Don’t just stand for something, stand against your competitors

Don’t just stand for something, stand against your competitors

There are two ways to position a brand – ‘about’ something and ‘versus’ something – and the most powerful examples of positioning do both.

When I passed 30 I had a long, hard talk with my mum about not settling down. I’d been single for several years and was starting to not only get used to solitary life but actually enjoy it. I could feel the little lone rituals and pleasures of singleton life becoming ingrained as I gradually shut up shop for a partner. “I might not end up attached mum,” I remember telling her on the phone, “and I am happy if that is the way it ends up.”

But I had not quite given up. And in a fit of personal planning I took a sabbatical from my job in London and spent a half-year at Stockholm School of Economics. I love Sweden. My previous girlfriend had been a fiery knockout from Gothenburg and I figured that, in a pre-Tinder age, Sweden was the only way to increase the odds of finding my match. “You will never meet your wife spending every night drinking in The Windsor Castle,” one of my best mates (the landlord of the Windsor Castle) told me with a confirmatory hug when I gave him the news of my impending departure.

I bought a bike (that is another story) and spent a blissful couple of weeks cycling through Northern Europe to my eventual destination of Stockholm. And when I got there I had an amazing time. Sweden is a fantastic country and I spoke enough of the language to get into some serious trouble. But no great romance ensued and seven months later I boarded a plane bound for London, professorial duties and my very single life.

The trip back from Heathrow took me close to my local so I sheepishly stopped by for a quick one at the Windsor. It was deserted. Just me and my Sunday night thoughts. I ordered a pint of Guinness and when the bartender gave me a pint of bitter I looked up to complain. That was it. The future Mrs Ritson, newly arrived from Tasmania, was bored, hostile and not having the best time of it in London. Her co-worker, who we will call Les, spent his days ordering her around and generally making her life miserable. She was about to resign and return Down Under.

I was smitten. Arrows and cupids. The whole nine fluffy yards.

But there was a problem. The future Mrs Ritson had been in London for several months and she had her pick of a number of potential suitors. The slightly crumpled, usually exhausted junior professor was not in pole position in the race for her affections. Being single for so long had left me rusty and my already hopeless chat was now stifled by nerves. In contrast, the main rival for my affections was smoother than silk, richer than sin and, despite a recent divorce, convinced that he was on the verge of a “new conquest” – his words, not mine.

I remember the realisation about three days into my return to London that this was The One but that there was a significant chance that I might end up losing her to a plonker. So I did something that, to this day, I am not proud of but I do not regret. I went after Les.

There is a reticence to call out rivals and openly slight them. That’s a real pity because there are two ways to position a brand.

Every time he served me a beer I sent it back. When he barked orders at others in the bar I rolled my eyes and told him he was had no right to talk to anyone like that. Les took it badly and, quite correctly, called me a four-letter word we say a lot in pubs but don’t write in marketing articles. I told him that he was the four-letter word. It almost got tasty one Friday evening.

And all the time the future Mrs Ritson was there. As I went at Les, her tormentor, she sided with me. The combination of being genuinely nice to her and artificially awful to Les began to work.

Talk to the now Mrs Ritson 20 years later and she will dispute this. She will tell you that she fell at exactly the same moment that I did. But I am certain that the combination of presenting myself in an attractive way to her, and my antagonistic manner towards her main adversary, was a combination that superseded anything my smoother, better-looking rival could muster.

The more jokes he shared with Les, the more attractive I became. A month later he was plying his trade on the new Slovakian replacement. The Tasmanian had resigned and was shacked up with me. We were together and off and running.

Find your nemesis

I think there are two lessons to be taken from this ancient tale. First, and most importantly, don’t underestimate what can happen in your local pub. If you spend enough time there, the world will come to you. Second, and perhaps with more pertinence for marketers, there are two ways to position.

