Don't Give Your Competitor the Valuable Publicity You Earned. Keep It for Yourself!

Kreg_Steppe.jpgWhen we conduct mock interviews during a media training session, we often ask interview subjects to name two or three competitors who they admire. There are numerous iterations of essentially the same question. It can be naming the competitors who are keeping them up at night. Or perhaps it can be a question about the competitors who pose the greatest challenge over the next three to five years.

It’s all a trick to see if the spokesperson being trained can be lured into naming competitors at all.

We have found that it is common for an untrained spokesperson to fall for this simple trick and start rattling off names. Sometimes they speak more naturally and glowingly about the competition than they do about their own products and people. 

Generally, we recommend against naming competitors. The reason is pretty simple:

  1. You have worked too hard and devoted too much time, energy and money securing this a media opportunity to spend your precious time with the journalist giving your competitor valuable publicity.

  2. The audience just isn’t paying close attention, which means they could remember the name of your competitor and connect them to the positive things you say about your own brand.

  3. Numerous studies confirm that such comparisons run a significant risk of creating a negative impression that can tarnish your brand.

  4. Because news loves conflict, naming a competitor can be the most intersting part of an interview, making it more likely that a journalist will focus on it, amplifying the potential for damage.


Drilling further down into that third point, Dr. Fred Beard, professor of advertising in the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma, examined comparative advertising and found, “the potential for negative outcomes of [comparative advertising] are a very real possibility when prominent brands choose to go head to head using strictly comparative advertising campaigns."

His findings were published in the August 2015 Journal of Advertising Research under the title, “The Effectiveness of Comparative Versus Non-Comparative Advertising: Do 'Strictly' Comparative Ads Hurt Credibility of Non-Professional Service Brands?” Dr. Beard offered this recommendation, "Prominent brand advertisers should be wary about using strictly comparative advertising, even that which could be considered low in negativity, and especially if older consumers are the target audience.”

He also noted, "Although in this study there was no attempt to measure backlash, the low believability and other negative responses to the comparative treatment are consistent with how the concept has been measured in the political-advertising literature."

From a public relations perspective, the key is to be specific about your company’s name and the names of your products. Be general about the competition and competitive products.

Avoid saying, “we,” or “us.” Instead, say the name of your company. Every time. Even if you just said it 10 seconds ago, say it again. Even if you’ve said it 20 times during the interview so far, say your name again. Keep saying your company’s name even if you think the journalist is going to reach out and start choking you.

Avoid saying, “our solution,” or “the product we’ve developed.” Instead use the brand name for the product. Don’t do it as an afterthought. Put it right up front in every sentence.

“With (product name), (company name)’s customers can (unique benefit) like never before.”

I would much prefer to have my spokespeople talking about the positives of their brands than referencing a competitor that the audience may or may not be aware of in the first place.

Obviously, there are plenty of people representing powerful brands who believe otherwise, especially those who are second bananas in their markets/industries. Just in fast food examples include Taco Bell, which carted out a group of Ronald McDonalds to launch its breakfast menu, Pizza Hut and Papa John’s which have battled publicly, Domino’s slammed Subway while Burger King also attacked McDonald’s.

This is a bit off-topic, but the classic example is Pepsi, which has specifically named Coke in its communications for generations.

When I was in college in 1983, Pepsi hit the market with the Pepsi Challenge, encouraging consumers to compare Pepsi and Coke. Their campaign trumpeted the results that, “In blind taste tests, more people prefer the taste of Pepsi over Coke,” and it caused Coke executives to absolutely freak out, mothballing a century-old formula and quickly replacing it with “New Coke.” Talk about over-reaction!

Okay, back to the subject. If confronted with a question that begs you to discuss competitors or their products, respond briefly and then move quickly back to your brand and its unique benefits.

Q: What two or three competitors are doing a particularly good job?

A: I’ll leave that kind of analysis to you and other experts, but what I can tell you is that (company name) is proud to be changing the lives of customers for the better by (unique benefit).

Q: Our reviews suggest that (Competitor X) is really pushing the envelope on (capability). What do you think of their product?

A: My opinion doesn’t really matter, but what’s important is the progress being made to (do something) and (company name) is proud of the major step forward (brand name) represents.

As a spokesperson, your obligation is to achieve your objective for doing the interview, which presumably is to positively get your story out. Avoid having your story be about your competitor or their product by moving the conversation back to your brand again and again.

Good luck!

Photo by Kreg Steppe