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Digital brand warfare: starting cat & mouse games w/competitors (and even audiences)
Baiting competitors/audiences, drawing attention to their strategies & practices, poking at hot topics are all in the same timeless marketing archetype category. They're also potentially dangerous.
“Only the dead have seen the end of the war.” -George Santayana
Everyone collects competitive data and intimately knows what their contemporaries are up to. The web has provided a glut of qualitative and quanitative information you can quickly acquire on competitors and use to your advantage. There are zero controversy uses-cases here such as building out a messaging matrix to understand how an industry speaks to users or use research tools to gain a list of keywords others are bidding on in search. Most stop at simply collecting this data or using it as a barometer for themselves. In other words: they usually just report on it. Some analyze it. These things are well and good, but ultimately stop short of something larger that’s possible if you are cunning enough: turning the strategies or perceptions of others against themselves. Of course, you’ll need (much) more than auto-generated reports from competitive analysis tools for this.
It’s a bold play to orchestrate if done purposefully. And, it can carry great rewards if the outcome of such a campaign is designed and effective at tilting a market away from an incumbent.
Some of you are probably uncomfortable with this idea already, but as I noted in a previous post on using enemies, as strategists we can’t be closed off to possibilities simply because they carry historical taboos or risks. That’s not what being a strategist is about: it’s about being unafraid of all possible approaches and having a creative, open mind. And just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should, but just like as humans who must acknowledge the shadow self in their personal lives to tame it, the exercise of competitive analysis through the lens of figuring out weak points in an opposing metaphorical fortress is a productive one (even if you don’t do anything with it today).
To a trained eye with the right tools, the strategies of others can be quite clear. That’s even more potent now due to the nature of the web, and companies becoming more public and transparent. Industry leaders pushing brands to open up, share more and become open books presents opportunities. As well, many of these companies are blindly following advice of cheap consultants and so called “growth hackers” who merely push them to be open and publish more since that’s the trendy thing to do without much real rationale. If you’re clever, this could spell opportunity: illustrating and amplifying someone else’s ill-conceived, user-hostile strategy (this already happens organically, users will in many cases do it for you) or leaning into weaknesses or unpopular traits/actions for desired outcomes (perception, sales, links, press, etc).
An easy example of this we seen all the time is via ads touching on rivalries between popular brands.
Fun/playful: I’m a Mac / I’m a PC ads (I own and love both Macs and PCs and laughed at these/thought they were in good fun)
Seemed bit desperate: the “Scroogled” campaign, where Microsoft seemed extra thirsty to get users to Bing, but overwhelming majority at time were very happy with Google …not my favorite work by MSFT and optics were very wrong for such a brand (media coverage at the time agreed)
If you’re going to poke a competitor, or even an audience on a given subject you know is a hot one, proceed with caution – it requires careful thought and follow-through. You always need to know the endgame, be confident it’s reachable and decide if it’s one even worth getting to.
Following is just a very basic skeleton of what you’ll need to consider
And disclaimer I’ll probably repeat: I’m not advising you or anyone do anything like this, necessarily. It is so obviously a bad approach for many brands and company types. But your competitors still might, and if you see what they’re up to and associated endgames you can quickly work against them in real-time, even turn such strategies around on themselves in ways they did not anticipate.
1) A clear rationale/outcomes - what do you have to gain by exposing, poking at or toying with the brand or strategies of someone else? Clearly outline what outcomes of such a move would be. Understand what approach to take that will create that desired outcome.
Think carefully through all possible consequences (intended and otherwise). How would you expose it is another question altogether, in a subtle way or outright? Big public display of PR or subtle psyop? As stated above, advertisers have done this via ad campaigns for decades, the web provides even more opportunity. You could do this via social daily if you found something worth really leaning into (say, a known weakness like a competitor’s app or site always being down, while your product is rock solid). But again, you need to ask yourself why you are doing this in the first place. And the answer should not merely be a blanket statement such as ‘engagement.’
Example organization with seemingly no strategy but to poke the universe: PETA
PETA is a brand quite literally meme’ing themselves to irrelevance:
Nearly 4 million search results for why people disdain PETA seems like they might not be doing a great job with public perception (to make an understatement):
PETA’s comms strategy seems to have no end goal as far as I can tell, except make people hate them (even publicly and consistently scorned by animal lovers). Perhaps that is the goal. But it’s clearly ill-conceived. They are NGO but at the same time essentially seen as “shock jocks.” Charity review sites rate them poorly. Social media users loathe them. Their popularity in search is a slow and steady stream down. None of this can be helping donations.
They don’t think people should have pets (how absurd, not lindy), don’t believe in using animal crates (crate training a dog is a perfectly fine practice), don’t believe in managing feral cats (the cat protection league is strongly on the other side) and are pro-Euthanasia to name just a few of their beliefs they actively publicize, frequently in unnecessarily grotesque ways. It’s shocking an organization that calls themselves “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals” is viewed so negatively by so many actual animal lovers, and what’s clear is this approach of basically attacking everyone and everything is not one which resonates in a connected world. I can’t think of another charity so universally panned, and believe that despite questionable practices this is actually most self-inflicted at the hands of their own marcom work. I’ll spare you the embed because it’s so insane, but if you haven’t seen any of their missteps here’s a brief video sharing times PETA "went too far” in advertising. They’re an example no one should wish to follow.
