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  • Writer's pictureDeJuan Wright

When Should Your Brand Publicly Challenge a Competitor?

In Hamlet, English poet William Shakespeare famously posed, “To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles.”

Pretty deep quote, right?

Well, as the manager of your brand—there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll eventually encounter a similar scenario where you'll have to decide whether or not to suffer the figurative slings and arrows that comes along with being a successful brand—or, to go on the offense and publicly challenge a competitor—which could lead to all kinds of troubles if not executed correctly.

Naturally, to be in business—is to voluntarily be in competition with others in the same industry as your organization. But to compete directly with another brand in your industry, by either challenging them publicly, or accepting their challenge for everyone to see—is a scenario of significant consequences if the wrong decision is made.

Before deciding whether your brand should engage with its competitors or not, take the following into consideration.

If you’re the smaller brand

"Do not bark up that tree, that tree will fall on you." - JAY-Z

Have you ever seen a small dog bark viciously at a much larger dog while behind a fence that protected them? Well, unfortunately when it comes to business—there’s no fence to protect smaller brands when they go at the big guys. Which is why it could be extremely costly for a smaller brand to challenge a larger competitor in any category.

In their book, The Marketing Playbook authors John Zagula and Richard Tong refer to brands strategically challenging a big competitor in their industry as ‘The Drag Race.’

The duo discuss the circumstances and potential rewards that often lead to a brand applying the drag race in their marketing strategy, “In some circumstances, your best bet calls for signaling out one competitor and putting the pedal to the metal racing against them to win the category.”

Although challenging one of the big guys to a duel for supremacy in your brand's category may seem like a cool endeavor—before doing so, it is imperative that you assess where your brand is currently positioned in the market and determine whether or not you have the weapons to win the battle.

If a competitor has a sizeable advantage over your brand as it pertains to capital, marketing, manufacturing, agility, or any other relevant resource—it’ll probably be best to avoid engaging them directly at all costs—due to the fact that they could cause great damage to your brand if provoked.

However, if you do have a significant advantage over a larger brand in regards to an attribute or benefit that matters to your audience—challenging them in public may be a risk worth taking. Especially if you feel as though you have nothing to lose by doing so.

The Marketing Playbook warns of the potential repercussions of challenging a bigger brand before you're ready, “We’ve already noted that the level of resources required can be daunting. If you don’t have them—product, team, capital, business model—you lose. And losing an all-out race isn’t pretty. Many have found it impossible to recover. Don’t start unless you can finish.”

If you’re the larger brand

"If you can't be friends with a competitor, be enemies." - Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson

Going back to the little dog barking at the larger dog scenario. Have you noticed that when you see smaller dogs barking at much larger dogs from behind a fence—the larger dog rarely barks back? (Well, at least the wise ones don’t)

That’s because even man’s best friend realizes that if a smaller dog is barking at them from behind a fence—it poses no threat to them and isn't worth the energy of responding. The same logic usually applies in business when a smaller brand challenges a larger one—if you're the larger brand—it's often best to ignore them and crush them indirectly because you don't want to give their brand the free publicity that'll come with your acknowledgement.

However, there are exceptions to the rule—even if you’re the much larger brand.

One example of a brand that shouldn’t have ignored a smaller competitor in its industry took place in the late 1990’s. The once—industry leading video rental brand Blockbuster Video, ignored a startup by the name of Netflix—which ended up costing the brand big-time.

It’s debatable whether or not Netflix is the culprit that “killed” Blockbuster Video. But what no one can deny is that Blockbuster Video initially ignoring Netflix' advantage of delivering a more convenient video rental experience to their subscribers—hurt the Blockbuster Video brand significantly.

To avoid the same mistake for your brand, here’s how to determine whether or not you—as the larger brand—should avoid directly challenging a smaller industry competitor in public, whether it's through an advertising campaign or a public relations battle:

  • Does the smaller brand have a significant advantage in an area that’s relevant to your consumers?

  • Did the smaller brand make an accusation towards your brand that has gained traction?

  • At their best, could you envision the smaller brand taking away market share from your brand in the near future?

If the answer is yes to any of the questions above—it would be prudent to respond if a smaller brand challenges yours. If not, ignore the challenger and allow them to continuously bark away as you proceed to eat your meal (figuratively, of course).

If another brand is parallel to yours

"When you don't make moves and when you don't climb up the ladder, everybody loves you because you're not competition." – Nicki Minaj

In business, unless you’re totally doing something that no one believes has any potential of ever becoming successful—you’re going to eventually encounter competitors. Which is a good thing. Competitors are a clear sign that you’re heading in the right direction and doing something right—so embrace the competition.

The thing to keep in mind about competition—is that it’s serious business. If you don't respond accordingly to the efforts of your competitors—it could easily put your brand in jeopardy.

Usually, the most common threats when it comes to direct competition—won’t come from brands that are bigger or smaller than yours—it’ll come from brands that are on your same level that'll view you as a threat that needs to be removed. Which is why whenever a contemporary on equal footing as your brand begins to threaten yours—challenging that brand publicly would be a totally justified act.

Case in point, Coca-Cola is the world’s most valued soft drink brand today. But back in 1975, Pepsi launched an ad attack against Coke when it created its “Pepsi Challenge” advertising campaign, which showed that when blindfolded—more people preferred the taste of Pepsi over Coke.

Although Coke was the bigger brand at the time—Pepsi was still the brand’s biggest competitor in the market, and the Pepsi Challenge began to resonate with consumers—ultimately increasing Pepsi’s market share while decreasing Coke’s.

Coke responded—indirectly, years later when it revamped the brand by introducing Diet Coke in the early 80’s and the “New Coke” in 1985 which had a new formula that made the soft drink taste different from the classic Coke (a move that was met with very harsh reviews by consumers) consumers already loved. These efforts only gave Pepsi more ammunition to go on the assault even more by questioning Coke’s confidence in their product in Pepsi ads.

If you were to ask the execs at Coke today, they’d probably agree that it would’ve been more advantageous for Coke to go directly at Pepsi in its ads as a response by pointing out some of Pepsi’s weaknesses—as opposed to spending millions on changing the Coke formula.


The decision of whether or not to challenge a competitor will always be a tough one. But just remember—there could be both rewards and repercussions to publicly challenging a competitor—or, ignoring their challenge. Which makes it risky—like everything else in business.

The key is understanding that timing and foresight is everything when it comes to engaging an opponent.

If you engage too soon—you could give an inferior brand the power of claiming that it is your equal. If you engage too late—your brand could be deemed irrelevant by the time you respond to a challenger.

By taking the scenarios above into consideration before initiating or responding to a challenge—you’ll give your brand the best chance to come out on top in a victorious fashion either way.

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