Know Your Competition, But Don’t Trash Them

I have been running into a lot of discussion about competitors lately. I have a client who is assessing white papers and industry analyses for potential marketing applications, but, of course, the competition is mentioned in each of these reports. That’s balanced and responsible reporting. If you want to commission your own white paper that expounds the glories of your product or technology, then you can commission your own, but it wont’ have the weight of a true competitive overview.

It amazes me how many of my clients over the past 20 years have been obsessed with their competitors. I have had clientsOscarGrouch approach me to do news releases about competitive face-offs in trade magazines and exp0lain why we had to outline, in detail, how their speeds and feeds are faster than the competition, and provide specific names and metrics. In the last few months, I have even seen a competitor of one of my clients go to the extreme of issuing an unapproved press release explaining how a Fortune 500 company (and a customer of my client) was using their technology – a bold-faced lie.

The sprit of economic Darwinism has always been a motivator in business. Today it is driving innovating on all fronts. Toyota has demonstrated the economical viability and popularity of hybrid cars, and there are dozens of copy cats entering the market. Facebook has proven such a success that the social media space continues to boom with new competitors, the latest entry in the social media race being Google+. Competition is healthy because it promotes innovation.

However, in marketing and PR, the rule is to learn from your competition, but never mention them. As Machiavelli once wrote, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer,” so you need to keep a close eye on where the competition are appearing, what they are saying, and who is following them. That task has become much easier in the era of the web and social media, so follow their followers and keep your eyes and ears open. But whatever you do don’t mention them by name in your own press or marketing material – why give them the free publicity? And why undermine your own authority and assumed leadership by pointing to the other guy and saying, in essence, “But we’re better than they are…”

Another popular phrase talks about mud slinging, and when you sling mud, some of that mud will land on you. This is especially true in marketing. Even if you are the CEO of Microsoft, dissing the competition is a bad idea.

So what can you do to effectively combat the competition without looking like a bully, a whiner, or a fool? Outmnarket then!

1. Take the high ground, and hold it! Be the authority. Instruct without being demeaning and show the market you know your stuff.

2. Lead by example. Show that you have, indeed, built a better mousetrap by offering data on return on investment, proof of value, and why your customers love you and mice fear you.

3. Enlist evangelists. Get customers and others to sing your praises. Third-party validation is always more powerful than comparison shopping.

4. Let the truth set you free. If you trash the competition or, worse, tell lies to make your point, the truth will find its way to your customers and prospects and the trash talk will only sully your reputation. You never win by lying.

Keep your campaign positive, forthright, and real, and forget about the competition. Win by playing your own game and listening to customers and the market. If you see your competition winning business where you can’t, change the rules and promote your strengths to gain market share back. And if the competitor starts pointing fingers and shouting “J’accuse!, let them. Keep to your high ground and they will slide back down the hill in their own mud. But don’t engage because when you get into a name-calling contest, everyone loses.

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