Over the past few weeks, I've seen multiple instances of companies using spite and or attacks to try and push themselves ahead of their competitors. I imagine in their minds, painting the competition in a poor light makes their own products and services look that much better. Unfortunately for them, they've missed a key lesson in both life and marketing. If you have to make someone else look bad in order to make yourself look or feel good, you've got a long way to go.
Now I'll be the first to admit I'm a fan of responding to competitor failures. I think a well timed piece of PR can do an excellent job of showing your company in a positive light when a competitor has fallen on their face. In fact, offering a positive alternative when folks are upset with one company tends to be a great way to launch a positive viral campaign. That said, there's a big difference between portraying yourself as a positive alternative and kicking someone in the ribs when they're already on the ground.
Don't Throw Stones, No Matter What Your House is Made Of
The idea of throwing stones at other kids in the school yard, other businesses in your town and competitors online is nothing new. I'd like to say it's because we live in a world of political ploys and tabloid journalism, but I think the truth is it's easy to take pot shots. We also happen to live in a world where it's easier to eliminate the competition than to compete against them.
Case in point. A few weeks ago I got a call from a friend who was working with a new client. Original Company has been in business for two decades. Last year, New Competitor sprung up and suddenly received a ton of press and attention. In response, Original Company revamped their sales materials and updated their product to go head to head with New Competitor.
Suddenly, Original Company gets a C&D from New Competitor's lawyer. The letter claims trademark infringement and demands Original Company cease operations. If Original Company doesn't give in they face a long, protracted legal battle with New Competitor. It was fairly obvious to me that New Competitor simply wanted to shut Original Company down any way they could before the next sales season began.
In other words, New Competitor's "marketing" strategy was to shut Original Company down rather than compete with them. This is NOT a marketing strategy. In fact, I predict word will get out about what happened and New Competitor will quickly tarnish their own reputation because they'll be seen as picking on Original Company.
Attack Ads Are Nearly Impossible to Pull Off Well
We see this type of activity in the blogging world as well. Generally, there are no C&D's flying around, but there are subtle digs, accusations and heated responses directed at competitive blogs. History has proven that when you go on the attack, you get noticed. In fact, attack posts are often one of the easiest ways to generate a slew of new links.
The problem with this style of marketing and/or blogging is that it's nearly impossible to pull off an "attack" without looking like a jerk. Sure you'll snag a lot of links, but how many of them are going to result in new readers, repeat visitors and sales? If social media has cemented anything in terms of traffic knowledge, it's understanding the true value of visitors that convert and the overrated value of traffic for the sake of traffic.
In fact, about the only attack style ad I can think of in recent history that has worked well is the "I'm a Mac" series from Apple. While the ads blatantly attack the Windows operating system, they do so with such charm and style that even the people being made fun of tend to walk away with a chuckle. Nonetheless, I always advise small businesses to avoid this style of campaign like the plague. It's simply too hard to do properly.
Learn to Differentiate Yourself in a Positive Way
Instead, I encourage them to play up their positive features. In fact, I actively encourage companies to watch for the PR missteps of their competitors so they can step in with a well timed press release. That press release should never throw stones at the original company, it should simply promote something that promotes your company as a great alternative.
A couple of examples:
When Starbucks decided to cancel a free coffee promotion that had grown beyond their intentions, Caribou Coffee stepped up and said they'd honor the coupons at their stores.
When discount carrier Skybus went belly-up last week and left passengers stranded around the country, competing airlines like US Airway, AirTran and JetBlue stepped up to offer standby seats to ticket holders for a nominal fee.
Earlier this year, a Steak and Shake landed itself in a firestorm of negative press when it refused service to a deaf woman who was unable to order from the drive through speaker. Smaller chain Culver's received some nice positive press for their innovative drive-thru accommodations for the hearing impaired.
Of course there were other times when I wish someone would respond...
When Delta garnered national attention for kicking a nursing mother and child off one of their flights, competing airlines missed a golden opportunity. A targeted PR and ad campaign making it clear nursing mothers were welcome would have landed them tons of positive press amongst disgruntled mothers.
Be Excellent to Each Other
What it all boils down to is a simple little bit of advice I picked up during one of the many times my husband watched Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. There's simply no need to run around hurling insults or launching attacks against your competitors. Instead, focus your efforts on what makes your company better than any other. If you can't find something, then change the way you do business.
Photo credit Theowl84, via Creative Commons license.
Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.
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