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.

The Federal Alcohol Administration Act (FAA Act), the federal law adopted post-Prohibition in conjunction with the 21st Amendment, turns 80 this year. The past 80 years have seen much change within the alcoholic beverage industry, but the basic framework adopted shortly after the repeal of Prohibition remains the same.

That basic framework created three tiers of participants in the alcohol industry: (1) suppliers or manufacturers, which includes brewers, distillers and wineries; (2) wholesalers or distributors; and (3) retailers. Each of the three tiers is subject to a variety of federal, state and local laws that affect business relations and trade practices among alcoholic beverage industry participants.
While the advent of craft breweries, microdistilleries, and direct sales of wine have slightly chipped away at the strict requirements of the three-tier system the basic framework remains. Compliance is essential for any member of the alcoholic beverage industry.

Do you hear that? It’s a call to action. The issues plaguing the food industry today are frightening. A report from the Global Harvest Initiative states that the demand for food, feed, fiber and fuel will likely outpace food production in 2050. With the population expected to reach at least 9 billion, parts of the world still lack clean drinking water and $1 trillion worth of all food produced worldwide is lost or wasted. And those are just a few examples.

Are you feeling that call to action yet? The third annual Roots Conference at the Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan, Ohio stresses the importance of not only adhering to and preserving important culinary traditions, but also illustrates how vital it is to look to the future for sound solutions for the problems we collectively face. 

They say the kitchen is the heart of the home. It’s the place where memories are made with family around the dinner table and where friends gather to reconnect over a glass of wine. 

In her very own kitchen, Amy Hampton poured her heart into creating wine and using her soirees as inspiration. Her wine was originally served as a party favorite surrounded by music, conversation and family friends. 

“My journey into wine started as a passion for serving others,” Hampton says. “With my background in chemistry, I’m used to being in the lab and creating concoctions. In 2008, I started having parties at my home and using them as case studies to see if my wine would appeal to my guests.” 

Whether you’re a major chain, a one-off restaurant in the burbs, or the trendy venture of a serial investor with a marquee chef whose name makes people nod appreciatively, you’ve got something to say. Right?

You’ve got a proprietary process, a new idea, a craveable flavor or some kind of differentiation from the restaurants just up the way. Let’s assume you have a general idea why people like you.

Now what? Time for ads? Social media promotions? Slick packaging, stylishly rough-hewn décor, maybe some coupons in the local shoved-it-in-your-mailbox jumble-pack amongst the muffler shops and carpet cleaners? Word-of-mouth, as if people are constantly talking about restaurants their friends should try (some people are)?

After getting their first taste of Limoncello five years ago in Italy, Tom Kiefer and Linda Losey left the country not only with some fine artwork for their walls at home, but with a dream of opening their own mini-distillery and a determination to replicate that recipe.  

“We got lost in Italy and happened to find this restaurant where the chef didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Italian,” Losey remembers. “We clicked using hand signals and pointing on the menu. It was a great time and they kept trying to get us to buy the artwork on the walls. After our third bottle of wine, he brought out the Limoncello… we left with two bottles of it and the artwork off the walls.” 

The hood fire suppression system may not be the last thing on a new restaurateur’s mind, but it’s likely close to it. However, a few decisions need to be made regarding the restaurant system — as it is often called in the fire protection business — that may determine how much it costs up front and into the future. Taking a look at how chain restaurants do things can help newcomers to the business understand why they may want to consider all of their fire protection options while developing their own recipe for success.

In the eyes of many restaurateurs, possessing a chain of restaurants is the ultimate prize. Even among those who prefer the individual pride of a single successful location, no one can deny that owners of restaurant chains succeed by developing a formula for growing their business and maximizing profits. For any chain, that formula is rooted in the dollars-and-cents plan that is laid out before each location opens. Part of that plan is developing the menu, which may be the same at every location, or may vary based on local taste. 

The top social platforms are going after video in a big way. In social media, it used to be all about the photos. For years, “images are king” was the prevailing content strategy for brands in social. 

Brands flooded the feeds of Facebook and Twitter with everything from carefully crafted micro-ad images to unpolished pics with minimal branding. They developed campaigns based around meme generators and user-generated photo contests. They devised image-heavy onslaughts of content on Tumblr, dipped a toe into the Instagram stream and marveled at the website traffic that could be generated by a smartly executed, yet deceivingly simple, Pinterest pin. 

And while brands have been huddled over a product shot, trying to make it look like a box of cereal just snapped a selfie, video content has been making its move in a big way.   

At an estimated 76 million strong and comprising of approximately 33 percent of the U.S. workforce, millennial workers are experiencing some less-than-desirable labels and stereotypes from their more senior counterparts. However, much of this hype may not necessarily be accurate and many of the issues cited may simply be “stage-of-life” issues versus characteristics indicative of this generation.  

Also referred to as generation Y or the net generation, the earliest cited year of birth for millennials is 1976 and the oldest is cited as 2004. It is certainly not uncommon for older generations to display less tolerance towards the younger generations during this “learning stage of life.”

Whether a franchisee or franchisor, when starting such a partnership both parties are generally committed to a long-term and fruitful business relationship. But while focusing on getting the business up and running, many give little thought to the backbone of the successful partnership: the franchise agreement. 

It is important to carefully review and discuss important legal isues up front that will set the tone for the business partnership. For starters, using vague and overly broad terms related to royalties and other fees leave an opening for a disagreement in the future. Royalties and other fees should be tied to narrowly defined revenue sources.

In traditional franchise arrangements, royalty payments and other fees are often based on a percentage of overall sales. Clearly define net sales or gross sales, and understand what sources of revenue are included in or excluded. Pay close attention to the franchise disclosure document and whether other franchisees are working with the same terms. 

You know those composite photos where they take a dozen or so pictures of people from a certain geography and use computers to blend all the faces together and what results is an “average face,” the neutral median face of that group? 

It almost always has an overall pleasant, somewhat bland look. Someone generically attractive, but not memorable or even identifiable – you’d have trouble spotting them in a crowd because all their distinguishing features have been removed. That’s what most restaurant marketing is like: generically positive and hard to remember.

Nothing Distinguishing

Guess which restaurant recently ran an ad with a voiceover that said: “At [name of restaurant], we’re bringing new things to the table, like new [name of product], part of our 575-calories-or-less lighter menu. Enjoy fresh tossed [while showing a salad], go fish [while showing a photo of some fish], and taste the lighter side of delicious. At [name of restaurant].” Generically positive. Pleasant. Hard to remember.


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