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In 1984, Apple launched a legendary Superbowl commercial that depicted Apple fans as the visionary, cool kids on the block, while the PC guys were shown as the out-of-touch nerds. The advertisement was a sensation, and the competition had everyone talking about the upcoming release of the Macintosh.
Today, more than two decades later, companies still pit themselves against competitors in order to get people talking.
Samsung, for example, loves releasing videos that make fun of Apple, with one of the most popular ones depicting iPhone fans as idiots. Pepsi constantly targets Coca-Cola with tactics like its Pepsi Challenge and recent Halloween advertisement. Earlier in the year, McDonald’s and Taco Bell engaged in an intense breakfast battle, where Taco Bell tried to steal the spotlight from McDonald’s breakfast.
Creating a brand rivalry is a risky strategy, but when it works, it can make all the difference.
According to marketing experts, striking up a public competition is especially useful for inferior brands that want to elevate their status. Jeffrey Hayzlett, founder at The Hayzlett Group, says, “By picking a fight, it allows you to take a swing at the bigger guy and be included in a bigger pool.”
If a company is indistinguishable from other competitors on its level, targeting the leader in the industry can raise its position in the market.
David Reibstein, professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, says, “Not that long ago, Samsung was perceived at the same level as Hitachi, Acer, and Asus. But by going after Apple, the dominant player in the marketplace, Samsung elevated its brand, while the other companies were left competing for space against a group of pretty faceless rivals.”
Coming after a superior company can also win consumer sympathy for the smaller business. Karen Post, author of “Brand Turnaround,” says, “Often small startup brands will take the underdog position and will try to gain the sympathy vote.”
Indeed, this worked when Avis publically admitted it was No. 2 to Hertz and was therefore motivated to “try harder.” From 1963 to 1966, this successful advertising campaign helped shrink the market-share percentage gap between Avis and Hertz from 61-29 to 49-36.
Creating an enemy also helps build loyalty within the workplace and the consumer audience. “Having a rival inspires employees and gives them a stronger corporate mission,” says Scott McKain, author of “Create Distinction: What to Do When ‘Great’ Isn’t Good Enough to Grow Your Business.
” It’s the same reason why sports fans become close-knit when their team goes up against a rival: People like competition, and a rivalry brings out loyalty like never before.
“It encourages consumers to take sides,” says Jonah Berger, author of “Contagious: Why Things Catch On.” “They allow people to disagree, feel like there is an us vs. them, and generally become more attached to the brand than they might be otherwise. Just like the Yankees and the Red Sox or the Heat and the Spurs, Coke vs. Pepsi lets people be part of something bigger than themselves.”
Kent Huffman, vice president of marketing at Servergy, says companies can highlight their own strengths by comparing them to their enemy’s weaknesses. “With an enemy,
it’s easier to tailor messages that play up your strengths,” he says. “If your competitors are lacking in those areas, that resonates particularly well in the marketplace.”
A great example is the rivalry between Papa John’s and Domino’s pizza. They compete for the same space in the market, but they are very clear about who they are. As McKain puts it, “If you want a pizza in 30 minutes, you think of Domino’s. If you want better ingredients and higher quality pizza, you think of Papa John’s. That’s what makes their competition work.”
Most of all, brand rivalry is effective because it attracts attention. Post points out, “If it’s a bit shocking or controversial, it can earn publicity and that can be worth millions in buzz and brand awareness.” Conflict gets people talking because it makes things more interesting.
However, some companies publicize their rivalries in the wrong way, which can backfire fast. “Openly criticising competitors might take the message in a negative direction that may turn the prospect off, while eroding your credibility and forcing you to conclusively prove poor performance by others,” says Huffman. If companies constantly bicker about why they are better, it is difficult to maintain the professional demeanor that many business partners seek.
As a result, there are a few factors to keep in mind before promoting a rivalry.
One factor is brand image. Post advises, “If you are a soft, gentle, kind brand like Dove or an elegant fashion brand like Chanel, putting on your boxing gloves is not really an attractive look, nor is it going to enhance your brand essence.”
Another factor is status. Higher-status companies should never pick on the brands inferior to them. “Coke doesn’t need to be going after Pepsi. Apple doesn’t need to go after Samsung. It’s always the other way around,” says McKain.
When companies strike up a public competition, it incites an intense desire for their competitors to find fault with them, so they better have their own houses in order. Huffman warns, “You could wake a sleeping giant who is now intent on doing everything possible to protect their customers and take yours.” For example, in 2008 Campbell’s Soup publically accused its rival Progresso of having MSG in its soup. In response, Progresso pointed the finger back, creating a marketing war in which Progresso exposed the fact that Campbell’s used MSG in 95 of its soups.
Businesses also have to be careful about what they’re doing for their competition, not just what they’re doing against their competition. They could accidentally give their rivals positive attention. Reibstein warns, “Sometimes, you might just help the competition by bringing them up into consideration when they weren’t even being considered at all before.” Companies might also point out flaws that their competitors weren’t aware of, which gives the rival an opportunity to fix them and regain the advantage.
Finally, companies should make sure they don’t try to compete against every element of their rival. “You have to be smart about what your brand is, so customers can see points of distinction between you two,” McKain says.
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