Lined up pencils

My first creative director was fond of unexplained marketing koans.

  • “Only do things importantly.”
  • “If it’s funny, it’s good.”
  • “The job of advertising is to wave your arms in the air and get attention.”
  • “Throw away your first 10 ideas. They’ve been done.”

They have served me well. One of my favorites is: “Never acknowledge the competition.”

Understand There Is No Comparison to Your Product or Company

That’s a tough sell, because in the business-to-business (B2B) world, many clients are obsessed with their competitors. I see this in the research phase: file after file of competitive ads and brochures, deep analyses of competitive media and marketing strategies, and feature-by-feature product comparisons. I typically get more complete information about the competition’s products than from our own clients about their products.

Eventually a client’s products become defined by everything the competition’s products aren’t. What matter most are unique points of differentiation. And in concentrating on those distinguishing details — the “competitive advantages” if you will — the client loses sight of the fact that they’ve built a really good machine that solves a unique problem.

Without question, this obsession with competition bleeds into marketing materials. The most familiar symptom is the ubiquitous product comparison chart, in which a product sits side-by-side with competitive products (often named for convenience) above a grid of features, with big red checkmarks highlighting unique achievements and a humiliating black X marking where a competitor seemingly fails. (Of course, the competitors have their own charts, where our client’s product doesn’t fare as well. Touché.) Competition obsession sometimes bleeds into raging attack ads, in which one company so vigorously condemns the outrageous claims of a competitor that it neglects to say anything about what it has to offer.

Less visible is self-censorship, when a client walks away from a major selling point because a competitor has caught up. For example, in our sustainable times, many of the accounts I work with tout the energy savings realized by their equipment. Reducing energy consumption by up to 62 percent is a headline achievement, well worth highlighting. But since every company has an R&D department, within a few months, a competitor will probably launch a product every bit as energy efficient. Suddenly, a product’s exceptional energy efficiency isn’t a star anymore; it’s a bullet point. This ignores the fact that those amazing energy savings are still a gorgeous attribute of a really good machine. A customer won’t see it as pointless at all in light of the total package.

Why You Should Avoid Comparative Advertising

By acknowledging the competition’s similar offerings, a client is inviting its customers to comparison shop (CXL). And because it’s generally acknowledged that most products in a category are pretty much the same and will do a relatively good job, this battle of marginal differences leads to price shopping, which only benefits the cheapest offering.

The Huffington Post also points out:

Your customers already know the competition. You can focus on your key differentiators without having to waste time and space badmouthing others.
Although consumers are attracted to positivity, comparative advertising is inherently negative.
It’s not unusual to see the Federal Trade Commission encourage competitive advertising, because it can drive prices down. In business-to-business, however, customers should not base their purchase decisions only on price, but instead on the overall value your products can provide them. Don’t train them to think otherwise.

For businesses of any size, it’s also important to point out that focusing on the competition can be a cause for concern within legal departments. Competitors must make truthful, factual claims of differentiation, but a step in the wrong direction could result in a multimillion dollar lawsuit (Practical Ecommerce).

But the strongest case against acknowledging the competition is that it reduces branded advertising to generic product advertising, and then reduces product advertising into feature wars, a descent to the lowest common denominator.

Clear Your B2B Marketing Table Stakes

A confident company builds its unique machine for a reason: to provide the best possible answers to its customers’ most compelling needs. That’s what strong brands do: they obsess over their customers and let the competition bicker about the minute differences in their feature sets. There’s no comparison.

A study conducted by Corporate Visions revealed that 74 percent of executive buyers, once they commit to making a change, will go with the company that’s able to create the buying vision. Instead of concentrating on a competitor-focused advertising strategy, look inwardly at your own brand. Work to highlight how it interacts with customers and determine what their buyer’s journeys may look like. Use existing research, web traffic data and customer testimonials to position your brand as the best solution to your audience’s industry problems.

There are certain “must haves” for B2B products, which your competitors probably offer, too, including: up-to-date regulatory standards; meeting specifications; product quality; and potentially even risk reduction. But when it comes to making a decision, these aren’t things that necessarily will help potential buyers make a choice (Harvard Business Review). Instead of focusing on your competition and table stake comparisons, strive to provide your customers a value that others can’t. Factors like decreased hassle, reduced effort and time savings can build a loyal customer base. And you’ll do even better if you can get customers to see personal value in your brand.

Define yourself — instead of what your competitors aren’t. Only then can you stand out and have your products be recognized as the “really good machines” they are.