The traditional approach is all about making it clear what you stand for directly to your target customer. But there is an alternative method that calls for playing the angles and positioning against something or someone that the target customer already dislikes. By taking an enemy, a marketer can position very clearly on what they stand for, often in a manner that is quicker to grab attention and more persuasive than trying to state it directly.

Marketers are usually too gentle to countenance such a move. They are more than happy to mine their company’s advantages for positioning fodder, and comfortable trying to understand and then exceed customer needs. But when it comes to competitors, there is a reticence to call out rivals and openly slight them. That’s a real pity because there are two ways to position a brand: ‘about’ and ‘versus’.

In the about approach we promote the features and, occasionally, the benefits of our brand to target customers. Positioning is all about the ‘company C’, us, and the ‘customer C’, them.

In the versus approach we still focus on what the customer wants. But to communicate the message we pick out a specific competitor and position our brand against them as overtly and aggressively as possible in order to highlight our benefits by way of comparison.

The prototypical example of the versus school of positioning is Avis. When Warren Avis set up his car rental business in the 1940s he did so by focusing on an unusual niche: offering rental cars at airports. Hertz, which had been established three decades earlier at the beginning of the automotive era, had traditionally offered its rental cars within the downtown locations of most cities.

Eventually, as air travel increased, Hertz matched the Avis strategy and infringed on its rival’s airport territory with its own airport locations. The combination of both downtown and airport locations meant that Hertz became the more successful brand, enjoying double the market share of Avis.

That is until one fateful afternoon in 1962 when Avis walked into the New York headquarters of legendary advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach. At a loss as to how to position Avis successfully in a market that was dominated by Hertz, the company agreed to run any campaign that DDB recommended.

A young copywriter, Paula Green, came up with the slogan that reversed the traditional logic that bigger was always better. Her line, ‘We Try Harder’, became the most famous slogan in advertising history and, more importantly, enabled Avis to turn an annual loss into a profit the following year.

Over on the other side of town, advertising guru David Ogilvy called it a piece of “diabolical positioning”, and indeed it was. By positioning directly against Hertz and its number one status, Avis had immediately turned the marketing tables on its greatest rivals. Over the next five years the ‘We Try Harder’ campaign saw Avis gradually close the gap on Hertz until the paradoxical moment was reached where the campaign had been so successful it was no longer relevant. Avis became the number one brand in the market.

Don’t be scared to criticise

The versus and the about position are not mutually exclusive. In fact, in my experience they work best in tandem, as a brand positions itself to a customer and also against a competitor as part of a single, holistic attempt to create a clear brand image in the mind of the target customer.

One of the keys to the incredible success of Ryanair over the last two decades has been CEO Michael O’Leary’s brilliant ability to play both the about and versus positions simultaneously. While O’Leary is always quick to push low-cost tactics like charging for wheelchairs or using toilets because it bolsters the brand’s desired cheap image, he is also clever in aggressively positioning against the traditionally dominant national carriers to make the same point in antagonistic fashion.

“[British Airways] have got waterfalls in their head office,” he once told a press conference. “The first thing I’d do if I were in charge of BA is turn off the waterfalls. The only time we have waterfalls in the Ryanair office is when the toilet or the sink leaks.”

Did you see what he just did there? O‘Leary was similarly caustic discussing Lufthansa’s then chief executive Jürgen Weber and his claim that German passengers did not like low fares. “How the fuck does he know?” was O’Leary’s response. “He’s never offered them any. The Germans will crawl bollock-naked over broken glass to get them.”

Don’t let O’Leary’s colourful turn of phrase or apparent lack of executive gravitas fool you. He remains the single greatest brand-centric CEO on the planet. A master. Aside from his internal strategic capabilities, he applies a perfect positioning lens to his every external move ensuring he is not just the leader of Ryanair, he is also its greatest marketing asset.

The Trinity College Dublin-educated, multimillionaire lawyer is extraordinarily good at making himself and his company look cheap, partly through what he says about his own airline but also through what he says about his enemies.

