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I am looking for an informal term or an expression to define the best company (the more competitive and successful) within a specific industry.

A similar example is the expression "killer application" which is often used to refer to most successful software applications. A formal expression I often see is "industry leader", but I need an informal or slang one.

Sample usage:

IBM used to be the......of the IT industry in the past.

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I'm not clear why you need references if you would be happy with a slang usage. 'Top dog' is borderline highly informal - slang. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 11 at 10:08
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Yes; you're supposed to do reasonable research yourself on ELU. Given the term, you could look for examples online yourself. By searching for "top dog" + "company" or "top dog" + "IBM", for instance. I quickly arrived at 'Amazon remains the top dog in cloud by far'. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 11 at 10:13
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@EdwinAshworth - excuse me, I didn't know about "top dog". How could I make a research on it? I know the expression "industry leader" and I am asking for an informal equivalent expression....what's wrong with it? How can research something I don't know? – Saturana Mar 11 at 10:25
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@EdwinAshworth I have never heard of "top dog" used like this, and my English is pretty good. I might have suggested "top cat" myself, but that meaning is quite different from top dog neither of which a learner would be familiar with, and would probably never dream of making up. Slang is notoriously difficult to look up, if you don't already know what you're looking for. – Mari-Lou A Mar 11 at 10:59
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@Mari-Lou A It was not an answer at that time. My real concern about this sort of question is the disproportionate acclaim obvious suggestions receive. 11 upvotes for a wrong answer ('market leader') barely different from OP's suggestion. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 11 at 16:40

18 Answers 18

I think the term you're looking for is market leader.

A market leader is a company that has the largest market share in an industry, and which can use its dominance to affect the competitive landscape and direction the market takes.

Source: Market Leader Definition | Investopedia http://www.investopedia.com/terms/m/market-leader.asp#ixzz42aZkmi6a

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Is "market leader" a slang expression? – Josh61 Mar 11 at 10:29
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@Josh61: No, market leader is a very well established term, used both colloquially and and in formal writing. Examples in the New York Times. – PLL Mar 11 at 11:45
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@PLL - thanks, my point is that it does not answer the question. – Josh61 Mar 11 at 11:46
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@Josh61: ah, I take your point. I had thought it did, since it’s not exclusively a formal/technical expression, but is also used informally. But looking back, since the OP explicitly says they feel industry leader is too formal, then I guess they will feel the same way about this. – PLL Mar 11 at 11:49
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My instinct is that "industry leader" is closer to the inquirer's sense of best; the term "market leader", as indicated here, indicates largest, which is not exactly the same thing. – Daniel R. Collins Mar 11 at 19:15

I would go with top dog for this. As defined by dictionary.com

a person, group, or nation that has acquired a position of highest authority.

I would posit that a company can be considered a group, and therefore the term could be applied to one.

Forbes and rt.com support this usage of the term in contexts involving nations or companies.

"IBM used to be the top dog of the IT industry in the past" should be recognised by most native speakers as a reference to their dominance and success.

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IMHO, 'used to be...in the past' sounds awful, even ungrammatical. Are you OK with it? – Egox Mar 11 at 13:53
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@Egox As with most of the sample sentences I mirror back, I usually use the same form the OP used. I agree that it sounds awful, and should either be "IBM used to be the top dog of the IT industry" or "IBM was the top dog of the industry in the past" but I didn't want to cause confusion. – John Clifford Mar 11 at 13:54
    
Also, "cat's meow". – alfreema Mar 11 at 15:05
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@alfreema or cat's whiskers, or bees knees, or dog's bollocks...we seem to have an amusingly large stock of idioms meaning "best thing" that are body parts of animals. – John Clifford Mar 11 at 15:08
    
@Egox - I don't think it is ungrammatical, but it certainly is redundant. – Saturana Mar 11 at 15:44

This is not one word, but for a common expression, I'd suggest "(the) 800 pound gorilla in/of ... industry."

"IBM is the 800 pound gorilla in the IT-industry."

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/800-pound_gorilla

"800-pound gorilla" is an American English expression for a person or organization so powerful that it can act without regard to the rights of others or the law. The phrase is rooted in a joke riddle:

"Where does an 800-lb. gorilla sit?"

The answer:

"Anywhere it wants to."

This highlights the disparity of power between the "800-lb. gorilla" and everything else.

