Steve Cody is the founder and CEO of Peppercomm, a strategic communications agency named among PRWeek’s Best Places to Work in 2020.
With the midterm elections fast approaching in the U.S., we’re being deluged with negative campaign ads featuring one candidate attacking another on various topics. Most of us are turned off by this vitriolic approach (at least consciously), so why does it happen every election season? Research has found that going negative can actually work on a subconscious level. In the mind of the viewer, content is stickier when it’s framed negatively.
Given this reality, you might be tempted to at least experiment with leveraging your marketing and communications expertise to call out one or more of your business competitors. After all, some of the most memorable marketing strategies of all time feature brands directly confronting their opponents. For example, many years ago, rental car company Avis went after leader Hertz with the legendary tag line, “When you’re only No. 2, you try harder.” And Wendy’s challenged both McDonald’s and Burger King by asking, “Where’s the beef?”
However, as memorable as these campaigns are, you need to think very carefully before attacking a competitor. The business environment has changed. You need to anticipate and prepare for things going pear-shaped.
A recent headline-grabbing example occurred in July when spin bike studio SoulCycle launched a campaign that offered Peloton users dozens of free classes if they turned in their bikes to SoulCycle. SoulCycle also offered to pick up the bikes free of charge if you lived within a certain radius of a SoulCycle studio. The campaign received criticism from some committed Peloton riders. The media picked up on the feud, with some outlets highlighting the struggles both companies have faced in the past few years.
Situations like this might leave some execs asking themselves if the potential negative attention is really worth it. So, before you rush headlong into a skirmish, consider these three factors:
Read the room.
It’s tempting to want to laser-focus your marketing/PR attack on your competitor as a lightning strike in a zero-sum game to steal market share. But that would be a mistake. You need to widen your view. Conduct audience sentiment monitoring and mapping so you understand the zeitgeist before you launch.
For example, keep in mind that Americans feel significantly more polarized since the outbreak of the pandemic. Pew Research Center data shows that 77% of people feel the U.S. is more divided than before Covid-19. Be careful that your approach won’t be seen as driving another wedge into society.
Anticipate the worst.
This is where public relations crisis planning comes into play. You must strategize for stakeholders to react negatively and prepare responses to them in advance so you can communicate immediately. You cannot stick your head in the sand and assume the controversy will pass. After all, many consumers who complain to a brand and don’t receive a response will never come back. A Sprout Social survey showed that 35% of consumers would never buy from that brand again if they receive no answer to a complaint.
Moreover, your responses must be authentic and substantial. What will not work? “Thank you for contacting us. We value your feedback.” The same Sprout Social survey found that 50% of consumers will never buy from a brand again if the brand replies poorly to a complaint. Your messages should include an explanation of how and why you decided to go after that specific competitor at that time.
Don’t leave anyone behind.
When you are planning how to respond to any negative backlash, it’s critical that you include all relevant stakeholders, not just the people who buy your products/services. Create a matrix that comprehensively covers every audience, and populate it with messages customized for each group.
For example, what about reporters who contact you asking for comment on the blowback you’re receiving? You’ll want to double down on your campaign, reminding them you have the buyers’ best interests at heart. You’re going to need messages ready for your employees, if they see complaints on social media, to reassure them you made the right choice. Investors wondering why you spent thousands of dollars on an attack campaign are going to need to hear both the short-term benefits and how this fits into your long-term business strategy. Your marketing and communications team should role-play different stakeholder groups to predict what questions or concerns they will have.
The bottom line is that nearly every type of brand can consider confronting a competitor. Theoretically, even the most benevolent nonprofit might go after a competitor. But before you do, you need to ask yourself three questions: Is now the right time to go negative? Do we have a PR crisis plan in place in case we get criticized for attacking a competitor? Have we considered how every one of our stakeholder groups might react to our campaign and considered how to address them?
If you cannot answer an unequivocal “yes” to all three questions, it’s smart to take your campaign in another direction.