If any evidence were needed of the value of being first to market, News International and Associated Newspapers provided it last week.
Within days of Marketing breaking the news that News International had brought its launch of thelondonpaper forward by two weeks to 4 September, Associated Newspapers reacted, bringing its freesheet London Lite forward, initially to 30 August and then rushing out the first issue, a test edition, last Friday - although, at the time of writing, its official launch date remains in place.
Clearly, both newspaper groups are aware that the ability to create a splash first could provide them with the most crucial competitive edge.
'Being first to market is an advantage,' says Richard Buchanan, head of corporate branding at Corporate Edge. 'There is no competition, so you can maximise impact. That gives you the opportunity to build loyalty and start a relationship, creating a barrier to entry for other brands,' he adds.
Stealing a march on rivals taps into a deep-seated feeling linked to optimum success, according to Claire Nuttall, director of consumer brands at design and brand agency Dragon. 'A defensive panic sets in if people feel they are going to be pipped to the post with their launch - sometimes unnecessarily,' she says.
Steve Auckland, head of Associated Newspapers' free newspaper division, is keen to stress that London Lite has been three years in the planning and that it was always set to launch following the August Bank Holiday, hinting that it is News International, rather than Associated, that has been fuelling the race.
Despite Associated's clear desire to be first, Auckland believes the real fight will take place in the coming months and years, rather than the first few weeks.
Tim Brooks, managing director of IPC Ignite!, who becomes managing director of Guardian Newspapers at the end of next month, believes being the first to market could give one of the London freesheets a distinct advantage. 'If you sample something free and like it, why bother switching?' he reasons.
Brooks was involved in one of the most memorable publishing battles of recent years: the fierce race between Emap's Zoo and IPC's Nuts to become the UK's first men's weekly. Nuts managed to hit the streets a week before Zoo and has consistently outsold its bitter rival since (see box). Brooks believes the extra week made a crucial difference in achieving high levels of unprompted awareness for Nuts, with the effect still being felt today.
Magazine and newspaper publishers have often found their innovations followed quickly by 'me-too' launches, which enjoy differing degrees of success. The Independent's move to a tabloid format was closely followed by The Times and later by The Guardian's move to its Berliner size. All added sales initially. In magazines, the handbag-size Glamour sensationally became the top women's glossy on its launch in 2000 and has stayed there, despite copycat attempts, posting an ABC of 586,056 last week.
Getting to market first can even be a matter of life and death for some titles: big companies have been known to launch 'spoilers' to kill off smaller rivals. In 1999, IPC's Crime and Passion, a weekly mix of true life and crime for women, was rushed out deliberately to block Cabal Communications' planned Crime Weekly. Cabal's title folded before a single issue hit the newsstands.
Smaller brands do not always end up losing out when big names copy their innovations, as proved by Kao Brands Europe. The Japanese company launched John Frieda Sheer Blonde, the first colour-specific haircare range, and still has 50% of the premium haircare market; Biore, another brand from the Kao stable, was the first to introduce deep-cleansing nose strips and maintains a 46% share of that category.
The importance of coming to market first varies by sector, according to Peter Shaw, managing director of Brand Catalyst. While consumers might be tempted to switch between FMCG brands, first movers in markets such as technology or financial services can hit the jackpot.
This is because consumers are not in a hurry to pay out a lot of money for another, similar gadget - although Apple's iPod has proved an exception - and once signed up to financial products they often cannot be bothered to switch. Shaw cites the example of Egg, the UK's first internet bank account, which attracted customers in with high interest rates on savings.
Capitalising on first-mover advantage also requires a certain amount of consumer education if the product is trying to change behaviour or habits. Being second can mean a brand benefits from the 'educational' groundwork laid down by the first to market, explains Nadine Mason, innovation director at RHM Culinary Brands. 'Benecol was first in the market, but the sector took off when Flora pro.activ came in.'
Letting niche brands test the water can also work to a big brand's advantage. Coming second can give a brand the chance to 'understand the mistakes of its predecessor and find a new angle', says Shaw. If a product is rushed to market before it is ready, the results can be disastrous, as in the case of Persil Power, which Unilever was forced to withdraw after it rotted clothes.
In the case of the London freesheets, the fight is between one press titan striving to defend its turf and the other trying to launch what is likely to be the basis of a national network of evening papers. Round one to Associated.
DATA FILE - FIRST TO MARKET
In January 2004 IPC's Nuts came out a week earlier than its rival, Emap's Zoo, creating the men's weekly market. Nuts has consistently outsold Zoo ever since its first issue sold about 50,000 copies more than the latter's 150,000 - a lead it has extended to more than 76,000 copies, according to the ABCs.
Zoo had a launch budget of £10m, which Emap spent over a number of months, while Nuts' launch was backed by £8m of marketing activity that was carried out in a concentrated burst.
According to the TNS Worldpanel 2006 Biggest Brands survey, Johnson & Johnson achieved a 20% rise in value sales due to the success of its hybrid tanning moisturiser, Holiday Skin. Launched in May 2005, the product tapped into consumers' desire to achieve a healthy glow gradually rather than using traditional self-tanning products.
Holiday Skin created a sector, inspiring 'me-too' launches from brands such as Dove, Nivea and Garnier. Johnson & Johnson followed the launch with night-time and facial variants. Hybrid tanning moisturisers now account for 5% of the total skincare market.
The Number, owner of directory enquiries service 118 118, paid Leaf UK £2m for the distinctive number. It gained a crucial advantage by launching its promotional activity six months before BT's old 192 service was switched off.
By the time BT started advertising its replacement, The Number had 82% brand awareness. It has since achieved 39% spontaneous awareness of directory enquiries services among consumers, compared with BT's 15%, according to Ofcom.