The term can describe a powerful geopolitical and military force, or, in business, a powerful corporate entity that has such a large majority percentage of whatever market they compete within that they can use that strength to crush would-be competitors. (The metaphor includes an inherent bit of hyperbole; the highest weight yet recorded for an actual obese gorilla is 600 lb. (270 kg). The average weight is 400 lb.)

The metaphor has been mixed, on occasion, with the metaphor of the elephant in the room.[1]

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There's not necessarily even a relation between the two. Company A could produce the best products, while company B could have enough distribution muscle to dominate the industry. – T.E.D. Mar 11 at 21:56

The leading example in any field is known as the Paragon.

A paragon is an example that is held to be an example of excellence.
The word is used in many fields, industry being just one of them.

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Try cream of the crop.

Fig. the best of all. This particular car is the cream of the crop. These three students are very bright. They are the cream of the crop in their class. - The Free Dictionary

It's a little awkward in your sample sentence but here's a slight rewording:

In the IT industry, IBM used to be the cream of the crop.

Since you're looking for colloquial usage, here are some examples from around the web:

  • IBM has always been the cream of the crop. - shakarocks
  • IBM was the cream of the crop. - Anders Bylund
  • IBM was the cream of the crop, until the 75 GXP. - Bozo
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closely relate: Crem de la creme - the best of something – WernerCD Mar 11 at 16:45
    
Thanks @WernerCD. I saw that phrase as well but thought the words were either French or at least too raw an import into English for this site. – Lawrence Mar 11 at 16:47
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Well... I guess you could say that. Being American, there are more than a few phrases I'd consider common place even if they aren't purely "English". C'est La Vie as a second one. It's not like the etymology of language ain't a mixture of every other language due to our diverse immigration inputs anyways. – WernerCD Mar 11 at 17:08
  1. May I suggest, the idiom head and shoulders above (not the anti-dandruff shampoo). If something or someone is head and shoulders above the rest, it means they are by far the best in that field.

  2. Something a little more fancy, perhaps? How about a French expression; crème de la crème Cambridge Dictionaries Online says: the ​best ​people in a ​group or the ​best ​type of a ​particular thing

  3. A world-beater suggests the best of its kind, the number one par excellence. It has a more dynamic and modern sound than the previous two suggestions. From the BBC website, an article entitled

What happened to Japan's electronic giants?.

Mr Nakanishi decided to return Hitachi to its core business: heavy engineering. Gas turbines, steam turbines, nuclear power plants, high-speed trains, these are the areas he believes Hitachi can still be a world beater, especially in the developing world.

  1. Front-runner the ​person, ​animal, or ​organization that is most ​likely to ​win something [CDO] From the same BBC article, the term is used to great effect

Mr Nakanishi's strategy is working. Hitachi is back in profit. Hitachi trains are the front-runner in the competition to replace all of the UK's fleet of inter-city high-speed trains.

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+1, especially for "front-runner." – Papa Poule Mar 11 at 21:59
    
One answer per answer, please. – Mathieu K. Mar 12 at 8:23
    
@MathieuK. I'd rather not post four separate answers which are roughly synonymous. However, if the answer suggested is radically different then it's a good idea to post a separate answer. Which I have done in the past by the way. This is a problem with single-word requests, often there is more than one possible answer this encourages lists, but as long as you justify, support or explain each term the OP can make an informed choice. – Mari-Lou A Mar 12 at 8:44
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@Mari-LouA: Mmhmm, but it makes it harder to vote on. For instance, I really like your fourth one (front-runner), as it both came to mind and also probably fits--the front-runner in a marketplace or industry would necessarily be most competitive (that is, most likely to succeed). However, I'm powerless to do anything about this, as it's lumped in with other answers to which I do not wish to extend my vote. – Mathieu K. Mar 12 at 9:10
    
@MathieuK. You should vote up if you've found the answer useful (at least most part of it), and vote down if the answer is terribly wrong. If an answer contains a list, you may mention in the comments why you think certain items aren't fitting here. If you're confused, then just don't vote at all. Entering multiple answers is discouraged if they are mostly similar. – NVZ Mar 12 at 9:36

If there is an element of innovation, then "trailblazer" may be appropriate.

TrailblazerM-W

a person who makes, does, or discovers something new and makes it acceptable or popular; a pioneer
"a trailblazer in astrophysics"

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A trailblazer is one of the "first," not necessarily one of the "best," and it is the latter that is asked after. The Apple Lisa was a trailblazer in that it was the first personal computer to offer a GUI, but it was a terrible failure as a product. – choster Mar 11 at 19:31

I can think of two expressions that were borrowed from other examples, and became idioms:

  • Gold Standard: (2nd def in link) A model of excellence; a paragon.

