What are you built to destroy?

That’s an aggressive idea.

The idea of being a destructive force.

After all, we build products to help people, to improve lives, to make happiness. We write about benefits and value. Our raison d’etre is to build others up.

We don’t destroy.

But… if we’ve created something better than the competition has created – if we’ve built something that our users are truly going to love – then does it, perhaps, behoove us to eliminate The Other Guy?

Is it our job as marketers to put up our dukes… look our competitor in the eye… and swing?

In April 2015, the New York Times wrote about clothing company Lane Bryant’s newly picked fight with Victoria’s Secret:

Lane Bryant vs Victoria's Secret newspaper

Lane Bryant wasn’t trying to attack Victoria’s Secret.

They were attacking an idealized, unrealistic version of the female form, which Victoria’s Secret helped to create and continues to reinforce:

They were standing up for the millions of women that felt indirectly but viscerally attacked by Victoria’s Secret. They weren’t fighting. They were fighting back. You can imagine how uncomfortable marketers and C-levels at Lane Bryant might have felt at the idea of being perceived as “attacking” Victoria’s Secret. Yet they did it anyway…

ImNoAngel campaign

Fighting, arguing, calling others out and fighting back is a risky move online.

It’s one thing to leave a comment that might pick a fight with the writer of a blog post (ahem).

But it’s something else to build a campaign around a bone you’ve got to pick. Or to write copy that is, effectively, throwing down your gloves, to use a hockey term for the first time in my life.

It’s partly because of that fear that that the web is filled with non-battling word-shaped air like this:

Flowdock home page hero copy - no fight

What’s wrong with that copy?

Nothing, technically.

Except that it’s kinduv doing this:

…but with less charm.

That copy is acting like it just has to speak to be heard. It’s acting like it’s not a lesser-known contender in a televised boxing match that’s been going on for years: the battle against email. It’s acting like it can just show up in a crowded room where one particularly charismatic chick (Slack) is buying rounds and one particularly well-known dude (Gmail) is dominating the conversation – and when Flowdock walks in, people are going to turn, look, and abandon not only that chick and that dude but also alllllllll the other interesting people currently engaging them in conversations. Just to give Flowdock a try.

“What does this Flowdock person have to say?” they’ll ask in wonder.

To which Flowdock – seemingly clueless about how incredibly lucky it is to have been noticed at all – will respond as one would expect the clueless to: “Chat and inbox for teams. One place to talk and stay up to date.”


Maybe Flowdock’s amazing. I don’t know. This isn’t about the product. This is about the copy.

The Flowdock copy, like so much copy out there, does not give me (the prospect) a clue as to why I should not only choose Flowdock but, in choosing Flowdock, also do ALL of the following:

  • Not choose Slack
  • Not keep relying on Gmail or Outlook or both
  • Not choose Hipchat, Flow or a half dozen other team chat solutions
  • Convince my team to use Flowdock
  • Stand behind my decision to use Flowdock when my team resists and says, “Why don’t we just use Slack?”

Yes, sure, a lot of the convincing can and will come later because some objections can and will arise later.

But I ask you as I ask Flowdock: how long does your copy have to wait before it starts convincing? Is there a time limit I don’t know about?

What exactly is the headline, subhead and hero copy for Flowdock saying that needs to be said before any of the actual work of being convincing happens? Nothing at all. In fact, it’s saying all the same things that other chat solutions say in their hero copy. Take a look at chat solution* Flow’s hero section:

Flow home page headline and sub* Flow changed their product positioning and home page copy just before this post was published.

So Flow is 1 place to collaborate on things that matter to get more done…

…And Flowdock is 1 place to collaborate on things that matter to get more done.

Which means that, at this point, I’m essentially choosing based on whether I like the word “dock” or not.

But at least Flow – to their credit – attempts to pick a fight. They’re not fighting with a competitor, necessarily, but with the status quo, of which the competition is a key part. Here’s what Flow does:

Flow battles the old way

They’re not using copy to pick a fight. They’re using a graphic: the old way vs the Flow way.

It seems that Flow understands this:

To choose your solution, your prospect has to switch from their existing behavior – from the status quo, which is likely to include an existing solution.

