Flirting with Danger

Competition Hopper

Should you acknowledge your competitors or pretend to exist alone in an empty universe?

By Charlie Hopper

From a macro-perspective, healthy competition is good. Truthful, direct comparisons help consumers. Attempts to offer customers better value create a thriving marketplace.

Before we take even one step into this topic, though, I have to say: please, read this article for entertainment purposes only until you have a serious look in the mirror and a brief chat with a lawyer – taking on your competitors could be a mistake.

Let’s make the distinction, at this point, then, between a marketing-based decision and a legal-based decision on whether to acknowledge your competitor. Legally, as I say, there’s inherent risk in mentioning the competition. From a marketing standpoint, there are also risks. Here’s a quick little list of gut checks to see if you should even flirt with danger.

1. Are you an underdog?

Typically, a direct comparison to the competition is something a challenger brand would consider, not a leader. We once worked with a restaurant whose board members included a former Coca-Cola marketer, a senior guy back when Coke was truly it, and never acknowledged the competition – alternatives didn’t exist. When we proposed a competitive-themed ad for the underdog restaurant chain on whose board this old Coke man sat, he fought against it: Why would you mention the competition? Why give them air time?

From the perspective of the largest soft drink company, his point was well made – and if you’re the biggest Italian restaurant in town, it probably makes no sense for you to look like you’re sweating or picking on the little guy or anything but the inevitable No. 1 choice.

If you’re not the overdog, though, there might be advantages to drawing a distinction that might raise your profile.

2. Would “punching up” potentially reduce the competition to just you and the top dog?

Competition Hopper2One advantage of direct comparison is illustrated by the recent Taco Bell breakfast promotions: they’re underdog-ish in the morning and they’re offering themselves as an option to McDonald’s, specifically and very clearly. They don’t mention McD’s name, but they use clown imagery, and reference things like a “Meh Muffin” (which might sound to a jury of one’s peers like a slurred version of the word “Mc-Muffin”).

Clearly, they’re comparing Taco Bell – not known for breakfast – to the dog whose breakfast is legendary. Result? They imply it’s a two-restaurant race and that they’re the only other decent alternative: Forget all the other fast food breakfasts. Strategically insidious and potentially effective.


3. Do you have any kind of proof?

Not just members of the bar association – average sitting-at-home citizens wonder what you base your claims on. Was there a study? Who did it?

Dunkin’ Donuts ran ads a few years ago quoting “a national taste test” where people preferred their coffee to Starbucks: “Friends don’t let friends drink Starbucks” with the URL “” The underdog effectively established their credibility by comparing themselves to a leader, and offering statistics from a survey of 476 adults in 10 cities conducted by A&G Research to back their claim up (if you chased the fine print).

Domino’s introduced oven-baked sandwiches citing a “national taste test” where Domino’s “Beat Subway 2 to 1.” Subway, of course, didn’t like that and sent a cease-and-desist letter. In a subsequent commercial, the president of Domino’s acknowledged receiving the letter and put it in the oven where it caught fire. Then he defiantly called out to the camera crew to run the previous ad, which made the original claim. It’s done with dry humor and it’s pretty engaging. In the end, Domino’s looks playful and Subway looks defensive. Or does Domino’s just look like jerks?

4. Will your customers enjoy it if you look like jerks?

Who are your customers? Will they find a good-natured one-upping charming? Are they the people who gather around a cafeteria punch fest yelling, “Fight! Fight! Fight!” Or are they the more restrained people shaking their heads and getting the heck out of there?

Arby’s hired “legendary detective Bo Dietl” to “investigate” where Subway slices its meat. He was shown standing in front of a Subway with the awning logo almost blurred out, but the Subway logo was still visible beneath the blur. He never mentioned the name aloud, but there was no doubt whom Arby’s was taking on. When he reveals their meat is sliced in Iowa instead of in the store, many viewers reportedly felt that the point was a little shaky and the overall effect of the ad kind of mean-spirited. Subsequent ads muted Dietl’s attacks and the campaign fizzled.

On the other hand, when McDonald’s discontinued Angus Third Pounders, Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr. CEO Andrew Puzder appeared in a one-minute-and-44-second YouTube ad sitting at what seemed to be his desk and earnestly saying, “Hello, McDonald’s customers.” He reads some tweets complaining about McDonald’s discontinuation, then takes a huge bite of a Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr. burger.

After patiently chewing, he says, “If you’re wondering where the beef is, we have it. And we’d never deprive you of it. In fact, for a limited time, we’ll offer our much-larger, much-higher-quality, 100 percent Black Angus Beef Six Dollar Burger for less than what you paid at McDonald’s. Just go to to download your coupon.” Brazen. Confrontational. And his young, male audience (the ones who respond to sexy-sexy-sexy TV ads) loved it.

So again, if you feel comfortable nodding yes to these marketing considerations, maybe do the research to understand the legal concerns specific to you or your proposed attack. But just in case something goes wrong, well, you didn’t hear any of this from me.


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