This article is part of an occasional series from leading voices about key issues facing marketing today.

Think of the companies that dominated their industry despite hordes of competitors: What did they have in common? If you're competing in a crowded market, what can you learn from those leaders to apply to your own business?

Leading companies generally take one of three main paths to surge ahead of their competitors.

1. Be first

Being first to market comes with its challenges—educating the market, finding the right timing, changing buyer behaviors—but also its advantages. Taking the trailblazer approach allows you to set the tone of what matters and what doesn't, and it sets up your team to be the thought leaders in an emerging industry.

Kleenex has become the clear leader of the facial tissue market that it created. Many consumers even use the brand name for any facial tissue. "Imagine a world before tissues," its brand history page starts. After launching Kleenex as a women's makeup remover, the company found that some (male) employees had started using the tissues instead of a handkerchief when sneezing. Suddenly, Kleenex emerged as a product for both men and women—and for a new purpose. It has been the top facial tissue product in the world since launching in 1930, and it's on Forbes's list of World's Most Valuable Brands.

By being first to market, Kleenex was able to solidify its place as the leader.

How can you be first? Start by getting to know your customers deeply. Learn their needs, challenges, and problems. If you find a challenge not yet solved, there's an "in" to be the first. You don't have to be struck by lightning to be generate a brilliant idea. Conduct research to understand your customer base and how you can tackle an unsolved problem, aiming to create value for those customers.

2. Be 10 times better

If a competitor has beaten you to the punch, the game's not over yet. You can benefit from their efforts to overcome those first-mover challenges, but the task you face is now different: You need to be better. And not just a little better—you need to be 10 times better than the leading competitor.

The market leader benefits from more brand recognition and thought leadership because it's paved the way in this new industry. It likely already has a significant customer base that you want to steal away, and to entice people to change their behavior requires an outsized benefit to the effort involved.

Amazon, with its $770 billion market cap as of this writing, has repeatedly beaten out its competition with a more expansive, convenient, and speedy offering. Starting as an online bookstore, Amazon didn't have the same constraints as its main competitors—including well-known bookstore giants such as Barnes & Noble—so it was able to offer more to the customers of those stores.

In its first three years, Amazon already had 2.5 million titles and 1.5 million customers in more than 150 countries. It certainly earned its tagline "Earth's Biggest Bookstore," and it has gone on to beat out competitors in other e-commerce categories by offering a 10-times-better solution.

How can you be 10 times better? Analyze what your customers care about and plot your competitors' strengths and weaknesses. Figure out your unique strength, and lean into that while identifying your competitors' gaps. How can you uniquely solve your customers' problems with the skills and assets you hold? That is how you find your sweet spot that will allow you to go far and above your competitors.

3. Be different

Finally, there's a third path to win in a competitive market: Be different. It would be fitting, then, to look to the company that championed "Think Different" as its tagline, Apple.

You don't need to play another competitor's game to win in an industry. Ultimately, companies win when they best serve their customers and highlight what makes an approach unique when there are many alternatives from which to choose.

Apple has been a constant example of a company that prioritizes design—something not often the case in the early days of personal computing. From the very beginning of the company, design held a primary role in the development of products.

"Everybody there is thinking about UX and design, not just the designers," said former Apple senior designer and UX evangelist Mark Kawano. The result was a different product and a different marketing approach—and, ultimately, an incredibly loyal, fanatical customer base.

Apple changed the conversation about what was important, and that helped it win in an established market, attracting customer upon customer and shifting the industry to a new playing field that it owned.

How can you be different? Take a step back and separate yourself from the "norms" of your industry. What are your company's values? How could they manifest themselves in your product or service? Take inspiration from other industries more than from your own competitors. Follow in the footsteps of some of the greatest business leaders by taking a "think week" where you disconnect from the day-to-day to think outside the box.

* * *

There's no one path to winning in a competitive market, but being first to market, offering a 10 times better solution, or taking a unique product or marketing approach can be the key to becoming a market leader.

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Three Paths for Surging Ahead of the Competition

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image of Ellie Mirman

Ellie Mirman is CMO at Crayon, a market and competitive intelligence company that provides strategic insights and inspiration for marketers.

LinkedIn: Ellie Mirman

Twitter: @ellieeille