Is comparative advertising a good strategy?

You can’t watch television today without seeing Verizon touting that its map is better than AT&T’s. Or AT&T rebutting with how much better its 3G network is. If you’ve read a major magazine lately you have probably seen GM compare its models to its leading competitors. Is this explicit comparative advertising a sound strategy? Based on my experience, I would say, yes, but with some caveats.

In the early ’90s, while at Dell, I was involved in starting a price war in the PC category. The advertising that supported the strategy was an explicit comparison of similarly featured Dell and Compaq products along with their respective list prices. Dell cost usually 30% – 50% less and the campaign caused quite a stir in the industry. It also caught the attention of buyers and helped the company grow from $500 million to $3 billion in a few years. It worked for Dell and it seems to be working for Verizon.

If you are considering this approach, I believe there are four things to keep in mind:

  1. Be the champion of the customer: The foundation of this approach should be based on how the comparison benefits the customer. Poor executions turn into shouting matches between competitors. Good ones endear the brand to the customers for whom they are fighting.
  2. Compare relevant and important information: Make sure the point of comparison really matters to customers. Southwest does this well with its bags fly free campaign. But I’ve also seen tech companies compare features that are low on the priority list for buyers and the brand comes off as a grouchy engineer trying to prove a meaningless point.
  3. Take the edge off with humor: Some of the best comparative campaigns use humor to make their punch seem less offensive but still get the point across. The Mac v. PC guy campaign did this really well for a while. Verizon and Southwest are doing it well now. Chevy’s use of Howie Long? I’m not so sure.
  4. Let your customers make the case: This approach can be most effective, especially in the digital world. Reaching in-market buyers with content from fellow buyers can make a compelling case. Make sure it is authentic and not contrived or it will backfire.

So what are your favorite examples of great or awful comparative campaigns?