If there is one overarching guideline of advertising, it's that companies should accentuate their benefits to consumers, while subtly highlighting negative attributes of their competitors. This rule of thumb has existed since the dawn of advertising, with well-known examples dating back several decades or the more recent Mac vs. PC. Although comparative advertising has worked well for ad agencies, the strategy is conspicuously absent from most PR campaigns. PR professionals typically take the “high road” and recommend that their clients engage in corporate social responsibility, politically correct message development, and spokesperson interviews with laser focus on their own brand attributes.
But the envelope can, and should, be pushed much further in an increasingly competitive industry. Brands should selectively liberate their PR firms to communicate more freely with comparative messaging; persuading consumers, influencers, reporters, bloggers, and other key stakeholders on the benefits of their client's product over that of their chief competitors.
Although these strategies can prove effective, PR agencies need to proceed with caution and follow basic guidelines:
- Have something to talk about. The first rule of thumb is that the product or service in question needs to be justifiably better in some way for the comparison to work. The claims must be objective and significant. As the now controversial adage goes, you “can't put lipstick on a pig.”
- Be respectful. People don't mind a good fight, but only if the participants appear to be responsible, mature, and occasionally entertaining. Verizon and AT&T's recent combat presents an example of two companies that are currently in lawsuits for their “There's a Map for that” campaign, yet the respective TV spots are produced to be light and comical.
- Establish credibility. One of the most important elements of classic PR campaigns is to engage an endorsement from a respected celebrity and/or third party organization. No messages that come directly from a company will be as impactful as affirmation from someone who is perceived not to have any “skin in the game.”
- Be honest. The last thing one should do when on the offensive is give the competition a reason to make you look bad. Make sure all statements are undeniably true and lawsuit-proof.
- Be creative. The basic press release too often delivers staid corporate messaging at the expense of originality and aggressive marketing. Companies should add some compelling and hard data that draws favorable comparisons between their offering and that of their competitors. Similarly, publicity stunts can be used to great effect for this strategy.
If companies can edge slightly out of their comfort zones and allow their PR firms to recommend more aggressive tactics, they may find a new paradigm awaits with significant buzz, positive attention, and increased sales.
Mike Valdes-Fauli is MD at The Jeffrey Group in Florida, leading the agency's US Hispanic practice.