The first section of Tim Calkins’ Defending Your Brand is titled An Important Note, which admonishes the reader:
There are times when this book will make you uncomfortable. You may read about certain tactics and think, “That is so wrong. I can’t believe someone would do that.” Some of the approaches and strategies really push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable behavior. If you are an attorney this book will certainly make you feel unsettled.
If you read this blog, or you’ve heard me speak, then you know I advocate a strict code of marketing ethics, and I don’t believe companies need to behave unethically in order to compete, so I was initially wary of the book. As it turns out, Defending Your Brand is a straight-talking analysis of competitive threats, and the responses, from the mild to the wild, a business may make in order to regain control of its marketplace and defend its brand. Some of these are indeed sketchy, and may skirt legal and ethical boundaries, but for the most part the book offers sound, rational advice consistent with good business practices and effective marketing.
Almost from the start, one sees that the very process of defending a brand, by definition, puts a company on the offense. In the book’s introduction, Calkins uses the example of dessert topping makers Reddi-wip and Cool Whip, and how Reddi-wip responded when Cool Whip announced its first product in a can. Reddi-wip’s response included an advertising campaign in which the company compared the products directly and made the case that its ingredients were more natural than those found in Cool Whip, challenging the newcomer head-on.
This book, though, has much more substance than a canned dessert topping. It is clearly a business book, using both actual and hypothetical case studies, detailed defense strategies and an understanding of a business’s operational framework. Anyone with a solid foundation in business management can apply these principles when faced with a competitive threat. I found the section The Financial Challenge one of the most interesting of all, as it connects competitive behavior with the financial realities of running a business. If a perceived threat won’t have a financial impact on your company, is it even worth responding to? And if it does, what resources do you have at your disposal and how do you apply them?
Some of the strategies proposed include outspending your opponent, introducing new products, and creating operational barriers to the success of competitors. For the larger company, especially when faced with a serious financial threat, strategies include but are not limited to filing a formal complaint, securing government support or even advocating enactment of government regulations that favor the company and or its products. As I said, some of these strategies may raise ethical issues.
It seems in competitive response that no strategy or tactic is completely out of bounds. Calkins cites the example of GlaxoSmithKline which responded to competitive products in the HIV drug market with an ad that featured shark-infested waters and stated, “Don’t take a chance. Stick with the HIV medicine that’s working for you.” Another ad recommended patients ask their physician, “Will the HIV medicine make my skin or eyes turn yellow?” which was a common side effect of competing medications.
The book brought to mind a situation I found myself in years ago when I was CEO of a small, privately held company that manufactured computer hardware. Owing to our strategic location in Silicon Valley, we had superior engineering talent and a startup culture that allowed us to be first to market with many new technologies. We were faced however, with a competitor that was publicly held, and, we learned, would call into question our company’s stability by comparing their publicly filed financial statements to an extrapolated balance sheet on my company to scare people into believing we lacked long-term viability and funding.
A good finance person could easily look at our markets, products, advertising budget, etc. and make some fairly accurate guesses about our financial situation. But I was surprised that they were presenting people with a purported balance sheet for my company. We could not compete on a financial basis, so, over time, we learned to compete by offering a superior warranty, more personalized service, and liberal trial terms for companies wishing to evaluate our products.
Had I had access to Defending Your Brand, I would have learned a number of other response strategies. Defending Your Brand offers dozens of clearly articulated, completely legal and ethical strategies for defending your brand, and devotes a portion of the book to a discussion of evaluating and mitigating legal and ethical concerns. Given that the right competitive threat has the potential to seriously damage or completely destroy a company, it’s important to consider every viable response, and Calkins does an outstanding job of outlining many, many more responses than I would have come up with on my own, giving clear instructions on identifying and implementing these strategies.