The Switch. To choose you, I have to stop choosing other things. I have to stop.

Stopping is haaard.

I’m truckin’ along with my existing behavior… part of that behavior is annoying me enough that I’m thinking there’s gotta be a better way… I find what appears to be a better way… and suddenly I’m faced with all the complexities of switching, including the ginormous complex thing that is stopping what I’m doing. To stop and switch, I have to give up what I have and what I know in the hopes of getting more – and if switching hasn’t paid off for me in the past, I’m that much less likely to want to give it a shot again.

Do you know how powerful the force of inertia is? (Science geeks, take it easy on me. I’m sure you’ve got a calculation. 🙂 )

Do you know how much work is involved in stopping?

Do you know how desperately I have to want Y to switch from X to Y?

Your prospect has to be jolted out of inertia, or its path at least, by a force stronger than it. The crew at The Rewired Group (think Jobs to Be Done) illustrates the challenges of switching beautifully:

JTBD push pull habit anxiety diagram

Marketers tend to think along the top of the above graphic, where the Progress-Making Forces are.

The push of what’s happening now: painkiller marketing. The pull of the new idea: benefits.

But the bottom half – the Progress-Hindering Forces – are at least as critical for us to consider in our marketing and address in our messaging.

The current way of doing things is a force working against us. We have to push back on it.

Your competitor, or the incumbent solution, is a progress-hindering force.

Victoria’s Secret is a progress-hindering force for Lane Bryant. Lane Bryant’s prospective lingerie shoppers know what they’re getting with Victoria’s Secret. They know where to go on the VS website; after years of trying and failing, they know which two or three bras at VS fit them well enough; they have the pink-striped VS beach bag, which they use for things other than underwear shopping; their friends shop at VS, and they might randomly talk about VS, and as much as they may all loathe comparing themselves to the models, they like watching the VS fashion show on TV every December so they can go tweet about which models take themselves too seriously.

Do they get any of that with Lane Bryant?

The push of proper-fitting underwear alone and the pull of shopping somewhere that idolizes your otherwise-not-idolized body type is not enough. The habit of the present is too strong with VS. It requires some work to make the habit look bad and the anxiety of switching look nil. Hence #ImNoAngel.

Back to you. What are your progress-hindering forces, and how many of those are directly tied to the work your competitor’s marketing and products are doing? Do you address those forces in your copy?

If you’re not planning to address said progress-hindering forces, then your progress-making forces need to be craaaaaazy powerful. So, are they? And if not:

Have you forgotten that some of the most memorable and high-impact marketing moves have been brand-vs-brand battles?

Brilliant screenwriter Aaron Sorkin once said:

“Find the conflict, and you’ll find the heart of the story.”

Our brains are wired to pay attention to conflict. We make decisions by weighing options, by comparing X to Y and contrasting Y with Z. I’d cite studies to support this, but there are about a million of them and entire university departments dedicated to the idea that decisions are not made in vacuums. Perhaps you’ve read Predictably Irrational (Ariely) or Influence (Cialdini)? Then you already know: we compare and contrast to arrive at a decision with greater confidence and satisfaction, and sometimes those comparisons result in negative takeaways that lead to no decision at all.

In fact, without a second option to compare a consideration against, we may not make a decision at all. Recall the Williams-Sonoma bread maker study, explained by Paul Lee on WSJ:

In the 1990s, Williams-Sonoma brought a bread maker to the market for the very first time and, after much consumer research, decided to price the new product at $275.

At its launch, sales were surprisingly tepid. Frustrated by the poor sales, management brought in a marketing research firm that recommended Williams-Sonoma introduce a slightly bigger, better-functioning bread maker at double the price point.

Williams-Sonoma heeded the advice and diligently launched the new premium product. Almost immediately, sales took off. But not sales of the new “bigger and better” bread maker. It was sales of the original bread maker that skyrocketed.

In the bread maker example, people couldn’t decide until they had something to decide against, as I discuss with examples here. Once they could contrast one bread maker against another and weigh the attributes of each, they could confidently choose, which is why sales of the original bread maker doubled.

