Political advertising succeeds largely by attacking opponents’ weaknesses, rather than promoting candidates’ own strengths. For a hundred years and more, political operatives have been writing the book on the power of defining yourself by defining your competition. Think of Johnson’s “The Girl with the Daisy/Atomic Bomb” commercial, or the John Kerry “Swift Boat” ads, or more recently how President Obama is framing Mitt Romney as rich and insensitive to the needs of middle class Americans.
This negative approach to advertising has also been well represented in the commercial world. Apple successfully positioned itself as the alternative to “big brother” IBM with its famous “1984” TV ad. Even today, Apple continues to frame its computers by defining its competition with pointed, though humorous, attacks on Microsoft (Mac vs. PC).
Apart from legitimate arguments about whether negative advertising is good or bad for politics, society and commerce, there’s no doubt that if done well, degrading your competition can be a quick and effective way to enhance the perceived value of your own brand. Otherwise, politicians and commercial brands wouldn’t continue to do it.
However, there are risks. So, if you want to go in this direction you should keep the following principles of offensive branding in mind.
1. Political advertising and commercial brand advertising are not the same. What works in politics doesn’t necessarily work for toothpaste. In politics, the choice is between two opponents; the winner gets all the spoils; the public is often voting against, rather than for, somebody; promises do not have to be kept (and indeed rarely are); and political advertising is unregulated so stretching the truth or even outright lies are not uncommon. Conversely, for commercial brands, there are usually many competitors; the business goal is increased market share–not killing off the competition altogether; the public often enjoys using more than one brand in a category; if a brand doesn’t immediately deliver on what it promises, consumers will walk away, never return and tell all their friends how lousy you are; and commercial brand advertising is highly regulated by the industry itself.
2. Unlike negative political advertising, commercial brands need to claim how they perform relative to their competition. If you’re going to disparage a competitor, you need to state how your better in that regard and prove it. Commercial brands must state why they’re better otherwise credibility will be lost.
3. Leaders should play defense, not offense. Offensive branding is for No. 2, No. 3 or lesser brands. So if you’re already the leader, disparaging your weaker competition may look mean-spirited and petty. It may also give them more credibility and comparability by inviting them on to the same playing field.
4. Attack only if there’s a highly relevant point of weakness in the leader that consumers are aware of or sense. Pepsi has tried for years to define themselves by positioning Coke as old fashioned and inferior tasting, to little effect. The problem is that Coke users aren’t unhappy with the taste of their brand; nor do they see themselves (as extensions of their beloved brand) as old-fashioned. Hence very few Coke users over the years have jumped ship and signed on to be members of “the choice of a new generation.”
5. Find a weakness in the leaders strength. Hertz strength has always been its size. Avis exploited the weakness in this strength by claiming “We Try Harder.” They tapped into a truth that people often suspect about big, domineering category leaders: namely, that they don’t have to try as hard. One particular Avis ad nailed it on the head: “Rent from Avis. The line at our counter is shorter.”