Competitive advertising vs comparative advertising

When you think about advertising a product, the approaches you consider might, at first, fall broadly into two categories. On the one hand, you can sell your unique value proposition—the things your product, or your brand, does that no one else can do.

And on the other, you can lay out an argument for why your product does the important things better than the other guy. Which way works better?

Let’s look at competitive advertising vs comparative advertising.

What are competitive and comparative advertising?

Three people discuss competitive and comparative advertising strategies, pointing to graphs and charts on pages.

Before we dig into each of these styles of advertising, let’s be really clear about our definitions. Some authors use “competitive” as a synonym for “comparative” when talking about advertising approaches, which can cause a bit of confusion when you’re doing research for a marketing strategy.

For our purposes today, we’re using them as opposites. A lot of digital ink has been spilled about comparative advertising as a strategy, because the idea can be intimidating to both businesses and customers. We’re using “competitive advertising” to describe the more straightforward, “safer” alternative to comparative advertising.

Here, specifically, is what we mean by each:

Competitive advertising.

Competitive advertising is what you might think of first when you consider an advertising strategy. In a competitive approach, a business emphasizes the things that differentiate them in the marketplace—that is, the things they can do that no one else can.

Competitive advertising is about what makes your company unique. In a lot of cases, your particular product may not even enter into the conversation. Instead, the focus might be on your brand: what your values are, your employee culture, your customer service, and any other intangibles you bring to the table.

It’s an approach that can feel more comfortable, because you’re selling the features that are directly in your wheelhouse. You’re talking about the aspects of your company that you’ve consciously put a lot of work into, in order to make yourself stand out. That makes it harder for anybody to argue with you!

Comparative advertising.

The other side of the marketing coin is called “comparative advertising.” In this approach, you’re placing your product head-to-head with the same or similar products from other providers. Comparative advertising does exactly what it says on the tin: compares products on specific points of quality, performance, or other characteristics.

Comparative advertising is usually specific, measurable, and backed by data. Examples include side-by-side demonstrations of a product’s durability, blind taste tests, or documented performance statistics. 

In theory, the goal of comparative advertising is to provide consumers with the facts—ideally, the facts that show your product performs better than the alternatives. Because of that, comparative advertising can be very powerful. But at the same time, pointed comparisons can feel confrontational, and therefore risky, for some businesses.

Related: How to generate sales leads online

Sometimes competitive advertising shines, and other times comparative does.

Full-page Kroger ad showing long receipts from both Kroger and Publix, and highlighting price differences in Kroger's favor.
Kroger took out this full-page ad in a Tennessee newspaper to compare their prices with Publix. Source

Although they each have a different focus, competitive and comparative advertising aren’t enemies. Comparative advertising—your product against someone else’s—can be a valuable part of a larger competitive marketing strategy.

After all, the things that make your business unique are, in a lot of cases, intended to help you create a superior product. Lots of companies make computers. Apple’s unique approach to design, their advertising argues, makes their product stand out. But it also makes their product better than PCs at the things they both do.

Each approach to marketing brings different, but ultimately complementary, strengths to the table. 

Related: How to create a competitive business plan

Competitive advertising helps you find your people.

Competitive advertising is focused on more than just your product. A competitive advertising approach has the latitude to address all the other reasons that a consumer might prefer your brand. And those features are the kinds of things that will attract some of your most loyal customers.

As we’ve talked about before, one of the biggest drivers of customer loyalty is the customer experience. And while some of the specifics of the customer journey are shaped by the product or service your company delivers, the overall strategy of CX isn’t really about the product. It’s about how a customer feels throughout their interactions with you.

These softer customer-relationship elements are rooted in values and priorities—both yours and your customers’. Younger generations of consumers see the brands that they support as an extension of their identities, and it’s more important to them that a brand’s values parallel their own. 

Brands that can market themselves authentically will draw the attention of consumers who share their values. That doesn’t mean trying to be all things to all people—rather, it means embracing and celebrating the way your company does things. 

