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Sometimes Bad is Just Good

July 9th, 2004

Last Thursday, the PR folks at Sony did a gorgeous thing. They took the gloves off and launched the newest Walkman with an all-out attack on Apple’s media darling, the beloved and awestruck iPod.

Sony said, point blank and in so many words, that the new WM is better than the iPod. It costs the same and has the same size memory, but the Walkman can hold almost three times as many songs, is significantly lighter (important for a device we’d tote around), has four times as much life in the battery.

Why is this campaign cause for a gush? Because Sony realized as too few companies do, that well-placed and carefully researched “competitor negative” messaging is an effective sales tool that really makes people (like us) write about them.

It’s simple, really: Whether your product is a gadget or a health plan, if it is a lot “more” product than your competitor’s—and you can explain why—there is no good reason not to say so. It is not good enough to sit back with, “Hey, we have a great product, and media will notice and acknowledge us for it.” You cannot be afraid to talk badly about your competition—in a light that makes it acceptable and constructive—and explain why you are purely the option to choose.

This is not about bashing your competition just for the sake of the bash. It is about developing smart messaging that specifically and plainly explains the differences between your product and your competition, and points out to media (and their readers and viewers) why yours is better. Being good is not enough—you must tell your customers that you are just plain better than the alternative.

“Wait!” your CEO then proclaims. “If we generate coverage that mentions our competition, we’re handing them Share of Voice!”

Yes, you are. But really, your customers have already heard of them. They have their own PR campaigns. By putting them in a negative light, you are giving customers a reason to choose your product or service over theirs.

“Um, but, what if we’re not really better than the competition?” you ask. Ah, herein lies the art of public relations. If you’re one of many products in a cluttered landscape, and the products are all about the same, you need to develop message points that address how and why you do what you do (or make what you make). Ask yourself why your customers care. Ask them why they care. And incorporate the answers into your PR program.

Look at it like this: The iPod has had competition for quite some time now (heck, Dell’s 20 GB digital music player is $150 cheaper!). Apple has retained market share with the help of a strong marketing campaign (including great PR), and nobody until Sony had the gall and guts to come out and say, “We’re better than the iPod—so there!”

Advertising has incorporated competitor negative messaging for years. In PR, it’s often seen as smarmy to say bad things about the other guys. It’s not. Consider yourself absolved of guilt. Oh, and amen.

Erin Mitchell is RLM’s Director of Business Development and the editrix of this newsletter.