Friday, September 22, 2023

Should You Use a Confrontational Marketing Strategy? Three factors to consider

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Shreya Christina
Shreya has been with for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider team, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

Steve Cody is the founder and CEO of peppercomma strategic communications agency that has been named PRWeek’s Best Places to Work in 2020.

With the US midterm elections fast approaching, we are inundated with negative campaign ads in which one candidate attacks another on various topics. Most of us are turned off by this vicious approach (at least consciously), so why does it happen every election season? Research has shown that becoming negative can even work on a subconscious level. In the viewer’s head, content is stickier when it is negatively framed.

Given this reality, you might be tempted to at least experiment with using your marketing and communications expertise to call one or more of your business competitors. After all, some of the most memorable marketing strategies of all time involve brands directly confronting their adversaries. For example, car rental company Avis went after leader Hertz many years ago with the legendary slogan, “When you’re only number 2, you try harder.” And Wendy’s challenged both McDonald’s and Burger King by asking, “Where’s the beef?”

As memorable as these campaigns are, you should think carefully before attacking a competitor. The business environment has changed. You have to anticipate and prepare for things to go pear-shaped.

A recent example that made the headlines came in July when spin-bike studio SoulCycle launched a campaign that offered Peloton users dozens of free lessons when they returned their bikes to SoulCycle. SoulCycle also offered to pick up the bikes for free if you lived within a certain radius of a SoulCycle studio. The campaign been criticized from some dedicated Peloton riders. The media picked up on the feud, with some outlets highlighting the struggles both companies have been dealing with in recent years.

In such situations, some managers may wonder if the potential negative attention is really worth it. So, before you head headlong into a skirmish, consider these three factors:

Read the room.

It’s tempting to direct your marketing/PR attack on your competitor like a lightning strike in a zero-sum game to steal market share. But that would be a mistake. You have to broaden your view. Conduct audience sentiment monitoring and mapping so you understand the zeitgeist before you begin.

For example, keep in mind that Americans have been feeling significantly more polarized since the outbreak of the pandemic. Data from the Pew Research Center shows that: 77% of people feel the US is more divided than it was before Covid-19. Be careful that your approach is not seen as a new wedge in society.

Anticipate the worst.

This is where public relations crisis planning comes into play. You need to devise strategies for getting stakeholders to react negatively and prepare responses to them in advance so that you can communicate immediately. You cannot bury your head in the sand and assume that the controversy will be over. After all, many consumers who complain to a brand and get no response, never come back. A Sprout Social survey showed that: 35% of consumers would never buy from that brand again if they don’t get a response to a complaint.

In addition, your answers must be authentic and substantial. What won’t work? “Thank you for contacting us. We appreciate your feedback.” The same Sprout Social survey found that 50% of consumers will never buy from a brand again if the brand responds poorly to a complaint. Your posts should include an explanation of how and why you decided to go after that particular competitor at the time.

Don’t leave anyone behind.

When planning to respond to any negative comments, it is critical that you involve all relevant stakeholders, not just the people who buy your products/services. Create a matrix that includes all audiences and populate it with messages customized for each group.

For example, what about reporters who contact you to request comment on the backlash you receive? You want to double down on your campaign and remind them that you have the best interests of the buyers in mind. You need messages ready for your employees, when they see complaints on social media, to reassure them that you made the right choice. Investors wondering why you spent thousands of dollars on an attack campaign will need to hear both the short-term benefits and how it fits into your long-term business strategy. Your marketing and communications team needs to role-play different groups of stakeholders to predict what questions or concerns they will have.

The bottom line is that almost any type of brand can consider confronting a competitor. Theoretically, even the most benevolent nonprofit could go after a competitor. But before you do that, ask yourself three questions: Is now the right time to go negative? Do we have a PR crisis plan in case we are criticized for attacking a competitor? Have we considered how all of our stakeholder groups might respond to our campaign and how we might approach them?

If you can’t unequivocally answer ‘yes’ to all three questions, it’s smart to steer your campaign in a different direction. Business Council is the leading growth and networking organization for entrepreneurs and leaders. Am I eligible?

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