Producers Nestle Center pathogens lab copy

Nestlé puts its money where its customers' mouths are by investing $31 million in its Ohio quality assurance center.

Competition Hopper

Should you acknowledge your competitors or pretend to exist alone in an empty universe?

By Charlie Hopper

From a macro-perspective, healthy competition is good. Truthful, direct comparisons help consumers. Attempts to offer customers better value create a thriving marketplace.

Before we take even one step into this topic, though, I have to say: please, read this article for entertainment purposes only until you have a serious look in the mirror and a brief chat with a lawyer – taking on your competitors could be a mistake.

Let’s make the distinction, at this point, then, between a marketing-based decision and a legal-based decision on whether to acknowledge your competitor. Legally, as I say, there’s inherent risk in mentioning the competition. From a marketing standpoint, there are also risks. Here’s a quick little list of gut checks to see if you should even flirt with danger.

1. Are you an underdog?

Typically, a direct comparison to the competition is something a challenger brand would consider, not a leader. We once worked with a restaurant whose board members included a former Coca-Cola marketer, a senior guy back when Coke was truly it, and never acknowledged the competition – alternatives didn’t exist. When we proposed a competitive-themed ad for the underdog restaurant chain on whose board this old Coke man sat, he fought against it: Why would you mention the competition? Why give them air time?

From the perspective of the largest soft drink company, his point was well made – and if you’re the biggest Italian restaurant in town, it probably makes no sense for you to look like you’re sweating or picking on the little guy or anything but the inevitable No. 1 choice.

If you’re not the overdog, though, there might be advantages to drawing a distinction that might raise your profile.

2. Would “punching up” potentially reduce the competition to just you and the top dog?

Competition Hopper2One advantage of direct comparison is illustrated by the recent Taco Bell breakfast promotions: they’re underdog-ish in the morning and they’re offering themselves as an option to McDonald’s, specifically and very clearly. They don’t mention McD’s name, but they use clown imagery, and reference things like a “Meh Muffin” (which might sound to a jury of one’s peers like a slurred version of the word “Mc-Muffin”).

Clearly, they’re comparing Taco Bell – not known for breakfast – to the dog whose breakfast is legendary. Result? They imply it’s a two-restaurant race and that they’re the only other decent alternative: Forget all the other fast food breakfasts. Strategically insidious and potentially effective.


3. Do you have any kind of proof?

Not just members of the bar association – average sitting-at-home citizens wonder what you base your claims on. Was there a study? Who did it?

Dunkin’ Donuts ran ads a few years ago quoting “a national taste test” where people preferred their coffee to Starbucks: “Friends don’t let friends drink Starbucks” with the URL “” The underdog effectively established their credibility by comparing themselves to a leader, and offering statistics from a survey of 476 adults in 10 cities conducted by A&G Research to back their claim up (if you chased the fine print).

Domino’s introduced oven-baked sandwiches citing a “national taste test” where Domino’s “Beat Subway 2 to 1.” Subway, of course, didn’t like that and sent a cease-and-desist letter. In a subsequent commercial, the president of Domino’s acknowledged receiving the letter and put it in the oven where it caught fire. Then he defiantly called out to the camera crew to run the previous ad, which made the original claim. It’s done with dry humor and it’s pretty engaging. In the end, Domino’s looks playful and Subway looks defensive. Or does Domino’s just look like jerks?

4. Will your customers enjoy it if you look like jerks?

Who are your customers? Will they find a good-natured one-upping charming? Are they the people who gather around a cafeteria punch fest yelling, “Fight! Fight! Fight!” Or are they the more restrained people shaking their heads and getting the heck out of there?

Arby’s hired “legendary detective Bo Dietl” to “investigate” where Subway slices its meat. He was shown standing in front of a Subway with the awning logo almost blurred out, but the Subway logo was still visible beneath the blur. He never mentioned the name aloud, but there was no doubt whom Arby’s was taking on. When he reveals their meat is sliced in Iowa instead of in the store, many viewers reportedly felt that the point was a little shaky and the overall effect of the ad kind of mean-spirited. Subsequent ads muted Dietl’s attacks and the campaign fizzled.

On the other hand, when McDonald’s discontinued Angus Third Pounders, Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr. CEO Andrew Puzder appeared in a one-minute-and-44-second YouTube ad sitting at what seemed to be his desk and earnestly saying, “Hello, McDonald’s customers.” He reads some tweets complaining about McDonald’s discontinuation, then takes a huge bite of a Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr. burger.

After patiently chewing, he says, “If you’re wondering where the beef is, we have it. And we’d never deprive you of it. In fact, for a limited time, we’ll offer our much-larger, much-higher-quality, 100 percent Black Angus Beef Six Dollar Burger for less than what you paid at McDonald’s. Just go to to download your coupon.” Brazen. Confrontational. And his young, male audience (the ones who respond to sexy-sexy-sexy TV ads) loved it.

So again, if you feel comfortable nodding yes to these marketing considerations, maybe do the research to understand the legal concerns specific to you or your proposed attack. But just in case something goes wrong, well, you didn’t hear any of this from me.

The Federal Alcohol Administration Act (FAA Act), the federal law adopted post-Prohibition in conjunction with the 21st Amendment, turns 80 this year. The past 80 years have seen much change within the alcoholic beverage industry, but the basic framework adopted shortly after the repeal of Prohibition remains the same.

That basic framework created three tiers of participants in the alcohol industry: (1) suppliers or manufacturers, which includes brewers, distillers and wineries; (2) wholesalers or distributors; and (3) retailers. Each of the three tiers is subject to a variety of federal, state and local laws that affect business relations and trade practices among alcoholic beverage industry participants.
While the advent of craft breweries, microdistilleries, and direct sales of wine have slightly chipped away at the strict requirements of the three-tier system the basic framework remains. Compliance is essential for any member of the alcoholic beverage industry.

Do you hear that? It’s a call to action. The issues plaguing the food industry today are frightening. A report from the Global Harvest Initiative states that the demand for food, feed, fiber and fuel will likely outpace food production in 2050. With the population expected to reach at least 9 billion, parts of the world still lack clean drinking water and $1 trillion worth of all food produced worldwide is lost or wasted. And those are just a few examples.

Are you feeling that call to action yet? The third annual Roots Conference at the Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan, Ohio stresses the importance of not only adhering to and preserving important culinary traditions, but also illustrates how vital it is to look to the future for sound solutions for the problems we collectively face. 

Check out our latest Edition!



Contact Us

Food and Drink Magazine
150 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 900
Chicago, IL 60601


Click here for a full list of contacts.

Latest Edition

Spread The Love

Back To Top