This week, Burger King broke a cardinal rule of advertising.
It directly referenced its main competitor in an ad and then went even further by dedicating most of the runtime to the most popular product on the enemy’s menu.
From the outset, the ad made no secret of who it was taking aim at or what it thought of the sacred Big Mac. The ad was essentially a series of slaps in the face of McDonald’s.
Everything from the blurred out golden arches to the critical breakdown of the burger and onto the audacious climax of creating what it saw as a superior offering was a series of barbs aimed directly at the heart of its competitor. Burger King took no mercy, and it was winking at the audience all the way through its elaborate trolling of its competitor.
The risk of engaging in this type of promotion is always the same. Spend too much time talking about your competitor, and viewers might forget who’s actually doing the advertising. Or, come across too nasty and it could just look like sour grapes.
But Burger King, and the crew at ad agency Pitchblack, had traversed this tightrope before. These are, after all, the same people who gave the world the McWhopper – a fusion burger presented by Burger King to McDonald’s on World Peace Day in 2015 as a peace offering.
McDonald’s didn’t take the bait then, and now, five years later, the company still isn’t interested in stepping into the ring with its competitor, according to head of communications Simon Kenny.
“Every year our customers enjoy Monopoly at Macca’s, our competitors less so,” Kenny says, dropping a subtle competitive jab of his own.
“Burger King trying to troll McDonald’s to get attention is something they’ve done around the world for a few years.”
Burger King isn’t alone in picking a fight with its much bigger competitor this week, and high-budget advertising isn’t the only tool being used.
Electricity independent Electric Kiwi also illustrated how the Advertising Standards Authority could be used to dig the knife into your competitor.
A complaint lodged by Electric Kiwi CEO Luke Blincoe ultimately resulted in the ASA ordering Meridian Energy to pull down its advertising for misleading Kiwis.
Electric Kiwi did two things here. It shamed one of its biggest competitors, while simultaneously aligning its brand with the little guy fighting against the machine.
In other words, it made its competitor look bad without damaging its own brand.
This two-pronged approach is the sweet spot brands should be looking to hit, according to marketing professor Mark Ritson.
In a 2018 Marketing Week article, Ritson argues that there are always two ways to position a brand. The first is about sending a clear message about what you stand for to your customers. The second, often trickier, approach is playing the angles and positioning your brand against something your customers detest.
Ritson encourages brands to find their nemesis and to avoid giving them the luxury of gentleness – and he points to one of the greats as an example of why the process works.
“Steve Jobs was never a marketer to shy away from deriding competitors, famously mocking the product design of Dell computers and angrily promising to devote all of Apple’s resources to the ‘thermonuclear destruction’ of Korean rival Samsung,” says Ritson.
Blincoe isn’t quite gunning for anything quite as apocalyptic. Still, his willingness to talk to the media once the ASA decision was released showed that he was willing to play the angles and take the opportunity to explain why he put in the time to call out the misleading elements in Meridian’s advertising.
It was a perfect fit for the Electric Kiwi brand, emphasising the small versus big narrative integral to its brand while also fighting against the blight of greenwashing that pervades so much advertising these days.
This had very little to do with Meridian and everything to do with Electric Kiwi.
Another example of this feisty communications approach came from the political sphere this week when The Opportunities Party (TOP) distributed an open letter on Facebook targeted directly at National Party voters.
The letter urges National supporters not to “waste their vote” on a party vote for National. Rather than going low, the letter explains that National’s hopes of defeating Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party are dismal and that voters would be better served by adding a policy-driven voice to Parliament.
An open letter to National Party Supporters:"Don't waste your vote."We’ve all seen the polls. The gap between…
What makes this competitive jab effective is that it doesn’t descend into the familiarity of political nastiness, while also retaining a clear focus on facts and policy. This is important for a political party that’s long been trying to clean off the smell of a public relations dumpster fire that accompanied its acrimonious uncoupling from founder Gareth Morgan.
The letter ultimately complements TOP’s overarching marketing strategy of running snappy videos that lay out its policy positions on a variety of issues. And while the common perception is that audiences aren’t interested in policy-focused videos, TOP has been over-indexing based on online engagement metrics recorded by social media research firm Zavy. Despite spending far less on advertising than other parties, TOP currently sits in third place in terms of engagement and social media sentiment – behind only Labour and National.
The only problem is that social media metrics aren’t likely to do enough to pull the party out of the polling doldrums and into Parliament any time soon.
Competitive advertising clearly has its time and place when executed well, but this year we’ve also seen how it can run awry.
Part of the reason why the National Party was slammed so hard under Simon Bridges was that the party spent most of its time railing against its enemy, without clearly pointing out what it stood for.
Bridges was attempting to conduct the two-pronged approach at competitive advertising, but he ultimately left the first prong out. And by the time he found something he could latch the first prong onto (law and order), Todd Muller already promised the public that he wouldn’t be running a negative campaign.
If anything, Bridges’ shortcomings provided a case study on why competitive advertising should always serve to accentuate your strengths at the expense of your opponent. You might be calling out your opponent, but the audience should always know that the underlying message is about you.
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