  • Cadillac: The name of something powerful or superior. (From the name of the automobile.)

Example usage:

  • Our company is setting the gold standard in the retail landscaping products sector.
  • In my opinion, the orange is the Cadillac of fruits.

The second is falling out of use as the image and reputation of that particular General Motors automobile brand is no longer as prevalent as it once was. I still hear it used once in while, including facetiously: The BMW is the Cadillac of automobiles.

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+1 It's funny "BMW is the Cadillac". – NVZ Mar 11 at 15:21
    
Be careful about using brand names and/or registered trade marks like Cadillac in this way. Some companies can be quite aggressive in protecting their brand names from becoming "commonly used words," for example "hoover" used a noun or a verb referring to any activity which involves collecting items together, rather than brand name of a specific product. If such a reference is used in a publication that is widely circulated, you may get a response from the brand name's legal department. – alephzero Mar 11 at 16:11
    
Reminds me of "Water is nature's fruit juice." – John Clifford Mar 11 at 17:12
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Ironically, Cadillac once tried to use the advertising slogan "Cadillac - the Rolls Royce of cars". – TimLymington Mar 13 at 11:18

The term bellwether, defined in MW as

one that takes the lead or initiative : leader;

also : an indicator of trends

interprets best as being the leader. If financial performance made a company "best", then for years you would consider Microsoft to be the best technology company in the world. If you use "leader", you would have picked IBM, then something around Microsoft/Intel/Dell, and probably now Apple.

For e.g.: IBM used to be the bellwether of the IT industry in the past.

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"IBM used to be the king/boss/top-gun of the IT industry"

King (or queen, if preferred) — TFD

a person or thing preeminent in its class: "the king of actors."

BossTFD

One who makes important decisions or exercises authority.

Top GunDictionary.com

the most important or powerful person in a particular sphere; the top-ranked person in a group.

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Similar to each other, but non-identical—should this be two answers? – Mathieu K. Mar 12 at 8:25
    
@MathieuK. It cannot be two separate answers unless they are two completely different ones. – NVZ Mar 12 at 8:28
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"King of the industry" was the first thing that popped to my mind when i read the question. – ApproachingDarknessFish Mar 12 at 8:44

If you want a single word answer, you may consider

Acme

Acme is defined (on dictionary.com) as:

the highest point; summit; peak: The empire was at the acme of its power.

Therefore the preeminent company in its field would be said to be the acme of that field. In fact, you might also want to consider preeminent. Defined at dictionary.com as:

eminent above or before others; superior; surpassing: He is preeminent in his profession.

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I'd be interested to know why this suggestion was downvoted without comment. Have I misread the original question or missed the point? – Spratty Mar 11 at 15:04
    
Not my down vote, but would you say "IBM used to be the acme of IT industry"? – Saturana Mar 11 at 15:49
    
@Saturana: yes, I would - either that or say "IBM were once preeminent in the IT industry". – Spratty Mar 11 at 16:08
    
Due to Loony Toons I would assume IBM used to be the acme of the IT industry would mean it was a joke. – rom016 Mar 13 at 8:18

I go for lodestar.

IBM used to be the lodestar of the IT industry in the past.

In other words, IBM at one time served as a guide or model as to how things could and should be done in the IT industry. IBM set the standard but was subsequently imitated and surpassed by various Johnnies-come-lately.

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In a review of the top five on-line tax preparation services, Yardena Arar of PCWorld declares in the review’s title that “TurboTax Is Still the One to Beat” and later, early in paragraph 3, uses the more formal “market-leading TurboTax” to reiterate the title’s declaration.

There’s also a similar and relevant use of “[still] the one to beat” in the title of a blog entry discussing how IBM, the very company mentioned in your example sentence is [still] a “market leader” in India.
(from Akanksha Awal’s blog, ‘beyondbrics’)

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From Lewis's comment: at the head.

Other expressions similarly denoting elevated status:

  • IBM used to be at the top of the IT industry.
  • IBM used to be the top company of the IT industry.
  • IBM used to be chief (or head) of the IT industry.
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Also leader, though that's not informal: IBM used to be leader of the IT industry. – Mathieu K. Mar 12 at 8:55

A lot of good options here, one that I've heard before, particularly in an investment context, is best of breed.

