How to talk about your competitors

Josh started an interesting discussion in the beginning of April that I’ve been meaning to respond to. Basically he asks “Should you talk about your competitors?

Here’s my problem. One of the other sacred tenets we’re supposed to uphold in the groundswell is to “be authentic.” I strongly agree with this – pretending to be something that you’re not is a big mistake, because you will be found out, and there will be a backlash. But what if you authentically believe your company’s products are the best? Shouldn’t you say so? Why give props to the other guys?

I think the question is the wrong one to raise. The question isn’t about whether or not to talk about your competitors any more than there’s a burning need to succinctly answer, once and for all, “What’s the perfect time of year to launch a new product?

The real question here goes back to one of building your persona as an employee and a communicator. It is about being authentic – not just in one conversation, but all day, every day in every conversation. When you become known for someone willing to be a straight shooter, both about your own company, your competition, and more importantly your own personal opinions, then you answer the question by default

When I was at LEGO, MegaBloks was our biggest (and main) competition in the building blocks market. People who knew me knew that I loved the LEGO product. They knew that I was honestly interested in seeing the business and the customers do good stuff. They knew what I liked and didn’t like about my own company. So when someone would ask my opinion on whatever Mega was doing that quarter, I could shrug, smile, and say “They have an interesting concept, although I don’t think it’s very well executed” and actually come off as… wait for it.. authentic. The latest Apple commercials (with PC and Mac) showcase this dichotomy brilliantly – they’re not mean to/about the PC, in fact they go out of the way to showcase a seemingly genuine friendship between the two. Yet, the message is clear: Apple is better.

Being authentic isn’t just “pretending to be something you’re not”, as Josh puts it. It’s about sharing who you are, what you think, and what you’re interested in enough that people actually believe what you say because they’ve seen you say it before in a way that they can’t help but believe. Giving props to the other guys (when and if they’ve earned them) helps show that authenticity

There is also a cultural element at play here as well. Find a way to help support the culture within your community such that the existence of the competition not only seems silly to existing customers, it annoys them to the point of wanting to change the purchase behavior of those around them. I’ve always thought that one of my biggest failings at LEGO was that I didn’t do enough to encourage the natural LEGO enthusiast’s desire to remain a “purist” (someone who only builds with LEGO brand elements, no clones). The company largely frowned on any sort of vocal negativity regarding the competition, and instead of keeping us above boards in the marketplace it instead gave the competition room to grow. When I didn’t make it clear that I thought LEGO had a significantly better product than the rest of the market and that being a purist was important, the community subconsciously took that as a sign that purity wasn’t that important

In the end, this question being disgust isn’t removable for the larger context of the business at hand. That said, the answer to the question is simple: Talk about the things that are relevant to the conversation, regardless of whether they’re completely comfortable.