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Is it ever good PR for brands to bad-mouth a competitor?

Credit: Glenn Matchett, managing director of PR agency Grammatik

When Mark Zuckerberg metaphorically popped on his UFC gloves and started pummelling the Apple Vision Pro, it raised more than a few eyebrows. Here we had the CEO of Meta, reeling off a bunch of reasons why his own Quest 3 is a better bet in the VR stakes than Apple’s new kid on the block. The informal ‘at home, chilling on the couch’ demeanour aimed to deliver a candid and authentic tone, as he set out to win the hearts and minds of a potentially wavering consumer.

Some have already called it Zuck’s ‘Ballmer moment’, because it echoes Microsoft’s Steve Balmer’s infamous “500 with a plan!!” dissing of Apple’s newly launched iPhone back in 2007. We all know that didn’t age well, with the iPhone going on to become the world’s best-selling smartphone. And Microsoft phones are…well, yes, nowhere.

Stop and think

When it comes to business in a competitive market, it can be tempting to point out the shortcomings of your rivals. It seems like a quick and easy way to undermine their credibility while enhancing your own. But is it ever a good idea? There are a number of factors to consider before succumbing to an itchy trigger finger.

First is damage to your own reputation. Whilst an aggressive approach may highlight legitimate shortcomings and temporarily tarnish a competitor’s image, it also reflects poorly on your own brand. Customers may perceive your actions as small-minded, unprofessional, and lacking confidence in what you yourself have to offer.

Aside from the potential legal aspect of a competitor dragging you into the court, another thing to consider is the impact on customer loyalty. While some may buy negative rhetoric in the short term, others will view it as a turn-off. Building lasting customer relationships requires trust, integrity, and a focus on delivering value. Channelling your energy into the positive aspects of your own business far outweighs the value of tearing down the opposition.

Be humble

Consumers today often prefer humility from brands - with positivity and a good moral compass proving much more appealing, and more likely to translate into positive sentiment and sales. Good humour and even self-deprecation is often a better route - although self-deprecation should also always be treated with caution (Hello Gerald Ratner!)

In retail, we are familiar with big supermarkets using price comparisons as a fundamental route to demonstrate value over a competitor. But of course the world of communications is more complex than trumpeting the cheapest option. Brands often benchmark against a competitor with more subtle communications strategy. Social and PR campaigns often see brands jibe or poke fun at each other to try and hit a sweet spot that will translate into brand kudos.

How to use social

Burger King is a good example of a brand that has used social media to challenge a major competitor, with many campaigns directly targeting its burger rivals. Most notably its mouldy Whopper campaign featured a decomposing Whopper - clearly in response to the social media chatter that if you leave a McDonald’s burger out, it doesn’t decompose because of alleged preservatives.

Brewdog is no stranger to feisty comms. Recently, it has gone toe-to-toe with Guinness with its own Black Heart, “21st century stout”. As part of the PR campaign, Brewdow is offering a free Black Heart refill to anyone who brings in a branded Guinness glass. The competitive marketing in play here is sharp as it bites at the heels of Guinness heritage whilst generating trial. It’s also a better route than bad-mouthing such an established rival (Disclaimer - Although I like this Brewdog campaign, as an Irishman, I can confidently tell you that Guinness is the only choice here!)

Pitting your brand against another in business can be delivered in a positive way that will translate well with consumers. Perhaps most famously when Avis consistently lagged behind Hertz in the car rental stakes, it distilled its underdog status into a genius marketing moniker. “We’re number 2. We try harder” turned its inferior market position into a positive. It couldn’t afford to take the foot off the gas because it was not the market leader. And because of that its customers would benefit from its drive to become number one.

Whilst it may be tempting to throw shade at competitors, the risks outweigh the potential rewards. From reputational damage to legal action, the consequences can be severe and long-lasting. Instead, focus on building your own brand reputation, delivering value, and fostering a culture of integrity and respect within your own business and in the wider industry. Zuck’s dig at the Apple Vision Pro has certainly fanned the flames in the emerging VR market. Only time will tell whether or not it proves to be a wise move.

Article written by Glenn Matchett, managing director of PR agency Grammatik

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