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.

mac.jpgIn 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.

April 11, 2008

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.


As a small business, one of your greatest assets is your reputation. That is especially true for solo-preneurs. There are no secrets any longer. If you operate in an underhanded, dirty or just-plain-nasty way, people will know. Once you trash your name, where do you go from there?

The Mac vs. PC ads work because they are not mean spirited. Mac doesn't put down PC, in fact he is always concerned about him. Even so, the ads had to be completely reworked before they could be used outside the U.S. Cultures such as Japan would not accept making fun of a competitor.

I love your ideas for putting forth a positive alternative, instead of a spiteful attack. With your approach, it is not necessary to attack or even mention the other company.

Great post!

I couldn't agree with you more on this one. I hate seeing angry ads, it reminds me of a politcal campaign, which is also mostly annoying as it is. Companies should really think hard before clearly attacking their competition, or they come off as immature.

Well put, Jennifer. May I take this a step further, especially in the context of e-commerce?
When a browser goes on the net, they usually are looking for help in the form of information about where to buy what they seek.
A Web site that sees itself in the business of offering help, will not be reluctant to link to "competitors" who may offer what they don't have, or which provides additional information to help the customer make a wise decision.
A Web site that sees its business as selling its offerings, at all cost, is looking through the wrong end of the telescope (apologies to David Ogilvy).
The former will be in business longer than the latter for the simple reason that it is actually providing respect and a service to its customers. The latter, which refuses links or other referrals of "competitors" will lose out. Customers soon learn to go to site A first because site A does better at meeting their needs.
Focusing on the customer instead of th ecompetition is always could business and marketing policy.
PS: I find the Mac campaign ill-advised. I don't think it is sensible to mock and ridicule people you want to sell to. Mac has so many other attributes and benefits that it does not have to stoop to trashing Windows, which incidentally 80% of users have freely chosen to use.

I really like that the transparency of the web is forcing people to be more honest and to play by a better set of rules. Isn't it ironic that the way we should act in business is basically what we learned in kindergarten and Sunday school.


Great post. My favorite strategy when talking with a customer who mentions a competitor, is to actually compliment the competitor. Indy is a small community, and word gets around.

Taking the high road, builds my reputation as a class act!

Loved the post, and will connect to it from my blog: www.roundpeg.biz/blog

Lorraine, you are so right and so wise.

Some time ago I encountered a direct competitor who was trying to win a customer by bad-mouthing my company. Word came to us from the prospect we both were courting. My response was something like, "I don't know why they would say that about us. We have nothing against them. In fact, we think they are fine folks and we admire some of their work."

The upshot was we got the business. They got the bad rap they were trying to lay on us.

The customer said he began to see them as whiners and troublemakers.

I have subsequently used that approach every time I get wind of an overly aggressive competitor.

Two quotes come to mind.

"Never argue with a fool in public. Onlookers will not know who is who."

Never wrestle with a big in the mud. You will both get dirty, but the pig will like it."

We fully agree with this article as it can do you next to no good to attack the competition. The first thing we can think of all of the tacky political attack ads that we keep seeing. Obama and Hillary anyone?

Too true. As with everything, concentrate on what you do best. If you are as good as you think, you'll do just fine.

As for Bill and Ted :) - Be excellent to each other!

To run a small business, and to fend off badmouthing and accusations, you have to understand how jealousy completely controls the lives of a frightening number of people - and companies. The people who are quickest to badmouth you for badmouthing's sake are, nine out of ten times, jealous and insecure because they know that you can accomplish more in your sleep through hard work and talent than they can accomplish awake with only arrogance and bluffing. You can buy web traffic and hits, but you can't buy integrity.

It's like Subway constantly trashing McDonald's. Like subway doesn't have fatty meatball subs and potato chips, and McDonalds doesn't have grilled chicken salads. Their marketing really irritates me.

Outstanding post -- I've watched some "lashings" unfold on blogs and it almost always left me with a negative impression of the person issuing the spite. I stumbled across a heated debate on a blog where a reviewer issued an objective, but not favorable review of a website (I won't name names, but it was a rather large site) and the owner pulled all punches in his responses. The debate was from well over a year ago, yet it is still frozen in time in the search results as it were happening in real time. I have since wondered if he calmed down and eventually regretted a hasty response. But nothing can be done about it now. The spectacle is there, frozen in time for anyone to read. "Be excellent to each other" -- what a great lesson. A positive approach to conversations can go a long way and open new doors and opportunities.

You're absolutely right. Being spiteful, whether it's to a client, competitor, or even an unrelated business never looks good and certainly doesn't do much for your reputation. Interesting that you brought up the Mac/PC ads. And, while funny, you're correct when you mention them being difficult to pull off. What a great way to look at this increasingly common technique.

I am working with marketing in Denmark and is searching for inspiration in the digital world.

Thanks for inspiration.

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