Now move up a level: how did people choose to buy a bread maker from Williams-Sonoma at all? Why not Pottery Barn? Why not Nordstrom?

Why might we choose Pepsi over Coke?

Why might we choose a Mac over a PC?

Because their marketing teams made a bold decision: pick a fight with the competitor.

Which gave us some wildly famous campaigns.

In 1975, the Pepsi Challenge was a series of advertised blind taste tests created by BBDO where more people preferred the taste of Pepsi to the taste of Coke. The campaign’s tagline didn’t hold back:

“Coca Cola drinkers, let your taste decide. Take the Pepsi challenge.”

Here’s a spot from 1981:

(Side note A: why aren’t today’s commercials as awesome as the old ones? Side note B: The new Pepsi Challenge has lost all the original charm.)

The Pepsi Challenge was so powerful, people recreated the experiment themselves and Coke even changed its recipe to a more Pepsi-like sweetness in 1985 – catastrophically.

Fast forward to 2006 and switch industries: Apple repeated the “pick a fight” strategy when they took on Microsoft with their “I’m a Mac” commercials, created by TBWA:

That campaign was so memorable, I don’t have to embed the videos for you to remember them. I embed them because I want to – because they’re awesome and I want to watch all 66 of them.

Which brings me to this point: both the Pepsi Challenge and the I’m a Mac commercials were done with a spirit of good humor.

Nobody throws a cup of Coke across the room and yells, “Disgusting!” We learn that more than 50% of people choose Pepsi, but we don’t learn that Coke is a repulsive drink only morons choose. And the PC guy is a little charming while the Mac guy is a little forgiving. Because:

The fight worth publicizing is not a dirty fight.
It’s a fair fight that stays above the belt.

Competitive marketing (also called “offensive marketing” (!) or “comparative advertising”) is a tricky thing to get right and an easy thing to get wrong – but that doesn’t mean it’s so risky that it should be avoided.

Like any fight worth watching, your fight should seem fair and balanced. Nobody wants to watch one pugilist sucker-punch some surprised dude in glasses. As advertising professor Fred Beard warns:

“In our culture, we have a preference for fair play. People will respond negatively to what they perceive as an unfair and excessively mean-spirited attack.”

So you don’t want your copy to:

  • Make you look insecure
  • Appear to attack the people that like your competitor
  • Appear to attack the people working for the competitor
  • Expose your brand to harsh retaliation
  • Make people feel sorry for your competitor
  • Fight a clearly weaker opponent (if you’re Goliath and they’re David)

Consider presenting both sides of the argument. Studies show that two-sided, or balanced, arguments are more persuasive.

Consider your tone. Are you being aggressive, or are you being playful? Are you being rude, or are you being respectful? After reading your copy, would people want to hang out with you more than they did before?

Consider the information you’re focusing your prospect on. As the Heath brothers taught us about the Spotlight Effect: your prospects will focus on the messages you give them and think very little if at all about the info you leave unmentioned. You have the opportunity to shape the discussion. You have the opportunity to point to one of your weaknesses (vs six or seven of theirs) and make it seem that that is your only weakness. Macs were happy not to be great at spreadsheets – they happily let PCs win on that point.

“Picking a fight with your competitor”
doesn’t have to mean choosing one or naming names

Perhaps your first thought when considering comparative advertising is this: their lawyers will be on my ass.

Then it might surprise and help you to know that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – the group smart advertisers are scared of – has, since 1972, encouraged advertisers to name competitors in their comparative advertising campaigns. The idea is that, if you write:

“ConvertKit helps you grow and nurture your list.
MailChimp only helps you nurture it.”

instead of

“ConvertKit helps you grow and nurture your list.
The other guys only help you nurture it.”

you do right by the consumer because you are:

  • Stimulating comparison shopping,
  • Encouraging innovation, and
  • Fostering a positive competitive environment.

