Brands learn to bury the hatchet : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money In advertising, there's always been an unspoken rule — never praise your competition. But one marketing professor's research shows that approach can actually be good for businesses and their brand.

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There's this classic rule in advertising, which is, do not talk about the competition. Do not say their name because you don't want them getting extra publicity. Just talk about yourself a lot, your own brand. Like, think of it this way. Imagine that you're a brand, maybe, like, a bag of potato chips or something. And you go to this party. I guess if a brand goes to the party, they're going to be, like, the really self-involved person that just talks about themself and doesn't ask a lot of questions, right?

KEISHA CUTRIGHT: That's exactly what they do right now.


This is Keisha Cutright. She teaches marketing at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. And she says on the rare occasion that brands do speak a competitor's name, it's usually negative, like an attack ad. Classic example...


JUSTIN LONG: (As Mac) Hello. I'm a Mac.


VANEK SMITH: Mac versus PC.


LONG: (As Mac) I do it all right out of the box. So what about you?

HODGMAN: (As PC) Well, first I got to download those new drivers. Then I had to erase the trial software that came on my hard drive.

LONG: (As Mac) Sweet.

HODGMAN: (As PC) And I've got a lot of manuals to read.

HERSHIPS: Yeah. But Keisha just did this new study, and it turns all these things that we thought we knew about advertising, these classic rules, totally inside out.


HERSHIPS: I'm Sally Herships.

VANEK SMITH: Today on the show, the payoff of being nice. If you are a brand, it turns out that praising your competitor, actually saying nice things about them, can boost your own sales.


VANEK SMITH: We'll get to this weird-kind-of-seeming idea about competitors being nice to each other and how that could help them in just a minute. But first, just to recap, there is this golden rule in advertising. It's been in place forever that brands have stuck to pretty strictly for years.

CUTRIGHT: You know, we always said, you don't want to talk about your competitors at all, let alone positively.

HERSHIPS: And traditionally, there's been this one exception to the rule about not talking about your competitor, and that is the attack ad. Don't say that competitor's name out loud or even allude to them unless you have something negative to say, and then you should definitely say it. There have been some really successful attack ads, like the classic Wendy's ad from the '80s.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) It certainly is a big bun.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) It's a very big bun.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Big, fluffy bun.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) It's a very big, fluffy bun.

CLARA PELLER: (As character) Where's the beef?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Some hamburgers...

VANEK SMITH: For the record, this was Wendy's throwing shade at McDonald's and Burger King. But Keisha says she wouldn't recommend attack ads as a primary strategy. They're not always as popular as you might think, and they're not always successful. Classic example - 2019. Bud Light tried to shame its competitors for using corn syrup during one of the most important advertising moments of the year, the Super Bowl.


JOHN HOOGENAKKER: (As Dilly Dilly King) That's not ours. We don't brew Bud Light with corn syrup.

SYDNEY LEMMON: (As Dilly Dilly Queen) Miller Lite uses corn syrup.

HOOGENAKKER: (As Dilly Dilly King) Let us take it to them at once.

VANEK SMITH: The results totally backfired. MillerCoors sued. Bud Light lost. The corn lobby got angry. There were all these angry corn farmers taking to social media, posting videos of themselves...



VANEK SMITH: ...Pouring cans of Bud Light down the drain.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You're not standing with corn farmers. We're not standing with you.

HERSHIPS: Yeah, that is not the result you want.

VANEK SMITH: It is not. And, you know, of course, you know, recently there has just been a lot of conflict here in the U.S. A lot of negativity has been bubbling up. And Keisha and her co-authors started to wonder, can brands help to lead us toward a more civil discourse? And surprisingly, there were not a ton of examples. So Keisha and Co. ran some experiments.

For example, they created a fake tweet sent from Kit-Kat to Twix. Quote, "competitor or not, congrats on your 54 years in business. Even we can admit Twix are delicious." About a week and a half later, they checked in with consumers who saw the tweet. They asked them about their candy purchases. And it turns out that they were one-third more likely to buy a Kit-Kat. And here's the other really important part. Twix sales didn't increase even though Kit-Kat had complimented Twix's deliciousness.

HERSHIPS: And this is the moment when the fabric of what we thought we knew about marketing was turned inside out.

CUTRIGHT: So what we found is that when brands are actually nice to other brands and so they publicly praise another brand, consumers get excited about that and actually reward the braising brand.

VANEK SMITH: And here is what Keisha could not say enough.

CUTRIGHT: Contrary to everything I was taught growing up in marketing both academically and in practice - you know, we always said, you don't want to talk about your competitors at all, let alone positively.

VANEK SMITH: How do I do that? How do I praise the competition?

CUTRIGHT: So we've looked at this in a variety of different ways. It's been, you know, things that are fairly superficial - so, you know, congratulations on a great year. Congratulations on 50 years in business.

VANEK SMITH: Or, Keisha says, the praise could be more specific, like the Kit-Kat Twix example. Either way, she says, praising your competitor seems to change consumers' attitudes and their purchasing behavior, meaning when your customers see you being nice to the competition, they may buy more of your stuff.

CUTRIGHT: So what we're finding is that when people see you praising another brand, they automatically think you're now this warmer, fuzzier brand that they can trust. Because you would put yourself on the line for another brand, you must be a brand that they can trust.

HERSHIPS: Again, this is not the way brands normally behave, so we don't have TV commercials or videos to play for you. But there are some real-world examples out there, like when Nintendo launched its Switch. Playstation and Xbox both came out on Twitter with praise. (Reading) Congratulations on your launch. We can't wait to play.

Or there was this one time Oreo and Kit-Kat were playing tic-tac-toe on Twitter and Oreo's Twitter took a bite out of a virtual Kit-Kat because it just could not resist that chocolatey goodness. Stacey, doesn't that make you feel, like, warm and fuzzy inside?

VANEK SMITH: I mean, it's kind of nice, actually. I feel like there's just enough conflict in the world. It's nice to see Oreo and Kit-Kat living together. And Keisha says social media has made all this pretty easy. A brand can have a casual conversation with other brands. It can kind of casually praise them for not a lot of money. It's not like they have to, you know, spend millions of dollars on a whole TV ad campaign or print ads to praise a competitor. And there's another finding from Keisha's study that could be really powerful, she says. There is all this skepticism floating around in the ether right now. Like, what's real? What's fake news?

CUTRIGHT: What we were surprised by is that the people who are the most skeptical of brands, meaning they look at ads and they don't trust them so much - they were the ones who responded most positively to seeing a brand praise another brand.

HERSHIPS: But at the same time, Keisha says brands can't go overboard. They can't be too nice because if you praise the competition too much, she says, consumers will start to question your sincerity, maybe also your sanity. And also, this strategy had a much smaller impact for nonprofits. And that's because people already see them as more warm and fuzzy and trustworthy. It is the for-profit brands that need the work, unsurprisingly.

VANEK SMITH: You know, I guess the question becomes, like, will companies actually do this? Will we see lots of companies complimenting each other now? And will that potentially bleed out into the rest of society? Will we all start complimenting each other, maybe being a little more gracious and civil with each other, taking a page from the Oreo Kit-Kat tic-tac-toe game?

HERSHIPS: I'm excited by the prospect of eating more chocolate either way.

VANEK SMITH: Yes, exactly. I feel like everyone has good things to say about that.


VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by our senior producer Viet Le with help from Isaac Rodrigues. It was fact-checked by Taylor Washington. Kate Concannon edits the show, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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