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When (And How) to Talk About Competitors in Your Marketing

I was recently taken aback by a billboard off I-35 in downtown Austin. What caught my attention was the shortsighted use of advertising copy on what is likely an expensive billboard.

I don’t want to pick on this particular company because it’s local. An anonymous version of their copy reads:

Austin’s favorite [product].

(No, the other one).

Did you catch that last part?

The marketing team used their precious ad dollars to give their main competitor free advertising space on the most traffic-heavy road in Austin.

This ad surfaces an important question about marketing strategy. When—if ever—should you acknowledge your competitors in marketing copy?

Let’s explore three strategies.

1. Advantage by comparison

Advertising legend Bill Bernbach helped put Avis Car Rental on the map. The success can be traced back to a key market positioning decision, which can be summed up in Bernbach's campaign tagline, “Avis tries harder.” With this simple line, Avis (an almost unknown rental company at the time) directly compared itself to the far more established Hertz.

Mary Wells Lawrence recalls, “[Bernbach] told the world that because Avis was Number 2, it tried harder. Almost overnight Avis became perceived as a threat to Hertz—an awesome act of magic—and people began going to Avis because Avis tried harder than Hertz.”

In this case, Avis didn’t have to directly name their competitor. But with some tact, naming your competitors in a campaign can also work, as evidenced by the famous Mac vs. PC campaign from 2006. Apple compared its Mac computers to PC computers, highlighting the perceived benefits through comedy and smart positioning.

2. Control reviews and own the search results

When you want to find a chatbot service for your website, you might choose to comparison-shop by Googling the two largest companies: “Drift vs. Intercom.” If you click the first Google search result, you might find yourself on a Drift-owned landing page.

In this case, Drift mentions their main competitor to accomplish at least two things:

  1. Drive search traffic to their website (to the tune of hundreds of qualified site visitors per month)

  2. Control the conversation about how Drift and Intercom are compared

In this case, Drift isn’t simply acknowledging their main competitor and then bragging about their own product. They’re also not trashing Intercom in the comparison. Quite the opposite: the page details many of Intercom’s strengths, achieving a tone of objectivity that makes the assessment feel more believable.

As a result, Drift owns the conversation, which enables them to smoothly funnel their ideal customers toward Drift instead of Intercom.

3. Piggyback on a competitor’s campaign

Today, Salesforce is the most well-known CRM on the market. But when they were getting their start, Salesforce had some large companies to compete against. At the time, Salesforce’s CEO, Marc Benioff became famous for marketing stunts that piggybacked on competitor’s events and campaigns—driving massive publicity that eventually helped Salesforce reach the top.

My favorite example was when Salesforce’s competitor, Siebel, was putting on an event in Cannes, France. Before the event, Salesforce rented all the airport taxis with the intent of intercepting attendees. As conference-goers arrived in France and entered their taxis, they were met with a 45-minute sales pitch about Salesforce. Even some of the Siebel executives had to endure the pitch on the way to their own event.

What do you think was more memorable for attendees and journalists: the conference or the marketing hack?

You don’t have to pull a major stunt to take advantage of the piggyback strategy. A few years ago, someone at Pepsi decided it would be funny to lean into the Pepsi vs. Coca-Cola fight by creating a playful Halloween graphic. The image featured a can of Pepsi wearing a Coca-Cola costume with copy that read, “We wish you a scary Halloween!”

Source: BrandMe

But it was Coca-Cola’s marketing team who enjoyed the last laugh. In Salesforce-piggyback fashion, they borrowed Pepsi’s graphic and changed the copy: “Everybody wants to be a hero!” The change went viral and Pepsi became the easy punchline of their own graphic.

In summary: Leveraging a competitor’s fame is a risky marketing strategy that, when executed well, can occasionally put lesser-known brands on the map.

When it works, you have the opportunity to elevate your brand through strategic comparison. When it fails, you might promote your competitors while shooting down your own brand.

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Aug 27, 2023

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