Most marketers wisely crank out campaign after campaign, utterly and completely ignoring that any other brands exist in their vertical. Sure, their identity and messaging are openly discussed (and often dissed) in the war room, but they are never acknowledged in broad daylight with the public looking on.
Yet, it's been done, and sometimes with pretty good success. Coke versus Pepsi is a long-running rivalry played out very publicly over the course of the past century, and Apple took on both IBM and Microsoft, though if you recall, neither were mentioned directly by name in the ads. But the implication was such that there was no doubt.
When can you take on your rivalries head-on? How can you do it so that it doesn't cause the opposite of the intended effect? Let's take a look.
Call-Outs Can Work in Mature Markets
Some marketing experts believe that the age of direct call-outs is largely over. For example, back in the 80's, nobody was going to get into a knock-down-drag-out over Coke versus Pepsi on Facebook or Twitter. Today, that's very likely to happen. Marketers continually walk a fine line these days so that a little poke on a TV commercial doesn't spark the wildfire that causes a major meltdown on social media.
But in markets with high saturation (fast food, cellular carriers, etc.), sometimes the only way to gain market shares is to steal a piece from one of your competitors. Taking them on directly is one way to do this. It's always best to do this with humor instead of a direct assault, because vicious attacks almost always trigger cries of foul play.
Be cool. Be funny. Let the jabs seem much more harmless than they probably are. If the customers are laughing, they won't think you're horrible, but they will start to think about your value proposition versus your competitors'. It can work.
Don't Use Product, Company, or Brand Names
It's really best not to mention your competitors by name. For example, Reebok and Nike have been one-upping each other for decades, but never by name. Until recently, the jabs were implied, not stated directly, so any customers of the competitor's brand that happen to be seeing your ads don't take things too personally.
Look at it this way: Apple and Microsoft have gone head-to-head for decades, but both have been very careful not to offend the other's customers even when they made a very direct and clear point about the other brand. If you insult the intellect or character of your competitor's customers, you've defeated your whole point.
Use Call-Outs to Challenge Emerging Trends
Call-outs can be an excellent way to challenge emerging trends that threaten your brand. For example, the movement toward craft beers has directly challenged the market shares of major brands like Budweiser. But countered with their own ad, showcasing how beer isn't just a hobby for them -- it's serious business. They made their point without shaming makers or lovers of craft beer.
Use Call-Outs to Challenge the Status Quo
Of course, if you're the newcomer you don't have the option of throwing thinly-veiled punches at trendiness. You must challenge the status quo. In this case, you can use your ads to display how your brand is changing the way things have always been done -- just be absolutely sure you're showcasing how things will be better because of your trend!
Your Call-Out Has to Match Your Brand Voice Perfectly
When direct competitor call-outs work, it's always because the messaging matched the brand's voice perfectly. If your company is seen as the "nice guys" and you come out swinging punches at your competitor, it's going to seem disingenuous at best and vindictive at worst. Keep the head-on competition well within your brand's accepted voice. Instead of calling out your competitor, put the attention on what the customers want and need that they can't get anywhere else besides you. Make it about them -- not about you, and certainly not about your competitor! When done right, the indirect call-out is the way to go.
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