From chicken sandwich wars to ‘corngate,’ trading shots with rival brands is all the rage. But there’s a right and a wrong way to go about it

The fast-food industry is waging a chicken sandwich war. Bud Light and Coors Light are embroiled in “corngate.” And Kind and Cliff keep trading shots in a snack-bar skirmish over whose ingredients are healthier. These are among the many brand battles raging in what has become a feisty, attack-ridden marketing environment.

While comparative advertising is a tried-and-true tactic, more brands are going at each other’s throats in an attempt to stand out in the increasingly cluttered media environment. Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, suggests marketers are merely part of a larger cultural shift toward more aggressive behavior, including in the political arena. “Our country has become so polarized and so harsh,” he says, which also “affects how brands market themselves.”

Whether the marketing attacks are effective has a lot to do with how they are handled. “Consumers say they don’t like comparative or negative ads, but nevertheless they do work,” says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist who studies younger generations. “Generally, the percentage of people who are turned off by a comparative ad is about equal to the percentage who are positively influenced. There are so many caveats, though.”

Below, the do’s and don’ts of comparative advertising:

Be careful when punching down
Traditionally, comparison ads work best when the little guy goes after the big guy. Remember the Pepsi Challenge? Or Apple’s classic Mac vs. PC campaign? “The one place where consumers like negativity is when they feel like they’re helping David battle Goliath,” Yarrow says.

But lately, brands are breaking this rule. For instance, Bud Light commands more market share than Coors Light and Miller Lite combined, the two brands it has attacked for using corn syrup in their brewing process. Based on sales results, the approach failed. Bud Light store sales were down 7.5 percent year-to-date as of Aug. 3, according to Nielsen data cited by Beer Marketer’s Insights. Yarrow says the corn claim was “ridiculous” because “the comparison centered on a product characteristic that was not central to brand preference or loyalty.”

The battle has spilled over into court, where MillerCoors has won some preliminary victories. McDonald’s broke the David-Goliath rule when it went after Burger King, its smaller competitor, with an ad outside a BK restaurant in Belgium that plugged table service it offers that BK does not. BK responded with this zinger of an ad: “Why try to roast when you can’t even flame grill?”

Keep it light
The response was a perfect fit for BK’s spunky marketing personality. When attacking, “you want to find ways to do it that fit with your brand but don’t damage the competitive dynamics,” Calkins advises. “If you are not careful, it degenerates into name calling and a level of discussion that doesn’t enhance anyone.”

Popeyes is giving a masterclass in how to do it right. The chicken fight started innocently enough when Popeyes in early August tweeted a picture of its new sandwich, saying, “So. Good. Forgot. How. Speak. In. Complete. Sandwiches. I mean, sentences.” After Chick-fil-A tried to get involved by plugging its own sandwich, Popeyes played it cool, merely replying “… y’all good?” Other chains got involved and the back-and-forth generated so much positive attention for Popeyes that it experienced a sandwich shortage. “Popeyes was a huge win. Why? Because they invited users to do the comparing and talking,” Yarrow says. “When they did engage with Chick-fil-A and Wendy’s, it was in response and lighthearted.”

To sue or not to sue?
If a brand faces an attack by a competitor, one of the biggest decisions is whether to challenge the claims in court as misleading. Another option is using the self-regulation system put in place by the Council of Better Business Bureaus’ National Advertising Division in which brands can submit claims against each other.

Ad lawyer Jeff Greenbaum says marketers who think they have been wronged should start simply by calling their competitor and asking them to change the ad in question. “That works a lot of the time,” he says. “Advertisers should not assume that they need to rush to court,” says Greenbaum, managing partner at Frankfurt Kurnit Klein and Selz.

Don’t live in a glass house
If you do go to court to challenge a competitor’s claims, you better make sure your own advertising is aboveboard, says Linda Goldstein, a partner at BakerHostetler. “You have to anticipate that the defendant is going to be looking for counter-claims,” she says. So “you have to take a very careful look at your own advertising and determine whether you might potentially be putting your own claims in jeopardy.”

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About Author

E J Schultz

E.J. Schultz is the Chicago Bureau Chief at Advertising Age and covers beverage, automotive and sports marketing. He is a former reporter for McClatchy newspapers, including the Fresno Bee, where he covered business and state government and politics, and the Island Packet in South Carolina. His journalism awards include a 2012 Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for best range of work by a single author and a 2011 Best in Business award for a feature story from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. A native of Cincinnati, Mr. Schultz has an economics degree from Xavier University and a masters in journalism from Northwestern University.

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