Rivalry Marketing


Sometimes the best thing for a brand is an enemy: a rival brand that can be the focus of advertising. The other day, Mark Gallagher and Laura Savard at the BlackCoffee blog put the advantage of focusing on a rival succinctly:

It is often said that a brand is a narrative. This is because stories are fundamental to how we process information. The human brain organizes much of our experience, knowledge and thinking as stories and, as we all know, rivalry makes for a great story. Without an antagonist, things get boring quickly. Rivalry leverages exclusionary positioning, providing an antagonist that adds to an existing identity.

In my post, Revealed: How Steve Jobs Turns Customers into Fanatics, I described how Apple has brilliantly leveraged rivalry marketing to build their brand and business.

It turns out that there’s a way to make your own claims more believable and those of your rival less so. Research at Michigan State University studied the “Barack Obama is a Muslim” and “John McCain is senile” beliefs, which informed people of most political persuasions would agree are false.

The research by Spee Kosloff and colleagues suggests people are most likely to accept such falsehoods, both consciously and unconsciously, when subtle clues remind them of ways in which Obama is different from them, whether because of race, social class or other ideological differences. [From ScienceDaily – Why Some Americans Believe Obama Is a Muslim.]

Subtle Priming

Remarkably, it took very little effort to make the false statements more believable. The test subjects were mostly white, non-Muslim, and young – characteristics which set them apart from the contenders. Subjects were asked to read blog posts with the allegations about Obama and McCain with and without subtle priming:

  • McCain supporters who were asked to indicate their race on a demographic card found it 77% likely that Obama was Muslim vs. 56% without the race priming.
  • Undecided subjects thought it 43% likely that McCain was senile, a number that jumped to 73% when they were asked to list their own age on a card.
  • Undecided subjects gave the “Obama is a socialist” a mere 25% probability of being true, a number that jumped to 62% when they were asked to record their race.

Let me make it clear I’m not advocating any brand to make false statements about their competitors or their own products. The neuromarketing takeaway from this research is, I believe, equally relevant to TRUE statements. If you can prime your target audience with cues that separate them from other customer groups that favor your competition, they will be more likely to believe your message.

While the MSU experiment used race and age, I can see many areas of differentiation. Geography, for example, whether the difference is local, regional, or global, can readily set groups apart. Even a state of mind can work – look at Apple’s efforts over the years to portray their customers as young, cool, and creative and the competition as old, brainwashed, and frumpy. In the “I’m a Mac” ads Apple masterfully set up viewers by reminding them of which camp they were in before delivering the content payload: PCs are buggy, people hate Vista, PCs get more viruses, etc. Surely these messages were far more effective than had Apple simply run factual ads about customer satisfaction ratings or virus outbreak statistics.

The message is simple: if you can segment your target customers in a way that separates them from other groups, remind them of that difference, even in a very subtle way. Doing so will amplify the credibility of your message.

  1. jackson says

    very compeling argument but i mean whats to stop a company from making a fake rivalry to boost sales

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Jackson, I guess a company could try to invent a rival but it likely wouldn’t resonate with consumers. To some extent, every rivalry is invented, though. When Dell picked Compaq to attack with its comparison ads, Compaq was one of several competitors vying for the same market.


  2. Berthold says

    Frankly, there is no reason not to start fake rivalries. They provide a story, helps both companies work out their USP and may actually improve both offerings as they are focusing on their respective strengths, effectively weakening all other competition in the process. It gives you something to talk about if your progress itself won’t suffice. Just make sure both sides also involve competing designers.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      True, Berthold. Usually, of course, the rivalries aren’t totally fake – the competitive situation already exists, and one firm or the other uses its marketing to amplify the rivalry for customers and potential customers.


  3. Ryan Critchett says

    This is a brilliant article. I’m totally congruent with this. We need a way to distinguish ourselves from other people who like similar “whatevers.” This is awesome – Right into the psychology of things, totally with you.

  4. D Garofoli says

    I think the logic of “us against them” is particularly informative (and creepy, of course) of the mechanisms that are at the base of modern democracies. I think that political support it´s similar to the soccer one: it is not based on rationality, but on emotive biases. If you have something that can enhance these emotive biases, as for instance the “caqtegorical priming” then you´ll gather more success at the next elections.
    This is the reason that explains why people are so reluctant to believe in political/economical strategies that are in opposition to their “political category”. For instance a libertarian economic principle is that punishing the upper class with more taxes would lead inevitably to negative repercussions on the lower classes. Assuming that this is true, it´s hard to convince socialism-oriented people to support this argument, basically because the defense of rich people is against the logic of their own political category. Is against the logic of “Us vs Them”. We are still organized in tribes, and the Marketing of rivalry is just the expressione of this organization in our modern society.

  5. Laura Savard says


    Thanks for referencing our post. It just goes to prove that great minds think a like ; )

    Love your blog! Always great content.

    Laura Savard
    Brand Expressionist®

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Thanks for stopping by, Laura! Your stuff is a great read too!


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