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Why it feels weird saying mean things in B2B marketing (and how to get over it)


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I like to think B2B marketing is a classy business.
That there’s an ethereal Confederation of Marketers™ united in a noble, shared cause. We’re a nice, collegiate bunch, insulated from the dog-eat-dog pugilism of, say, sales.
But as advertising sage Dave Trott never tires of pointing out, we’re also in a zero sum game—for us to win, someone has to lose. Which means we sometimes need to get the knives out and talk about why our rivals suck.
That’s hard, for a bunch of reasons.

Maybe the hardest one to swallow is that [deep breath] you probably aren’t that different from most of your competitors. At least not to prospects with only a passing familiarity of your domain.

In our experience, when you dig beneath the surface, even B2B brands with radical offerings often have similar stories to tell.
The uncomfortable truth is you’re probably not quite as special as you think you are—and your competitors aren’t as hapless as you’d like them to be.

And you know what? That’s good news.
Because competitive marketing is perhaps the most enlightening (and most unforgiving) lens through which you can look at yourself. It’s not the latest dirty trick in the SERP playbook: it’s one of the most effective ways to remove your rose-tinted specs and examine your brand in the cold light of day.

It’s uncomfortable, sure. But it’s also one of the best ways to get real about how customers actually perceive your brand—and how to increase the value you provide. 

Here’s three reasons why B2B marketers need to get over their squeamishness about competitive marketing.

1. Competitive marketing helps customers win

We’ve spoken (OK, quasi-zealously preached) about the sanctity of honesty in B2B marketing a lot. 
Of not trying to dupe prospects.

Of not being a footnote in the Anthology of Snake Oil Salesmen.

Of being unashamedly fierce advocates for the end customer.

We’re not doing that for clicks. We found out first hand: you win more when you prioritize your customers’ interests over your own motivations. 

Here’s the thing: going to bat for your customers sometimes means ‘fessing up to the things you can’t do with the same vigor as when you talk about what you can. More than that, it means pointing incompatible prospects in the direction of the folks who can do the most for them.

You might feel squeamish at this point—especially as cold financial realities swirl around us.

But steering prospects towards better outcomes—even if that path ultimately leads to someone that isn’t you—is weirdly magnetic. And there’s nothing, but nothing, that says confidence and assurance like being OK with sending potential-but-not-quite-right buyers onto someone else. 

And here’s the real upside: when you do this, you can sharpen your messaging so much more finely to entice the prospects you really can help.

So, how can competitive marketing help you get ruthless about what you should and shouldn’t say?

2. Competitive marketing is a reality check

Competitive marketing isn’t just a signal to the outside world about who you are (or aren’t). It’s also a shortcut to exposing the difficult conversations you aren’t having (and that are holding you back). 

Think about the last time you visited one of your competitors’ websites, or signed up to one of their newsletters. Maybe there were parts you admired. And I bet there were parts that made you scream “BOOO” and throw rotten cabbages at your monitor.

You sure there isn’t anything similar lurking among your site or your content?
How do your competitors talk about themselves? Do they say the same things as you? Do they say them in a way that’s clearer or more nebulous?
Snoop around and you’ll quickly have a list of things that can inform your own content.

When we get real about our vulnerabilities, we plug more gaps. Turn competitive marketing practices on yourself, and you’re on a fast track to more informed product improvement, better persona definition, and more customers who actually care about what you can do for them.

3. Competitive marketing is a brand playground

Something that sticks in every Velociraptor’s craw is the idea that B2B marketing is unavoidably dull.
It’s a simple fact that when brands speak with vim and panache, they stand out from the drab and dreary. And boy there’s a lot of drabby dreariness in B2B. Competitive marketing is one of the best avenues to figure out how to stand out. 

In fact, there are few better places to do your most creative and fun work. Take this classic tit-for-tat between Madison Avenue heavyweights JWT and Saatchi & Saatchi.

JWT goes after its rival’s relative lack of commercial success. The underlying point? It values racking up billing hours and growing market share—and is clearly good at it. Interesting if you’re a shareholder. Less so if you’re a prospect in need of some kick-ass creative.

Saatchi & Saatchi’s response is a perfect illustration of how competitive marketing can reposition the competition, demonstrate your own values and have fun—all in one. 

They’re taking a stand for who they are: creatives who win on behalf of their clients. And in the process, making their rivals look all kinds of silly (I love that Saatchi and Saatchi clapped back within a day. What better way to show your creative chops than doing the thing you say you’re good at.)

I’m not saying you need a dossier of jibes, burns, and roasts. But, as a B2B marketer, you should know where you stand, and where you don’t. And in a time like this, who doesn’t want that from the brands they work with?

Which is why there’s never been a better time to lean into your nuances and strengths – to have fun exposing your beliefs, and bring the right people along for the ride.

So. Go forth and compete. Be bold. Be honest. Your customers and prospects will thank you, and who knows? You might actually enjoy it.

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