Recently, news came viral online about a local marketing agency for a large telecommunications giant which had engaged in an unethical smearing campaign to create non-genuine complaints in order to badmouth the competitors of the telecommunications giant.
Even though the telecommunications giant had clarified that it did not issue the brief to that agency to instruct them on the smearing campaign, we can be certain that from this episode, some consumers may lose confidence and trust in this brand.
Badmouthing of competitors with non-genuine comments is one of the most unethical practice in the advertising and marketing industry.
Understand Why You Need to Compete
I remembered a managing director from one of my previous companies asked, "Jacky, since our brand has now become the industry market leader, I still don't feel so good. I want to destroy all my competitors until I am the only one that exists."
My simple reply to him was, "We cannot destroy or eliminate our competitors whether locally, regionally, or globally. The only thing that we can do is to weaken our competition by becoming stronger ourselves in a more innovative and creative way. If we want to grow exponentially, we must consistently think of leading the market, and not killing the competitors."
Do remember that the only business that one can destroy is none other than his or her own business.
Businesses need competition in order to advance. Without competition, the business will be merely a monopoly (very unlikely in most markets), which has no incentive to improve on their service standard to satisfy the consumer market. Therefore businesses need competitors in order to grow.
The Right and Ethical Way to Compete in Business
In order to compete against our competitors in a fair and healthy manner, I would advise companies to find out more about their current market positioning as well as the positioning for their competitors.
Ask yourself these vital questions like: What are the competitors' latest marketing strategies? Are they very aggressive on social media, TV, or other forms of marketing? What strategies are they good at? And what strategies are they weak at?
By understanding the current strengths and weaknesses of our competitors and by knowing ourselves, we can therefore create better, more realistic, and more effective marketing and branding strategies that will make us two to three steps ahead of our competitors.
Hence, in order to win the competitors and the market gracefully, we must focus on our strengths and creative strategies. Never win competitors by engaging in underhand tactics such as third-party smearing.
Beating the competitors by smearing about them in the dark will only make one brand's image look lowly as well as giving other people the impression that it (the brand) is scared of the competitors due to its incapability.
About "Creative" Advertising (Do it Openly!)
In some competitive markets, it is common to see "creative" advertising strategies. Where brands compete "openly" with each other in a creative and yet "still can be considered" as an ethical advertising campaign.
Some noteworthy examples are the "I'm Mac, I'm PC" campaign from Apple, the classic "Pepsi" challenge, and the ad from AirAsia that stated "if tigers were meant to fly, they would be born with wings."
Though most consumers may know who the competitors that these brands are implying about in their "creative" advertisements, the ad may still be considered as 'acceptable' if no competitors' names were mentioned in the ads.
For the consumers, it is entertaining to see competing brands poking fun on another. However, the smearing practice of the marketing agency for the telecommunications giant against its competitors is completely unacceptable in our marketing industry's code of ethics. Especially in the smearing campaign, the names of the competitors were explicitly mentioned.
The Practice of Astro-turfing in Singapore
Astro-turfing is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organisation (e.g. political, advertising, religious, or public relations) to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participant(s). (Source: Wikipedia).
Originally, it was used by marketers of Western politicians that pretended to be loyal supporters of them. Some businesses later on began to engage in astroturfing by pretending to be satisfied customers for them or pretending to be unhappy customers of their competitors.
These astro-turfers would then voice their support or complaints online, on popular forums and of course via their social media channels. Whether the opinions are genuine or not, it does not matter.
It is difficult however to track whether the company has engaged astro-turfing agencies or individuals to 'boost' its brand image or destroy the competitors' image. To deem such practice as unacceptable is still controversial.
Only the marketer (or the astro-turfer) knows what he or she is doing, and whether it is rightfully wrong or wrongfully right, it'll be up to him or her to decide. ("Dear readers, please feel free to share your opinions on whether it is okay or not to do astro-turfing for our brands. Share your opinions on the comment box below.")
And Yes! Brands Need Enemies!
Brands need enemies in order to grow; if not, this competitive economy would be an unfair economy. So, stop thinking of killing the competitors; think of innovation, strategies, and branding! Stop badmouthing the competitors, win them ethically in this business race instead, yeah?
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.
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Jacky Tan is a professional marketing writer, blogger, speaker, and the author of 'Social M - How Your Startup Can Take On the Big Boys'. Jacky leads the boutique marketing communications and branding agency, Jack and Chaz Pte Ltd. He specialises in the creation of successful branding, content marketing and pr strategies for companies of any size.