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'The Indicator': Praising a competitor might actually boost a brand's sales

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

There is a classic rule in advertising. Don't talk about the competition. Well, maybe you should. Stacey Vanek Smith and Sally Herships with NPR's podcast The Indicator tell us about a new study that shows praising a competitor might actually help boost your sales.

KEISHA CUTRIGHT: You know, we always said you don't want to talk about your competitors at all, let alone positively.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: This is Keisha Cutright. She teaches marketing at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

SALLY HERSHIPS, BYLINE: And traditionally, there's been this one exception to the rule about not talking about your competitor, and that is the attack ad.

VANEK SMITH: Classic example - 2019. Bud Light tried to shame its competitors for using corn syrup during one of the most important advertising moments of the year - the Super Bowl.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN HOOGENAKKER: (As Dilly Dilly King) That's not ours. We don't brew Bud Light with corn syrup.

SYDNEY LEMMON: (As Dilly Dilly Queen) Miller Lite uses corn syrup.

HOOGENAKKER: (As Dilly Dilly King) Let us take it to them at once.

VANEK SMITH: The results totally backfired. MillerCoors sued. Bud Light lost. The corn lobby got angry.

HERSHIPS: That is not the result you want.

VANEK SMITH: It is not. So Keisha and her co-authors started to wonder, can brands help to lead us toward a more civil discourse? Unsurprisingly, there were not a ton of examples, so Keisha and Co. ran some experiments. For example, they created a fake tweet sent from Kit-Kat to Twix. Quote, "competitor or not, congrats on your 54 years in business. Even we can admit Twix are delicious." About a week and a half later, they checked in with consumers who saw the tweet. They asked them about their candy purchases. And it turns out that they were one-third more likely to buy a Kit-Kat. And here's the other really important part. Twix sales didn't increase even though Kit-Kat had complimented Twix's deliciousness.

CUTRIGHT: So what we found is that when brands are actually nice to other brands and so they publicly praise another brand, consumers get excited about that.

VANEK SMITH: Keisha says praising your competitor seems to change consumers' attitudes and their purchasing behavior, meaning when your customers see you being nice to the competition, they may buy more of your stuff.

CUTRIGHT: So what we're finding is that when people see you praising another brand, they automatically think you're now this warmer, fuzzier brand that they can trust. Because you would put yourself on the line for another brand, you must be a brand that they can trust.

VANEK SMITH: And Keisha says social media has made all of this pretty easy. A brand can have a casual conversation with other brands. It can kind of casually praise them for not a lot of money.

HERSHIPS: Like, there was this one time Oreo and Kit-Kat were playing tic-tac-toe on Twitter, and Oreo's Twitter took a bite out of a virtual Kit-Kat because it just could not resist that chocolatey goodness.

VANEK SMITH: And there's another finding from Keisha's study that could be really powerful, she says. There is all the skepticism floating around in the ether right now. Like, what's real? What's fake news?

CUTRIGHT: What we were surprised by is that the people who are the most skeptical of brands, meaning they look at ads and they don't trust them so much - they were the ones who responded most positively to seeing a brand praise another brand.

VANEK SMITH: You know, I guess the question becomes, like, will companies actually do this? Will we see lots of companies taking a page from the Oreo Kit-Kat tic-tac-toe game?

HERSHIPS: I'm excited by the prospect of eating more chocolate either way.

VANEK SMITH: Yes, exactly. I feel like everyone has good things to say about that.

HERSHIPS: Sally Herships.

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.