Ritson on brand: pick an enemy and position against them. Hard.

Positioning against an enemy brand is a powerful yet under-utilised approach in marketing, writes Mark Ritson.

This article originally appeared in The Versus Issue, our latest issue of Marketing magazine.

 Mark Ritson headshot 150A museum guide is showing people around a set of dusty old exhibits and there, behind a red rope barrier, is a large university building.

“Traditional MBAs belong in a museum,” the ad goes on to claim. “Choose the MBA for today’s working adults.” The ad, shown as a prominent display ad on LinkedIn for the online education brand Australian Institute of Business, is easily the most offensive ad of the year for business school professors like me who actually work at a university.

But it demonstrates an important and often overlooked success strategy for good brand positioning – take an enemy and position against them. Hard.

Too often marketers are too gentle to countenance such a move. They are more than happy to mine their own company’s advantages for possible positioning fodder and conformable trying to understand and then exceed customer needs. But when it comes to competitors, there is often reticence to call out their rivals and openly and repeatedly slight them.

That’s a shame because there are two ways to position a brand: about and versus. In the ‘about’ approach we promote the features and, occasionally, the benefits of our brand to target customers. Positioning is all about the company C, us, and the customer C, them.

MK0217 200In the other approach, the less common ‘versus’ approach, we still focus on what the customer wants that we can deliver. However, to communicate the message more strongly, we pick out a specific competitor and position our brand against them as overly and aggressively as possible. The point of the ‘versus’ positioning is not simply to aggressively slight your rivals; it’s more nuanced than that.

The versus position is one in which we make it clear what we stand for to customers by highlighting the differences between ourselves and others.

When I first met the future Mrs Ritson, for example, I realised it would be impossible to convince her I was a decent man, so I picked a very specific asshole she could  not stand and made it clear I did not like him either. Sometimes the best way to explain who you are and what you offer is to contrast yourself with another.

The most famous exemplar of the ‘versus’ school of positioning was the Avis advertising of the early sixties. When Warren Avis set up his car rental business in the 1940s he did so by focusing on an unusual niche: offering rental cars at airports. Hertz, which had been established three decades earlier at the beginning of the automotive era, had traditionally offered its rental cars within the CBD areas of most cities.

Eventually, however, as air travel increased, Hertz matched the Avis strategy with its own airport locations and the two rental firms evolved together. But the first-mover advantage of Hertz ensured it was the more successful brand enjoying double the market share of its smaller competitor Avis.

Until, that is, one fateful afternoon in 1962 when the leadership team at Avis walked into the Manhattan headquarters of legendary advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach. Seemingly at a loss as
to how to position Avis successfully in a market that was dominated by Hertz, the agency decided to position against them instead.

“When you’re only No 2, you try harder,” went the new strapline and a legendary ad campaign was born.

Over on the other side of town advertising guru David Ogilvy called it a piece of “diabolical positioning”, and indeed it was. By positioning directly against Hertz and its number one status, Avis had immediately turned the marketing tables on its greatest rivals. Over the next five years the ‘We Try Harder’ campaign saw Avis gradually close the gap on Hertz until the paradoxical moment arrived in which Avis faced the realistic problem of becoming the number one in the market.

Of course, the ‘versus’ position and the ‘about’ position are not mutually exclusive. In fact, in my experience they work best in tandem, as a brand positions itself to a customer and also against a competitor as part of a single, holistic attempt to create a clear brand image in the mind of the target customer.

That combination of both approaches was key to the revitalisation of Apple 15 years ago. Steve Jobs was never a marketer to shy away from competitive derision. He famously mocked the product design of Dell computers throughout his career and repeatedly promised to devote all of Apple’s resources to the “thermonuclear destruction” of Korean rival Samsung.

So it’s no surprise that while much of Apple’s ultimate branding success derives from positioning what Apple stands for – starting with the ‘Think Different’ campaigns – much of it also can be traced back to one of the most famous ‘versus’ campaigns of all time.

In 2006 the handsome, laconic actor Justin Long walked casually onto a white backdrop and explained that he was a Mac. From the other side of the screen a besuited, bespectacled John Hodgman pompously introduced himself as a PC.

What followed over the next four years were 50 different ads in which the Long/Mac character was shown to be not only cool and attractive, but also the exact opposite of the stuffy Hodgman/PC stood next to him.

Ten years ago we were all far more comfortable and proficient with a Windows-based PC.

For Apple to engineer its incredible ascension in computing, it had to leverage not only who it was as a company but who, very specifically, it was not. The results, a decade later, speak for themselves.

Here in Australia, alas, examples of the ‘versus’ position is much less common and overt. Coles and Woolworths may fight a price war, but rarely do they reference each other in marketing communications.

Traditionally, the Big Four banks have steadfastly avoided calling out their rivals in their ads. The one exception to that, the ‘Breakup’ campaign from NAB in 2011, did offer a fantastic example of ‘versus’ positioning.

NAB set out to show how its bank was more generous than CBA, ANZ or Westpac and openly incited  customers to leave these rival banks and join them. The execution was brilliant, but it all fell apart when, faced with positioning success, the senior management at NAB refused to follow through and actually be different to their rivals.

A key lesson of the ‘versus’ position is that you not only have to say you are different, but you also have to actually deliver on those vaunted claims of distinctiveness.

So do your positioning work as usual. But don’t just focus on how to communicate that message to customers. Think also about whom you can position against to make that message even clearer.

At Melbourne Business School we are determined to communicate the fact that we’ve just been ranked in the top 10 international MBA programs by Business Week. We think our courses are perfect for full-time managers. So when I saw the Australian Institute of Business ad denigrating ‘traditional’ MBA programs like ours with its museum ad I had to smile and admire the approach.

And then I started a social media campaign betting them $10,000 that my ‘traditional’ MBA course was superior and more up-to-date than whatever they were teaching in their second-rate program.

Did I not mention you can also run a ‘versus’ ‘versus’ positioning?

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Image copyright: aoosthuizen / 123RF Stock Photo

Mark Ritson
BY Mark Ritson ON 22 February 2017
Professor Mark Ritson is an internationally renowned marketing consultant and teaches marketing and brand management on MBA programs at London Business School, MIT Sloan, the University of Minnesota, Singapore Management University and Melbourne Business School. Tweet him at @markritson.
  • Montague Tigg

    Politicians have always known this, but detergent brands and other marketers tend to take the high road compared with Prime Ministers and Presidents.

    My favourite competitive advertising was the “Pepsi Challenge”, which eventually led to what may be the most disastrous decision in marketing history, Coke’s introduction of “New Coke” (which caused angry mobs to protest at their Atlanta headquarters).

    Of course, some brands go one step further and actively undermine competitors. My favourite black hat technique for search engine optimisation (or ‘negative SEO’) is to buy tens of thousands of low-quality back links to competitors’ websites. When Google thinks those sites are trying to trick them, they push them down in search rankings. Your brand, in turn, rises up. This is not theoretical. Google released a “Disavow Links” tool to deal with it.