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Hit hard and clean in your B2B campaign

Another high-stakes presidential campaign plays out before us, bringing cyclical feelings that range from hope to nausea. This year displays the same high rate of spin and cut-to-the-bone negativity as always. While B2B marketers may not have the bare-knuckle messaging latitude that the presidential campaigns do, this season does have us thinking a lot about messaging and incumbents. Even if you’re not in the hunt for the presidency, you do have competition, and they’re out there trying to woo your prospect base every day.

Have you ever been tempted to “go negative” on your competition? Most companies don’t do it, and for good reason: We’re not in the business of promoting our competition in any fashion. However, there are some ways you can directly compare yourself to the competition in a favorable manner.

Throwing Rocks at the Incumbent

This election season, as evidenced by his many attack ads tying America’s economic condition to Obama, the Romney campaign has correctly calculated that it has little to lose in highlighting America’s economic troubles. In presidential campaigns, attacking the incumbent is the default strategy — after all, there’s only one other “product” to compete with in your market. Attacking the incumbent can be a rewarding activity for a smaller company going against a larger, more established company, but you have to do it the right way.

First of all, the upside: If you’re the little company in your market, you can leverage the brand equity of a larger competitor by loudly and compellingly comparing yourself favorably to a much better-known brand. When I led the marketing team at a web-based (SaaS) content management solution in a sea of giants that included companies like Documentum/EMC, FileNet/IBM, and Microsoft, we did just that. We loudly beat the drum about the ease and cost savings of our web delivery model and invited head-to-head comparisons by stating that we had 80% of the larger competitors’ functionality at 20% of the price.

Following a strategy like this can level the playing field in your favor. Get mentioned in the same breath as the team with two hundred times your marketing budget, and you have just taken a major shortcut to greater brand awareness. Why not cash in on the other guy’s investment?  Aggressively comparing yourself to the market leader can work; and it especially works if they get annoyed enough to buy you at a premium price — another path to success we have seen with our clients.

But What If They Hit Back?

I once worked at a well-funded technology company where I heard the CEO say, “I don’t care what it takes; we will never lose a bid to Company X.” Company X was a smaller competitor whom our CEO planned to blow out of the water with low bids, eating into our margins, but keeping them out of the accounts.

This is the premier hazard of being the terrier that chases the lion. What do you do if you catch him?  This is why differentiation and positioning is so critical to making “attack the incumbent” work. You need to have a defensible position so that, in the event that you do attract their attention, you’ve got them beat on terms that favor you. As Sun Tzu advised in The Art of War, you should never attack superior forces head on.

Going back to my earlier software company example: We staked our claim because we knew we had a true differentiator that we could back up. If you are in a situation where you can’t back up your claims, you are in danger of becoming commoditized based on price and grossly outspent by larger foes with deeper pockets. If this is the case, you are better off zipping your lip about the competition. In other words, know your strengths and why you are better before you throw that first rock.

Which brings me to one final point: While many an attack ad and campaign promise are forgotten in the dustbin of public memory, your potential buyers will almost certainly hold you to the claims you make. Remember that in the end, you are competing against the marketplace as much as any one company — and the marketplace is just as unforgiving as the voting public.  Although political campaigns seem to thrive on negativity, as a business based on integrity, you can be aggressive while staying on the right side of the line.

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Christopher J. Ryan

Christopher Ryan is one of the nation's foremost experts in B2B marketing and sales. Author of How to Create an Unstoppable Marketing and Sales Machine (Fusion Marketing Press, 2009), Mr. Ryan is founder and President of Fusion Marketing Partners (www.fusionmarketingpartners.com). Chris Ryan was formerly a senior marketing executive at noted companies like Stellent, Inc., FrontRange Solutions, PeopleSoft, Sybase, and Group 1 Software. Mr. Ryan's latest book can be obtained at Amazon.com or at http://fusionmarketingpartners.com/get-the-book/.

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