How and when to go after rivals in your marketing

It’s hard enough to convert consumers to your brand without worrying about competing marketers making similar claims. Though it would be great to have a marketplace all to yourself, the reality is free-market economics and anti-trust laws ensure that brands will forever have to battle against other players in their space, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

A typical response to adversaries is outward silence, ignoring their existence in public while staking out advantageous positioning behind the scenes. Yet, several case studies show that there are high-profile exceptions to this rule, in which advertisers have found success at the expense of their competitors. With that in mind, we reached out for some expert guidance on using marketing to define the competition. 

Any attack ad needs to be pitch-perfect with the rest of a brand’s identity, experts say. Any messaging needs to fit within the nebulous parameters of authentic representation of brand identity. In other words, marketers need implicit permission from customers to throw shade.

“Consumers are incredibly attached to brands. They take them very personally, and when a brand does something that they don’t believe a brand should do, it can create a surprising backlash,” says Paola Norambuena, chief content officer at brand consultancy Interbrand. “If you are not a brand that is naturally a challenger, or that people see as a challenger, it can feel quite inauthentic. It can do more damage than good because people aren’t expecting it, or may begin to associate negativity with your brand rather than anything positive.”

Norambuena stresses that marketers need to “understand the stretch of their own brand”—the market-facing boundaries that consumers draw around products, services and organizations. “The minute you understand where that barrier is, you can figure out either a very smart way to push over it, or you understand that that’s your limit, and if you push any further you might actually lose sales as opposed to gaining preference,” she says.

After sussing out that boundary, Norambuena says marketers then need to determine what about the category needs instruction. Is it becoming amorphous, with everyone saying the same things? Does your brand require clarification or differentiation in relation to your competitors?

Only when you’re confident about what direction to proceed and how much “permission” you have to grow in that direction is it time to start mapping out a campaign sizing up the competition. Here, again, there are many hurdles to navigate. The first being: Do you name the brand you’re talking about? Many experts, Norambuena included, say, “No.”

“There are really only a few brands that get away with that. Typically, when they do that, it has to be built either on a humorous approach to things, so that it isn’t alienating. Or it needs to fall back to blind taste tests where the product is speaking for itself. It isn’t just me saying, ‘I’m better.’ There’s real proof behind what I’m doing,” she says. “My personal preference, and it is an oldie but a goodie, is Apple versus PC. They never said Microsoft. It was always just a PC. Machine against machine. But the characters were individually loveable, so it became a cult.”

Mac vs. PC: Windows Vista

Michael Migliozzi, creative director and managing partner at Los Angeles advertising agency Forza Migliozzi, goes even further than Norambuena. He believes the era of direct callouts is largely over.

“Coke versus Pepsi went on for decades. Pepsi was the one that tried to put itself in the same room with Coke, [as] an alternative to Coke. That came with a very big spend and was done during a very traditional time period,” Migliozzi says. “The only way the consumer was able to voice their opinion on it was at the store. Now they can voice their opinion on social media and you could end up with an army of folks screaming back at you on behalf of the brand that you’re attacking. The dynamics have changed. If you’re just sitting back in 1986, watching television, and it’s Coke versus Pepsi, you may not even talk about it to your friend. But now in 2016, you’ll go on your Facebook, your Instagram, your Twitter and say something about it.”

In place of naming the brand you’re going after, Migliozzi says it’s common to instead call out an attitude, or emotion, clearly occupied by your competitor. “Let’s say, for example, you’re not going to see Nike turn around Reebok when they were adding bells and whistles to their sneakers,” he says. “They attack the fad.”

Trend-shaming is one of the most popular forms of going after the competition. To combat changing tastes, many brands brainstorm campaigns that act as collective eye rolls against emerging preferences. Look no further than Budweiser’s advertising at this year’s Super Bowl for an example. The spot, which took several veiled shots at craft brews through intense action-like sequences of brewery and party footage accompanied by a bass-blasting soundtrack. The commercial defiantly states what Budweiser is with visual cues and uses text to emphatically state what it’s not. According to the beer giant’s own marketing, it’s not a hobby, not small, not sipped, not imported, not a fruit cup, not following anyone else. Or, in other (unsaid) words, not a craft brewery.

Budweiser USA: 2016 Super Bowl Commercial


These ads can arouse strong feelings in consumers who feel slighted by evolving popular tastes they would prefer not to adopt. “You’re empowering them. They’re not falling behind on a trend by drinking Budweiser,” Migliozzi says.

Other times it’s challenging the collective. Think, “Think Different.”

“To quote a really classic one, it’s what Apple did in 1984,” Norambuena says. “It took on a nameless, faceless entity. Most people understood it was IBM, but they never called out IBM.  They called out a problem that was affecting humanity rather than saying, it’s me against this brand. Then, if you’re challenging the collective, you’re naturally setting yourself apart.”

One area where Migliozzi believes it might make sense to go after a competitor directly is in a mature market. When there is zero or low growth of new customers, your only option for expansion is poaching users away from competitors. This dynamic plays out often between cellphone carriers. The big names in the space have been attacking one another by name for years, comparing plan details in ads and showing purported coverage maps of the other operators. Recently, Sprint recruited Verizon’s former pitchman in a particularly petty broadside.

“That seems to be a pie that’s been sliced up, so everyone is trying to grab another brand’s part of the pie, because it’s not growing,” Migliozzi says. “In that case, that brawl is going to continually take place. And that does make some sense because it is ever-changing in terms of their coverage, features and pricing.”

Whatever the strategy, the goal needs to be the same as a straightforward pitch: turning consumers toward your brand at the expense of the rest of the category. Arguing against the competitors can be an effective mechanism for facilitating that movement, but only if the criticisms are something that consumers will actually care about.

“The mentality here with a leading brand, or a brand looking to be a leader, is not acknowledging your competitors, it’s acknowledging your consumers’ needs and wants,” Migliozzi says. “If you can answer that better, that’s all you need to speak to.”