2) Enough competitive points (qualitative or quantitative) to build a case – you can’t play the cat and mouse game with another brand without solid proof they are following a certain design and even more than raw data, you need to deeply understand the specific perception(s) of a company that lives in people’s minds.
You’ll need enough data/proof points in order to build a case. You also need to be confident users will approve of what you’re doing, for example there’s a difference between being playful/clever and just outright mean. As a Coke drinker for instance, I thought below was fun original ad by Pepsi, and then the response from Coke’s team was even better - while still being classy (and look, we don’t even need data to know Coke is superior to Pepsi I just thought a fun example …apologies to the .4% of my subscribers who are Pepsi drinkers).
3) Framing the world in an “us vs. them” mindset – or position it in some way which causes others to defect or rally against the competitor. If the competitor already has a group of those who dislike them for some reason or another, this will be easier than going after a more universally beloved brand and you’ll have to work harder at this aspect (or perhaps consider a different strategy altogether).
The good news here is the web is large enough there are almost always some detractors. Also be extremely cautious with this, as tribes online can be quite intense and direction is not always predictable. Political parties do this with a scorched Earth approach, probably because at least in America you only have two choices, the players are not the nicest humans in the world and they’re less concerned with reputation more with pure awareness at all costs. Unless you’re running a political campaign and don’t really care about much besides winning an immediate election or hitting some KPI goals be very cautious with this. As an aside, if you are in politics and exploiting/baiting tribes purely for engagement, we all would love for you to spend some time alone reflecting on your life and if what you’re doing is really helping anything. Everyone thanks you in advance.
A final note here, you should deeply understand the rules that govern digital and physical groups before doing anything with this (I’ve previously outlined the important ones here).
Example of subtle reinforced tribalism: Android “green texts” on iPhone
Android users getting a “green bubble” on iMessage is a very conscious design decision by Apple I believe subtlety trying to imprint “status” upon their users. This actually does work with surprising numbers, but I personally think it’s a misguided approach. Apple as the world’s leading tech co has no reason to engage in such pedantic behavior, there is no benefit to a user here, it’s just a subtle reinforcement of unnecessary tribalism (cult of Mac is real).
Meanwhile, Android team “clapping back” at this one gets an A+
4) The manner you want the strategy/weakness of competitor exposed - if you’re not a large brand that can engage in scaled cat and mouse games, probably the most common way to do this is to have others go about it for you, but in certain cases it makes sense to approach directly. Be sure you know what you’re doing here and have the right relationships in place, and realize if you do something like pitch a media story on industry practices, you are going to be given the same levels of scrutiny. Also always “punch up” never down. The optics are very bad if done the opposite, and no one should want to be seen as a bully.
5) Seeding the message – we’re getting tactical here, but you’ll need a base to start seeding your messages and publicizing the target’s weakness. Again, you need to already know desired outcome(s) and have a plan in mind. Merely seeding messages without a proper design can spell danger. If I were a larger brand I would shy away from this one, because you’re already known enough and whatever you do is going to get attention anyway. But if you’re a scrappy startup with back against the wall in a life or death situation, it might be time to fight. Again these approaches can just as easily backfire and have repercussions for your brand as much as they might try to tar a competitor. If you have to do this and are out of options, just be aware any competitive messaging you try to “seed” ultimately will come out verbatim, so be comfortable with that. I’m personally against this tactic for a bunch of reasons but know it is frequently used/abused in the competitive positioning game so don’t pretend it doesn’t exist.
6) A way to keep your hands clean – maybe - this is a tentative maybe: it might in rare cases be part of your plan that the exposure of someone else’s weakness or brand strategy by you actually works to your advantage. We can’t know this without more detail, but don’t be closed off to it. If you’re going to draw it back to you, have next steps planned. If you decide best to keep your hands clean, make sure you’re extremely careful (I’m talking Winston Wolf or Mike Ehrmantraut levels of precision and detail, take your pick of fav metaphor). And whatever you’re doing, run it by your legal and PR teams first, always!
7) Continue the dialogue, make it referential – bearing you’ve done your job, don’t stop at successfully leaning in to toying with a competitor or in some cases even the industry at large: make what you’re doing referential by continuing to “play the hits” as they say. You want all great marketing ideas used as case studies, and if you’re in the fun/playful category, it’s all good here (again as I showed in examples above, I stress that’s the way to play this game for nearly all consumer brands). In other words: don’t let what you’re doing get buried, keep it in the minds of others long enough that they reference or link to the situation when mentioning your brand in the future, and the sentiment along with those references is positive.
The above is just an outline to get you thinking – there are of course steps in between that can be filled in for your specific case and other approaches to poking the metaphoric competitive box. The web is a busy place so healthy competition and David vs Goliath stories are timeless archetypes. While again, not my favorite approach to go for the jugular here (there’s lots of ways to use competitive data for ex without outright starting a turf war) this is one to have in your toolkit, at minimum for brainstorming sessions as they involve creative thinking which can output all sorts of ideas.
And if you must create something in this vein, always make extra sure second order effects are carefully thought through (your competitor’s users might love them so much throwing random stones feels petty/desperate and just strengthens their position as category leader, I’d argue the Scroogled campaign used as ex above falls into this category).
Finally, I know not all of you are comfortable with all the ideas presented in today’s post, nor am I necessarily advising them (especially without knowing the details of your situation). But I want to get you thinking of what’s possible and open you up to the many potential approaches when creating digital strategies. Just never do any of this haphazardly and without a proper/seasoned team.
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