Here’s how to poke fun at rival brands and get away with it

Each week, we ask agency experts from across the world and across the ad business for their take on a tough question facing the industry, from topical concerns to perennial pain points.

Last week, Arby’s decided to take a pot-shot at rival fast food joint McDonald’s with a campaign boosting its own pescatarian sandwich offering.

The fish feud was cheeky, but there is a lot to be gained from taking aim at a competitor in your ads – points for humor, the fun in playing up a rivalry and the chance to create not just consumer loyalty, but fandom.

Briefs like these can be tough to land, however, and spending precious airtime asking your audience to think about your competitors carries its own risk. So, how should brands and agencies approach the assignment?

How do you solve a problem like... poking fun at rivals?

Chris Campbell, group account director, Fallon (the creative agency behind Arby’s Filet-O-Fish diss)

Taking on the originator of fish sandwiches takes two things: an agency that trusts its client has a better product and a client that trusts its agency will find a provocative way to tell the world about it. Omar Little of The Wire said: “If you come at the king (in this case the Arches), you best not miss.” And we knew that working with Pusha T would ensure we didn’t miss.

Jon Evans, chief marketing officer, System1

We tested the Arby’s spot to see how real consumers felt. While going after the square shape of McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish is a bit leftfield, our testing found that the ad’s Spike rating (the intensity of emotional response) and fluency rating (which is driven by the amount of viewers who recognize the brand) were both exceptionally high. While the ad was a little light when it came to generating an overall emotional response, Arby’s still won where it counts: with laughs. People naturally engage with humor in advertising and, in this instance, fun elements like Pusha T’s claim that he could “sell water to a whale” have earned Arby’s significant short term sales potential.

Christina Miller, head of social, VMLY&R

There’s a stark difference between throwing punches as a mechanism to gain attention and poking fun to raise the standards of a category. Here, punching with purpose is key to getting it right. Brands must have their consumer’s backs and always have their best interests at the very heart of their actions. If a rival is selling a product or a promise that is letting down their consumer or lowering the standards in its category, poking fun can help open consumers’ eyes to what they deserve and what they shouldn’t settle for. Any brand looking to adopt this tone needs to look inwards and really understand what value they are bringing to the table, whether that’s offering a different perspective, raising expectations or giving consumers a better option.

Dustin Tomes, executive vice-president and executive creative director, Saatchi & Saatchi NY

It’s important to establish an undisputed, strategic reason for poking fun at a rival. Without a watertight case, you could set yourself up for a counterpunch that makes you wish you never stepped into the ring. Even then you should scenario plan potential responses from your rival or consumers.

Understanding the brand’s place in the market and its relationship with rivals is crucial. Category leaders can’t behave the same as challenger brands. It could mean the difference between coming across as fun or a bully. This all informs the shape the work takes and the tonality you wrap it in.

Pablo Rosas, group strategy director, Gut

Interacting with other entities out in the world – including competitors – makes brands feel real. It adds a new dimension to the basic interplay brands have with their audiences. You go from a straight line to a triangle. It broadens the space where brands play. They gain presence. Positioning and tone should be kept in mind, but it’s OK to stretch. If you’re worried about risk, remember there’s also risk in refusing to participate in newer ways of making brands feel present in the world. If the brand is the boss, the internet is god. And as we say, #NoGutNoGlory.

Chris Jefford, chief executive officer and co-founder, Truant London

Truant clients often have competitors with deeper pockets, so we’re always looking to ’poke the bear’. But we’re very selective and use three filters before taking action. Firstly, is the dig around something audiences care about? If the idea’s too niche and doesn’t land a wider point with audiences, we park it. No one is interested in brands bickering about shit they don't care about. Second, is the work mean-spirited? Are we being mean or are we having a bit of fun? If it’s the latter, game on. Lastly, are we ready for comeback? Preparing for a bite-back is essential. If it’s an area we’re not happy bantering around, it’s probably not right.

Simon Richings, executive creative director, We Are Social

If you’re going to mention your competitor you’re inevitably going to do a mental availability favor for your rival. So, two things become super-important. Firstly, make sure the brand actually delivers on its promises. Arby’s Spicy Fish Sandwich needs to be a world better than the McDonald’s offering or people will quickly discover – and share – that the claim is fishy (sorry). Secondly, the creative execution itself has a bigger job to do. It has got to be great – genuinely funny, surprising or exciting – because people are not paying attention and messages with multiple brands mentioned may have it tougher.

Melanie Welsh, founding partner, Strat House

Our response to this would be to avoid getting your snark on. It’s just not the constructive, purpose-driven use of marketing budgets the world needs right now, is it? Indictment sits very uncomfortably with many cultures and generations and, frankly, we don’t blame them. Poking fun at your competitors reeks of insecurity and having nothing positive to say about your own product. As my mum used to say, ‘is it kind, is it necessary?’ No? Then go back to the drawing board.

Mick Mahoney, creative partner, Harbour Collective

If you can back up your claims then I think it’s fair game. Particularly if you’re a challenger brand. Everyone loves the small guys sticking it to the establishment. The only time it gets ugly is when it’s the corporate big guys beating up on the little guys. That never plays out well. Generally, however, I’m a fan of advertising that polarizes and creates sides. Better to have fewer people loving you than more people feeling ambivalent.

Charles Faircloth, joint managing director, Who Wot Why

This sort of advertising strikes me as lacking, rather than demonstrating confidence. Defining your brand by the denigration of others, regardless of how entertainingly you do it, feels back foot. Doesn’t the kid in the playground who rises above the mud-slinging always win on kudos?

What this strategy fails at is surprising the audience. Of course you’re going to say you’re better, faster, louder. But if you must take this approach, challenge people with a real reason to think about the comparison, like Avis did with ’When you’re only No 2, you try harder’. Then consumers may see the value they’ll get out of it.

Dino de León, executive creative director, IN Connected Marketing

Before using paid or owned assets to name check a competitor, I would first ask why? Am I a scrappy challenger brand? Trying to break into a new vertical? Reach a new audience? Or just thirsty for PR?

Then, I’d arm myself with data and strategy to create a solution that is authentic, self-aware and entertaining. And the product better be able to back up the banter. Sure, we can quickly test, target and adapt creative, but the biggest watch-out is how your (new?) audience will receive your message. Consumers are brutal in calling out marketing mishaps and underdogs can turn into underperformers quickly.

Heather Lewis, strategy director, 180

It’s a classic challenger move, taking down the undisputed leader. Success lies in executing three things confidently. Firstly, attack head on. Veiled slights aren’t memorable. Be direct. No apologies. Leverage borrowed mental equity. People need to know your opponent by name and be able to picture it in their minds, so you don’t waste time (or attention) describing what you’re tearing down. Entertain above all else. Marketers think calling out another brand is bold. Real people don’t care about your tactics, they remember and engage with communications only if it’s truly worth their time.

Fran Docx, strategy partner, 20something

The golden rule is always punch up, never down. If you’re a small (filet-o-) fish, there’s much to be gained by posturing next to the big guys. You’re basically borrowing the equity of their stature. But when the establishment punches down, it’s just a cheap shot. The best executions I’ve seen also trust their audience’s intelligence. My favorite example of this is the Pepsi vending machine ad from 2001. There’s no ’I told you so’ end line to whip you back into the strategy. Its simple, confident and sophisticated. Pepsi trusts that its audience is with it.

Want to join future debates? Email me at sam.bradley@thedrum.com.