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The Best Defense

Jim Stengel, author of Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies, introduces an excerpt presenting tactics for protecting your market share from Defending Your Brand: How Smart Companies Use Defensive Strategy to Deal with Competitive Attacks, by Tim Calkins.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

A company’s success is often determined by how well it plays defense. When McDonald’s was threatened by the relentless growth of Starbucks, it rolled out a premium coffee line that became a huge growth driver and enhanced profits.

There are lots of ways to play defense, however, and in the excerpt that follows, Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at the Kellogg School of Management, describes two of them aimed at limiting customer trial of a competing brand: attacking its benefits and highlighting the risks that customers run in switching to it. He illustrates these tactics with stories involving Pampers, Actonel, and Ariel — three brands that at the time all belonged to Procter & Gamble, my “alma mater.”

I remember the Pampers case vividly. I worked on the Pampers brand for four years, mostly in Europe. We aggressively defended our business against Kimberly-Clark’s Huggies, blunting its introduction of Pull-Ups by leveraging many of the tactics Calkins describes. To this day, Europe is a weak market for Huggies.

I would add one footnote to the Pampers story. Although we temporarily defended our market share by attacking the benefits of Huggies’ new Pull-Ups, we really started winning when we came up with innovations of our own. At the end of the day, the best way to defend your brand is to come up with better ideas for brilliant products and services.

Jim Stengel


An excerpt from Chapter 11 of Defending Your Brand: How Smart Companies Use Defensive Strategy to Deal with Competitive Attacks


A fairly simple form of defense in the area of limiting trial is to attack and criticize a competing product; by highlighting all the problems of a competing entry, an established player can decrease trial rates for the new entry.

There are two effective approaches to this strategy: attack the benefits and highlight the risks. In questioning the benefit, a defending company seeks to reduce the appeal of a new product by eroding its support. If an established company can challenge the claims of a new entrant, then the new product’s overall proposition erodes, and the likely trial declines. Apple CEO Steve Jobs used this approach frequently to defend his products; he would highlight the flaws in competing products and dismiss the threat. In March 2011, for example, Jobs attacked competitors in an analyst presentation, stating, “Everybody’s got a tablet. Is 2011 going to be the year of the copycat?... Most of these tablets aren’t even catching up with the first iPad. But we haven’t been resting on our laurels.” He continued with his basic approach later in his presentation, saying, “Sixty-five thousand apps specifically tailored for the iPad. Now that compares to our competitors who are trying to launch these days with at most 100 apps. And I think we are being a little generous here.”

Procter & Gamble employed the same strategy with Pampers to defend against the launch of a new diaper from Huggies, the brand owned by rival Kimberly-Clark. In the United States, P&G and Kimberly-Clark dominate the diapers category. In 2002 Huggies introduced a new version of its popular Pull-Ups product. It was targeted at moms of toddlers, as the primary benefit of the new diaper was that it was easier to change, since it featured an easy-to-use tab on the side. This was of course quite a benefit when dealing with toddlers who squirm and wriggle when they’re being changed. Unlike infants, toddlers are on the move, so changing a diaper can be a challenge.

P&G could not easily copy Huggies’ new diaper design on its Easy-Ups line, so P&G responded by attacking the new Pull-Ups diaper. P&G ran a commercial featuring a toddler running through a fancy dinner party naked; the little guy had removed his diaper on his own, presumably using the easy-to-use tabs. He was gleefully waving it over his head as he ran, and the elegant guests were, as might be expected, mortified. Mom was mortified, too.

P&G’s goal was quite clear: turn Huggies’ unique point of difference from a positive into a negative, effectively proclaiming, “The new feature not only is not much of a benefit; it is a significant problem.” The implication is that parents are far better off with a diaper that is more difficult to get off since it reduces the chance that kids will remove it on their own.

Kimberly-Clark responded by suing P&G for the advertisement, and eventually Kimberly-Clark won the suit. By the time that occurred, however, P&G had blunted Huggies’ advance.

Highlighting the risks associated with a new product is another promising defensive angle. This strategy is most effective when there is a basis for the defense — when the established company can identify a problem with the new entrant. However, there doesn’t need to be an actual problem for the strategy to be effective; the established company can simply run spots with a warning to customers: “Don’t be fooled by new entrants.”

The osteoporosis drug Actonel responded to the launch of Boniva by directly attacking the new product. Actonel took out full-page ads announcing, “What about that new osteoporosis medicine, Boniva? Boniva is not proven to prevent fractures beyond the spine. Get the proven fracture protection of Actonel.” The ad featured a pleasant-looking lady stating, “I asked for one good reason to stick with Actonel. My doctor gave me seven.” The ad then highlighted seven common locations of fractures.

The Actonel team managed to pull off a defensive coup on January 11, 2006, when its full-page ad attacking Boniva ran in The New York Times on page A11, just in front of Boniva’s ad on page A13.

GlaxoSmithKline used this approach in the HIV market to limit a trial of competitive products. One Glaxo ad featured shark-infested waters and stated, “Don’t take a chance — stick with the HIV medicine that’s working for you.” Another ad recommended that patients ask their physician, “Will the HIV medicine make my skin or eyes turn yellow?” This was a common side effect of competing items.

One of the more remarkable examples of a company disparaging a competitor’s product comes from Argentina. In 1997 Procter & Gamble was preparing to introduce its Ariel brand of detergent to that market. Unilever was the category leader — with a market share of about 80 percent — and the company was logically concerned about P&G’s entry. Shortly before P&G’s launch, Unilever apparently began running advertisements for a small toilet-seat maker, Ariel del Plata. The ads featured rear ends and toilet seats, repeating again and again “Ariel, Ariel, Ariel.” The campaign effectively connected the name Ariel with toilets, wiping out any chance that Procter & Gamble would be able to make consumers associate the name with detergent.

Tim Calkins

Tim Calkins, Defending Your Brand, published 2012, reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan.

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