, including the long term impact of having to fight a new competitor in the market, the hit is surprisingly big.

Second, with defensive strategy there is no room for error.  A growth initiative might work or it might not.  You hope it goes well, of course, but if the project falls short you simply miss your targets.  Profits might be flat instead of up. Your bonus might be smaller than you had hoped.  The core business, however, continues along.

The situation is very different when it comes to defense.  If you fail to stop a new entrant, then you have a massive problem; your entire company may be at risk.  The issue isn’t that your profits might stagnate; it is that your enterprise might see share and revenue vanish as customers move to the new entrant.

Third, defense is a distinct undertaking.  Many people will observe, “The best defense is a good offense.”  This just isn’t true.  The best defensive is a strong defense.

Growth efforts focus on building a business.  Attracting new customers, for example, is a common growth initiative, as is building extended usage and expanding into new distribution channels and new markets.

When you are under attack these growth initiatives often provide little help.  An initiative to attract new customers, for example, won’t help you keep your current customers. Spending money expanding into a new market is precisely the wrong move when you have a competitor attacking your existing business.

Creating a strong defensive plan requires deep strategic thinking and a distinct set of activities.  Programs that make no sense as growth initiatives might be highly effective defensive tactics.  A buy one, get one free deal, for example, probably makes little sense when viewed as a growth program.  It might make terrific sense, however, when evaluated as a defensive tactic.

Focusing on growth is good but companies should prioritize defensive strategy; when the core business struggles it is almost impossible to support growth programs.  Defense matters most.