The trash-talking boomerang
Thursday 4th May, 2017
By Ed Haigh.
Received wisdom says we shouldn’t talk down our competitors. To do so is not only a bit undignified, but is generally reckoned to hold with it the potential for self-harm.
But does trash-talking have an unfairly poor reputation? The question came to mind recently as I was conducting a bit of research into challenger brands, many of whom have made a virtue (and a successful business) of putting down their competitors as often as possible. Indeed, I found plenty of people who were publicly advocating the idea that trash-talking was a good thing.
Tit-for-tat advertising between BMW and Mercedes in the 1980s provides a typically unedifying example of trash-talking, but the one that always comes to my mind occurred in 1999. The British Airways-sponsored London Eye got stuck as it was being lifted into place, prompting Virgin to fly a large banner above the roof of its London headquarters on which it gleefully proclaimed “BA CAN’T GET IT UP”. As far as undignified behaviour goes, telling everyone that your fiercest rival has erectile dysfunction seems hard to beat. But Virgin have got a long way by trash talking its rival, as have many other companies throughout the years. And recently Donald Trump got himself elected President, partly through doing the same thing. Trash-talking might not be nice, but it can certainly be effective.
So, should professional services firms be taking a leaf out of the trash-talking manual in a bid for supremacy? I’m not so sure. Quite apart from the general sense that they ought to be setting some sort of standard in professionalism, I think it really could backfire–but perhaps not for the usual reasons.
In the first place, there’s the issue of opaqueness. As long as it’s unclear to many people exactly what professional services firms do, there’s a danger that accusations fill a void and many a true word is understood to have been spoken in vitriol, particularly when those words pander to clients’ worst fears about the industry. And that hurts a lot more than the firm that does the trash-talking, it hurts the entire industry.
Second is the perceived lack of differentiation between firms. BMW’s claims that Mercedes didn’t go around corners very well was relatively risk free because BMWs looked different from Mercedes, so it sounded like a plausible criticism. Perhaps they really didn’t. Virgin’s claim that BA couldn’t get it up worked because BA were generally seen to be a bit stuffy, and Virgin by contrast were a bit sexy. Indeed, there’s the test: Could BA have thrown the same accusation back the other way? No, it would have sounded ridiculous. These were competitors who were throwing eggs at each other from different platforms. Or aeroplanes.
Professional services firms don’t enjoy the same luxury. When they throw eggs at each other (and though they tend not to do it publicly, our experience is that they do it nevertheless) they do so standing on the same platform. As long as nobody can tell the difference between one firm and another, trash-talking is highly-likely to backfire because people will assume that what goes for one almost certainly goes for all. How can it not?
Professional services firms have plenty of detractors. But the last thing they need is to become their own.