About ten years before fast food brands entered the “chicken sandwich wars,” How Brands Grow author Byron Sharp illustrated competitor sets by offering a prescient example of how categories tend to blend for customers and create larger brand competition than marketers often consider.

Using a few brands, including KFC and McDonalds, as example, he noted that each fast food brand offered some version of a chicken sandwich.

In 2020, we seemed to hit peak chicken sandwich—and Sharp’s point was made for him in a fairly absurd way.

McDonald’s doesn’t just compete against Burger King, KFC doesn’t just compete against Popeyes, Domino’s doesn’t just compete against Pizza Hut. They all compete against each other in a variety of circumstances—like when a customer wants a chicken sandwich.

In a world of hyper-niche and better-for-you products, we tend to think about this absurdist example a lot: A product isn’t just competitive with others in its niche—it’s competitive with all products that share any of its attributes.

What’s that mean?

An example: The rise of non/low-ABV beverages would have you thinking those products are primarily competing against each other for replacing a consumer’s alcoholic drink.

Really, though, they’re also competing against anything else that can replace a consumer’s alcoholic drink, including a variety beverages that aren’t marketed in such a way.

Further, unless a customer is fully replacing her/his drinking habit with non/low-ABV products, that purchase is a net-new spend for the customer—meaning she or he needs is likely reducing spend elsewhere.

What category, then, gets supplanted in the share of wallet?

That, too, is competitive.

If you can answer this question, it unlocks insights into product positioning, messaging, and potential category expansion. Some of that will take time to get to, but the immediate benefit is knowing who you’re truly competing with.