From Investopedia:

A stock that represents the most optimal investment choice for a specific sector or industry due to its high quality compared to its competitors. This slang is derived from dog shows, where the highest quality dog for each breed wins an award and is given the "best of breed" title.

There is similar (though not exactly the same) usage from Gartner, who would likely have classed IBM as such at some point.

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best in class is the term I would apply to anything other than an animal. Google offers over 1 billion results for best in class term. – sq33G Mar 14 at 9:01
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Best of breed is definitely widely used in the financial industry. Although sometimes I see it with hyphens: best-of-breed – Necreaux Mar 14 at 12:07
    
@sq33g this is a figurative or slang term, best in class is the more literal or formal equivalent, definitely similar terms. – Josh Rumbut Mar 14 at 13:07

Consider,

big name

A recognized leader in a particular field.

Random House Kennerman Webster's College Dictionary

Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp., which used to be the big name in this field, has stopped making this type of plane for the commercial market, now produces only for the government.)

Business Week

flagship

: the best, largest, or most important one of a group of things (such as products, stores, etc.)

Merriam-Webster

Photoshop used to be the flagship of this company. Photoshop Family

Cadillac's newest flagship was revealed tonight in New York. The Coolist

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+ 1 A usage example may be helpful. – Josh61 Mar 11 at 11:03
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NIce. But, is it an informal term as the OP requires? – BiscuitBoy Mar 11 at 11:07
    
@BiscuitBoy UrbanDictionary marks it as "slang" urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Flagship – Elian Mar 11 at 11:29
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"Flagship" is usually used for the premier location within a single company. To indicate the top company within an industry, the word "benchmark" is probably more common. (US) – Oldbag Mar 11 at 12:33
    
Flagship is used for a company's main, or premier, product. It is not used for company (but someone could start such a use, of course). And your examples reflect this. – Drew Mar 12 at 15:24

I would perhaps consider 'Forerunner';

a person or thing that precedes the coming or development of someone or something else. "the ice safe was a forerunner of today's refrigerator" synonyms: predecessor, precursor, antecedent, ancestor, forebear;

IBM used to be the forerunner of the IT industry in the past.

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Thanks, but forerunners are not always the best in the industry. – Saturana Mar 11 at 16:29
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@Saturana I, on a personal level, would disagree with that. Forerunner is usually synonymous with Forefront, which is generally used to describe a person or a company at the head of their respective field. But point taken. – Lewis Mar 11 at 16:31
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A forerunner is often "first" but not "best", so it can often be confusing. Literally "one who came before". Being first chronologically does not necessarily imply the best in the industry, e.g. "Pets.com is a forerunner of today's modern online storefronts". – Digital Chris Mar 11 at 17:12
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If you replace forerunner with predecessor, precursor, antecedent, ancestor, or forebear in the example sentence, you'll see that the resulting sentence does not convey the notion of "best company in the industry"—and that it tends to be even more redundant than it was when "used to be ... in the past" was the only repetition. For example: "IBM used to be the ancestor of the IT industry in the past." It doesn't work logically either: It used to be the ancestor but now it's not? – Sven Yargs Mar 11 at 17:13
    
"archaic: an advance messenger." –Google. You are the best in the industry if you are the only one in it. IMO, (yes, there were others) IBM single-handedly heralded the computer age. IBM was the forerunner, but it is no longer at the forefront. Either way, the colloquial use of this word fits the OP's requirement of it being slang. – Mazura Mar 12 at 1:13

pinnacle might suit your usage. It's about something being the highest level, akin to a 'peak'.

the highest or culminating point, as of success, power, fame, etc.:

For example:

the pinnacle of one's career.

Source: Dictionary.com

As mbomb007 points out

pinnacle suggests that IBM was the peak, but also suggests that the IT industry as a whole has gone downhill since then, rather than that IBM is no longer the leader.

This association depends a bit on how you use it but it's something to be aware of.

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Using pinnacle suggests that IBM was the peak, but also suggests that the IT industry as a whole has gone downhill since then, rather than that IBM is no longer the leader, which probably isn't what the OP wants to convey. – mbomb007 Mar 11 at 17:45
    
Also, "apex" meaning the top of the mountain. But I don't think these are informal (enough). – SiteNook Mar 11 at 17:56
    
@mbomb007 That's a good point I'll add in. I think it depends on usage but that's definitely an association that's involved. – SuperBiasedMan Mar 11 at 17:58

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