When it comes to engaging with competitors, most brands take an antagonistic approach — think the age-old rivalry between Coke and Pepsi, or the memorable “Mac vs. PC” ads. However, new research suggests that praising the competition can actually boost a brand’s image and profitability. For example, in one study, consumers who saw a tweet in which KitKat praised Twix were 34% more likely to buy a KitKat in the next two weeks. This effect is driven by consumers’ perceptions of a brand’s warmth: Praising competitors makes brands seem more thoughtful, kind, and trustworthy, ultimately making consumers more likely to buy their products. Of course, this approach won’t work for every brand in every context — but the research suggests that praising the competition can substantially benefit brands, both in terms of consumers’ perceptions and bottom-line sales (not to mention the side-benefit of adding a bit of positivity to a world rife with conflict and negativity).
What’s the best way for a brand to engage with its competition? Many brands focus their marketing efforts exclusively on their own strengths rather than acknowledging competitors — and when they do talk publicly about competing brands, it’s typically to criticize them. Consider, for example, the “Mac vs. PC” TV ads that pitted a stodgy, suit-wearing PC user against a younger, hoodie-clad Mac user; the decades-long “Cola wars” between Pepsi and Coke; and today’s ongoing battles among light beers.
This approach is understandable, but it’s not the only option. For instance, PlayStation and Xbox openly congratulated Nintendo on the launch of its new Switch gaming system, Oreo shared a playful message on Twitter suggesting that KitKats were irresistible, and the New York Times even used a full-page ad to encourage readers to consult other trusted news sources. In a world where consumers are increasingly fed up with divisive, vitriolic messages, it’s no surprise that consumers might appreciate this kinder, more positive tone. But of course, the question remains: Does praising your rivals harm your own profitability, or can brands take this approach and still beat the competition?
We conducted a series of 11 experiments with nearly 4,000 consumers to explore this question, and found that when a brand praised a competitor, consumers developed a more positive attitude towards the brand — and that shift in attitude was directly reflected in consumers’ willingness to buy the brand’s products.
In one study, we showed one group of consumers a (fictitious) tweet in which KitKat praised Twix: “@twix, Competitor or not, congrats on your 54 years in business! Even we can admit — Twix are delicious.” We also showed a control group of consumers a tweet in which KitKat simply referred to its own products: “Start your day off with a tasty treat!” Eleven days later, we contacted all the participants and asked them what kinds of candy they had purchased over the last 11 days. Those who had been shown the tweet in which KitKat praised Twix were 34% more likely to have purchased a KitKat than those in the control group. Importantly, consumers were equally likely to have purchased a Twix regardless of which tweet they saw, suggesting that Twix did not benefit sales-wise from receiving KitKat’s praise.
We then replicated this study with brands across the food, ride-sharing, accessories, media, and technology industries, and consistently found that consumers showed greater interest in buying from brands that praised their competitors. We further found that this effect was largely driven by consumers’ perceptions of a brand’s warmth. When a brand praised its competitors, consumers reported feeling that the brand was warmer — that is, more thoughtful, kind, and trustworthy. As a result, consumers engaged more with these brands on social media, clicked on more of their ads, reported more-positive attitudes and a stronger sense of connection to these brands, and ultimately bought more of these brands’ products.
Of course, this strategy will work better for some brands than for others. For example, we tested the impact of praising a rival with both for-profit and non-profit brands, and we found that while both types of organizations were viewed more positively after sharing praise, the for-profit brands benefited the most. This is likely because on average, for-profit brands are perceived as less warm than non-profit brands, so consumers were particularly surprised and thus reacted most strongly to shows of warmth from the for-profit brands. In addition, we found that this approach only worked if the brand praised a rival — praising an unrelated brand had no effect. In one study, for example, we showed consumers a marketing campaign in which an eyewear company praised a hamburger brand. Since the recipient of the praise wasn’t a competitor, the praise failed to boost the eyewear brand’s image or sales.
We also found that consumers who were most skeptical about advertising in general exhibited the greatest increase in positivity about a brand when it praised its competitors. This is likely because these consumers tend to have less positive baseline feelings towards brands, and so when they witness a brand demonstrate warmth by praising a competitor, it makes a more substantial impact on their impression of the brand.
Ultimately, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions, and every organization will have to determine the approach that will be most effective — and feel most authentic — for its unique brand and customers. But our research suggests that praising the competition can substantially benefit brands, both in terms of consumers’ perceptions and bottom-line sales. Plus, in a world that’s increasingly cynical and rife with conflict, it couldn’t hurt for brands to add a small bit of positivity to the mix.