In a typical five-minute press conference, in this case from Amsterdam in 2015, he manages to hammer Air France, KLM, Lufthansa, Aer Lingus, easyJet and BA. Repeatedly. It’s newsworthy. It’s on-brand. And it is a big part of why Ryanair is now a bigger airline than all of these others, with the exception of Lufthansa. Watch the master at work.

Ten years ago, that combination of both the about and versus approaches to positioning played a much underestimated contributory role in the revitalisation of Apple. 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. No surprise, then, that while much of Apple’s current brand equity derives from positioning what Apple stands for – starting with the 1997 ‘Think Different’ campaign – much of it can also be traced back to one of the most famous ‘versus’ campaigns of all time.

In 2006 the handsome, laconic actor Justin Long walked casually onto a white backdrop and explained that he was a Mac. From the other side of the screen a besuited, bespectacled John Hodgman pompously introduced himself as a PC. What followed over the next four years were 50 different ads in which the Long/Mac character was shown to be not only cool and attractive, but also the exact opposite of the stuffy Hodgman/PC stood next to him. In the UK the roles were played similarly, if with slightly lesser impact, by David Mitchell and Robert Webb of Peep Show fame.

Pick disruption, not conformity

The latest manifestation of the ‘versus’ campaign hit the UK market last week in an aggressive new series of ads from Brewdog.

The Scottish, fiercely independent brewery has spent the last decade building a reputation for craft ales, partly by letting the product do the talking but also ensuring its marketing actively positions Brewdog against everything that the “monolithic breweries” stand for. The approach not only provides ample fodder for brand building, it does so with a glare of publicity so bright that Brewdog has built its international brand with the kind of marketing metabolism rarely seen in the staid, slow-motion world of brewing.

Brewdog co-founder James Watt is open about his desire to “break free from the mundane, risk-averse, colourless templates” taught at business school. He has a point. Too many MBA classes focus on consistency at the expense of disruption and aggression. Watt believes that building a brand and revolutionising the beer industry are impossible if they are restrained by “conformity and compliance”.

Watt seeks out differentiation and conflict. He looks for opportunities to stand opposed to others, not because of simple bloody-mindedness but an entrepreneurial instinct for opportunity.

For example, when Brewdog’s Dead Pony Club IPA was challenged by the industry-funded Portman Group for breaching its Code of Practice, but eventually cleared of all charges, Brewdog did not celebrate the ruling. Instead it created a new beer called Speedball (named after the cocktail of cocaine and heroin that killed John Belushi and River Phoenix) to reignite the debate and give the Portman Group “something worth banning us for”.

The company’s latest campaign uses current scores on review site to highlight the difference in taste satisfaction between its traditional competitors Carling, Stella Artois and Budweiser, and its own Punk IPA. Utilising print, digital and outdoor media the campaign, from similarly independent agency Isobel, presents the various scores from the site and embeds the knife of differentiation even deeper by mimicking its rivals traditional taglines as part of the copy.

Brewdog Bud ad

It’s a brilliant campaign and makes the case for the ‘versus’ approach better than any article. A billboard with just Brewdog’s 97/100 score would have been hardly noticed and would certainly haved sparked significant cynicism about the nature of the rating system. But add your bigger, more famous peers with their witheringly small ratings and everything changes.

Suddenly the scale looks more critical and rigorous. Brewdog’s score now appears impressive in comparison. And the fact that the smaller brewery is comfortable calling out its bigger rivals in such an overt manner adds heft, aggression and several acres of media coverage to the campaign.

Brewdog are building a brand, not despite the presence of the major breweries but because of them, by using the big beer brands to bounce their positioning against.

I don’t know what happened to Les, my old barman from the Windsor Castle. I guess I owe him an apology. My wife disagrees.

We occasionally talk about those strange, drunken days at the beginning of the new century and how the lonely professor off a plane from Sweden met a depressed Tasmanian and convinced her that he was the one for her.

Mrs Ritson will tell you it was fate but I’m always going to tell you it was the combination of about and versus. She always gets the last word so we will have to go with fate.