Venturing into enemy territory: risks, rewards and pitfalls

Many years ago, I worked for WordPerfect Corporation as a sales rep. Day after day, I found myself talking to, presenting to and trying to convince large corporate customers that WP was the best choice for them. And day after day, one question kept coming up: how it stacked up against Microsoft’s offerings. The answer was pretty well. This was before the days of suites, so it was WordPerfect going head to head with Word. And feature for feature, WordPerfect won hands down. Except I wasn’t able to say that. Head office had decreed that you couldn’t talk about the competition. Ever. Partly, it was a psychology thing. Why bring them up if you don’t have to? And why get negative if you don’t have to? And partly, it was a culture thing. WordPerfect was headquartered in Utah, and virtually everybody who worked there was a Mormon. So you rose above the fray, and turned the other cheek. You may think it was a handicap. And sometimes, it was. But on the whole, the approach worked well. We sales reps kept the moral high ground, showed our wares, always talked about the things we had that the competition didn’t (hint, hint) and left it at that. And it worked – for a time. Then, suites came onto the scene, WordPerfect was left behind, and the rest is history. Belatedly, they revoked the ban on mentioning the competition, but the company’s fate was sealed. The future belonged to Microsoft. So I jumped ship and joined them. “WordPerfect’s a bit of a religion,” I told the sales and marketing director at Microsoft who interviewed me. “Don’t worry, ” he said. “We’re very good a converting people. And we burn the heretics…” He broke off, paused for effect – and cracked a broad smile. There and then, I embraced the faith.

Love thine enemy

So… mention or don’t mention? It’s something I’m often asked when I’m writing copy for clients. It’s a simple enough question, but the answer is (you guessed it) complex. Let’s look at some of the pros and cons of mentioning the competition. First, the pros:
  • It shows you know who they are.
  • You send out a message that you’re not scared of them.
  • You let people know you realise they have a choice.
  • You take the initiative and set the terms of the debate.
  • You get there first – and first impressions count.
Now the cons:
  • People might not know who the competition is – until you tell them.
  • You might sound defensive – or worse, offensive.
  • You could be tempted to use negative tactics, doing the competition down. And often, that shows you in a bad light, not them.
So as with most things, it’s a finely balanced choice. And one I was faced with a while back, when I looked at putting Google AdSense on my site. As you may know, AdSense is context-sensitive advertising, which appears in a box on a blog or website. The ads are tailored to the content of the page, so they’re directly relevant to what people are reading about. And when they click the ads, you get a percentage of the revenue. But just look at my site. How many times do you see the words copywriter and copywriting? Lots. So all the ads were for other copywriters. Now some people I know actually do this. They’ll happily have competitive adverts sitting on their site, knowing that if they don’t win the business, at least they’ll win the advertising revenue. Fair enough. I thought exactly the same. But I also thought:
  • The ads are distracting.
  • It could end up cheapening the site.
  • People might think I’m mercenary, trying to squeeze every last penny out of them.
  • I’m not selling directly on the site, so ‘selling’ other copywriters gives the site a different feel.
  • It could plant a thought that wasn’t already there, because suggestion is incredibly powerful. (Try not to think of a white horse. See what I mean?).
So on balance, I dropped the idea.

Horses for courses

So what should you do? The answer depends on the context. Take Budgens, the UK convenience store chain. They know they can’t really compete with the giants (Tesco, Sainsbury, Waitrose, Asda). But equally, they can’t ignore them. So they selectively mention them. Walk around the store, and you’ll see Tesco price match on certain products. They’re directly mentioning their biggest competitor – and consequently their biggest threat. But they’re doing it in a positive way. And that’s the key. Now of course they don’t match on every price, because they can’t. But if they plant enough of those little cards around the store, they create the impression that they’re as good value as Tesco. And that’s enough. So take a leaf out of Budgens’ book. And some of the other clever companies out there, who know who they’re up against, and always come out fighting.
  • Be positive. Don’t say ‘unlike some companies…’ as it’s a negative proposition. Don’t denigrate the competition – it always leaves a bad taste in the mouth
  • Don’t be mealy-mouthed. If you mention the competition, mention them. Don’t resort to indirect references like ‘the leading brand’. It’s coy, and creates the impression of timidity at best, and dishonesty at worst.
  • Lead from the front. Find your USPs and trumpet them from the rooftops. Mention them again and again. If you can’t compete on price (and that’s a zero-sum game) compete on service, attitude, attention to detail, speed, range or something else that really sets you apart.
  • Say it without saying it. When Monarch Airlines lets you choose your seat without having to endure the ‘unseemly scrum’ at the gate, they’re indirectly mentioning their cheaper rivals easyJet and  Ryanair. Monarch are more expensive, but the scrum is stressful and people realise that. So maybe the extra is a price worth paying.
  • Be confident and assertive. If you talk consistently about your strengths, you show purpose, determination and single-mindedness. If you keep the moral high ground, you show people you’re not insecure. And confidence sells.
So there you have it.  As I said, simple question, complex answer. But if somebody put a gun to my head – or worse, threatened to make me eat toast liberally smeared with Marmite – and asked me to come down on one side or  the other, what would I do? I’d say don’t mention the competition. Or at least, nor directly. A positive sell is always a positive experience. And you can always mention without mentioning. (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.) Enough said.