How to grow your sales faster than the economy

September 19, 2011, 2:07 PM UTC

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE — As the putative economic recovery stumbles along, producing a measly 1 to 2% annual growth, what’s happening to your company’s sales? If they’re growing at the same (or an even lower) rate, it’s a safe bet that heads will roll. Yet the lousy economy has made shoppers more skittish about spending. So the moment seems ripe for some innovative thinking about how to sell more stuff.

According to author Ross Shafer in Grab More Market Share, “Your survival depends on wrestling business away from other companies that do what you do.”

Okay, but how? One way is to pounce when rivals are vulnerable, which might be right now.

Among the many lively case studies in these pages: The huge inroads made by McDonald’s (MCD) into the market for upscale coffee. Although the fast-food giant had actually created and tested its McCafe products years before, the line wasn’t launched until 2009, when Starbucks (SBUX) and other specialty stores were feeling the recession’s pinch.

By rolling out its bargain-priced McCafe drinks to 11,000 of its 114,000 locations, McDonald’s aimed to grab $1 billion in sales away from the competition. It worked. By the second quarter of 2010, McCafe drinks accounted for $420 million in fresh sales for Mickey D, while Starbucks was obliged to close about 270 stores. Notes Shafer, “Capitalizing on a competitor’s weakness is always a solid recovery strategy.”

Another way to whomp your competition: Don’t be afraid to be weird. Trying to offer all things to all consumers creates a marketplace where everything looks alike, observes Harvard Business School professor Youngme Moon in Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd.

Yet Moon’s analysis of the most successful brands of the past decade or so shows that the ones enjoying runaway growth are often the mavericks and iconoclasts. They reach jaded consumers by emphasizing their quirks, she writes, often with a “remarkably rebellious”, even “hostile,” attitude.

When the Mini Cooper, for instance, entered a U.S. auto market dominated by ever bigger and cushier SUVs, its defiant marketing message — including ads that stressed the Mini’s diminutive size by showing one parked on top of an SUV — took consumer awareness of the brand from 2% to 60% in just one year.

Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy is aimed at the general reader, but it’s hard to imagine a handier guide for marketers on how to make consumers reach for their wallets.

Author Martin Lindstrom, who advises the likes of Procter & Gamble (PG) and Microsoft (MSFT)  and wrote an eye-opening bestseller called Buyology, takes a close look at everything from who has really made teen idol Justin Bieber a star (hint: not teens) to why those steamy Abercrombie & Fitch ads appeal to straight men.

None of this is for the faint of heart. Perhaps most unsettling is Lindstrom’s explanation, in his trademark chatty style, of the peculiar (and calculated) effects of things we may not even think of as marketing devices.

Consider, for instance, video games. After citing research showing that American kids recognize as many as 100 brand logos by age three and are adept at forming brand preferences before they start kindergarten, Lindstrom looks at the brain science behind how a seemingly innocuous online virtual world like Club Penguin can turn tiny tykes into shopping addicts.

A prediction: Parents of small children who read this book will cringe (while lunging for the power button on the computer). Savvy marketers will take notes.