But actually mentioning your competitor’s name is a rather scary prospect rife with myriad potential challenges for any business. When you mention your competitor by name, you run the risk of:

That’s why only 5% of an estimated half of all TV spots employing some form of comparative advertising actually name the competitor. You’ll recall (if you’re not a newbie) the Wendy’s campaign, “Where’s the beef?”, which was calling out all other fast food chains on their pathetically tiny beef patties – but which carefully tiptoed around actually saying, “McDonald’s burgers are all bun.” Hell, maybe they weren’t even talking about McDonald’s. We’ll never know ‘cos they didn’t name names.

I’d argue that, to reduce risk when “picking a fight”, today’s startups should avoid naming names in the Control and try naming names in Variation B. I’ve written copy for banks and tech giants, and that’s exposed me to some insaaanely risk-averse legal teams. The gist of their advice: to protect your butt, protect your butt. Be careful if you’re making a claim that pits you against your competitor. Proceed carefully but not fearfully.

“Being aggressive doesn’t guarantee success, but failing to be aggressive nearly always guarantees failure. In a modern world of political correctness, glad handing, and fear of offending everyone and anyone, the art of the fight is undervalued.”
Tim Ferriss

With that in mind, I wrote the home page hero section for Airstory like so:

Airstory copy picks a fight

The Airstory hero copy is picking a fight with an unnamed competitor. Further down the page, I position Airstory as the new, better way vs the old way (we only want old when we’re feeling nostalgic):

Airstory is the new way to write

Above, you saw a similar sort of comparison on the old Flow home page.

These comparisons are cropping up all over SaaS sites. Intercom uses one:

Intercom old vs new

And TruConversion uses one:

TruConversion picks a fight

Nudging your prospects away from the competitor or getting them to switch to you doesn’t have to be aggressive or abrasive or the stuff that lines litigators’ pockets. As we’ve been seeing in the examples:

You can still be positive and benefits-focused
while subtly arguing like Hell’s lawyers

Your product is already picking a fight. That is, you’ve built a solution that does X better than the other guys do. You’ve built a solution that better solves Y problem than the incumbent does. The whole point of your product is to do better by people than the other guys have been doing.

And your copy needs to reflect that.

Help Scout does a great job of keeping a positive tone with copy that’s all about what makes it better than the unnamed competitor:

Help Scout indirectly battles

Less Accounting takes aim at its unnamed competitors in a similar way, suggesting that they are the only accounting software that focuses on the user instead of the use:

Less Accounting indirectly battles

It may not seem that Help Scout and Less Accounting are picking a fight, but they are. They’re giving you a reason to switch from the other guys – to interrupt your habit, to overcome the anxiety of choosing a new way. They’re leading with copy that neutralizes progress-hindering forces, while other marketers in their spaces are leading with copy that focuses on progress-making forces. (Note that, later on Help Scout and Less Accounting’s pages, they address progress-making forces.)

They’re writing for the switch:

JTBD push pull habit anxiety diagram

TAKEAWAY: To help your prospects see how you’re better than the other guys, you CAN still be friendly and pleasant.

If they decided to swing, would your copy fall?

I’m not paranoid. I don’t have a bomb shelter in my backyard. And I think the idea of keeping a gun handy just in case someone else has a gun is, like, completely bonkers. I don’t walk around in a state of fear, and I pray that never changes.


But the nature of business is competition. You are in a competition right now. You call the other guys “competitors.” As in, those against whom you compete. If you’re on their radar or soon to be, then you’re their competition, too. And if they’re built to destroy, do you have a battle strategy in place?

We’ve talked all about going on the offensive in this post. Your full strategy should also include:

  1. The Defensive: keep your customers by treating them like gold and staying top of mind
  2. Flanking: expose the chink in your competitor’s armour and go in for it
  3. Guerrilla Marketing: all the brilliant extras you can do, as described in this fave book

Chances are good (I hope) that you’re already knee-deep in Defensive and Guerrilla Marketing. Now the challenge is to add a little Flanking and/or Offensive into the mix.

Admittedly, you are taking a risk if you pick a fight.

You’re also taking one if don’t.

Either way, you’re in a battle.

Does your copy know that?


PS: The pick a fight idea isn’t just for copy. It’s great for content, too. Try writing a blog post that’s contentious – that picks a fight with the status quo or an accepted best practice. Suddenly, you’ve got yourself a story where before you just had whitenoise.