Your values and priorities will speak to certain customer segments. And when customers choose you for your brand as well as your product, they’re more likely to stick with you through the ups and downs of business. 

Price, availability, and other specific product features are much less make-or-break for these loyal customers. And their dedication forms a solid foundation for your business to grow from.

Comparative advertising helps everybody find you.

Connecting with your ideal customers is unquestionably great. But your potential audience is bigger than just those ideal customers—it’s everybody who might need a product or service like yours. And if you’re not nabbing your share of that larger audience, you’re leaving money on the table.

Comparative advertising targets the customers who might need some convincing, or who are more concerned with specific matters of price, reliability, or features. These customers just need a solution, and are most worried about making sure it fits within their constraints. 

With comparative advertising, you can find the customers who might not know they’re looking for you, and show them why they should be. Some of these customers might fit your ideal profile, and you’ll have earned a few more dedicated fans. 

Others might only be interested in the advantages you’re offering over the alternative. But even so, you’ve still won some interest, and that opens the door for you to deepen the relationship.

How to do comparative advertising well.

Comparative advertising hinges on credibility. Comparing your product to another one will only make an impression if consumers feel like they can trust the information you’re sharing with them. Without that trust, there’s very little reason for consumers to pay attention to you—and a distinct possibility for negative sentiments.

That said, if your comparative advertising is factual and believable, it’s an incredibly powerful tool. It can push businesses to compete for superiority on the features that are most important to consumers, which can drive down costs and drive up quality. 

Comparative advertising can also give smaller, newer businesses a leg up in a crowded market. When a lesser known business compares its product to a big name, it can leverage the popularity of the better known brand to gain attention. If the smaller business’ product truly has advantages, then this route to increased brand awareness can really pay dividends.

On the other hand, comparative advertising is inherently somewhat confrontational. While your comparative ads should be focused on the good qualities of your product, it’s hard to avoid the idea that your self-promotion is coming at someone else’s expense. 

Some audiences won’t respond well to that approach, and that’s just the way it is. That’s why it’s important to do your research beforehand, to understand your audience’s needs and feelings. The best way to ensure a positive response to your marketing efforts is to tailor your strategy according to your customers’ expectations.

Considering government rules.

The benefits of comparative advertising, again, depend on credibility. If a bad actor decides to promote negative falsehoods about a competitor, it damages consumers’ ability to make informed choices. 

Because of that risk, it’s in the best interests of governments and industry authorities to regulate what good competitive advertising looks like. The US government has some guidelines for what businesses are allowed to say and focus on when comparing their product to another company’s, and staying aware of these can make or break your marketing strategy’s success.

Comparative ads should be factual and transparent—they shouldn’t mislead consumers, or make false claims about your product or a competitor’s. They shouldn’t omit important details about the claims you’re making, and they should be clear about who’s doing the advertising. No confusing consumers about which product is yours!

And these regulations are a big part of why comparative advertising can feel risky for some businesses. If your competitor feels like you’ve wronged them, they might decide to take you to court. Unfortunately, even if you did everything right, a lawsuit could turn out to be costly and damaging to your company’s reputation.

What to focus on. 

Even so, the benefits—to your company, and to your industry in general—of comparative advertising are real. If the strategy seems like it’s right for your business, there are a few ways to make sure you get the most out of it.

  • Keep it light. Making your comparative ads lighthearted, playful, and funny keeps the conversation from turning combative. It keeps the focus on the good qualities of your product, and makes your ads more memorable for consumers.
  • Keep it factual. It’s important to stick to assertions you can prove. Be ready to cite your sources, or even better, show consumers where they can find the data themselves. Consumers appreciate informative advertising—and if you’re dealing in facts, you’re laying the foundation for a relationship of trust.
  • Keep it specific. Be clear about the comparison you’re making—for example, X battery lasts 25% longer than Y battery when used in the same device. Make sure you’re comparing apples to apples by sticking to similar products, used for similar purposes, in similar circumstances. Don’t fudge or skew the numbers by creating lopsided comparisons.

Both ways are useful options.

Businesses can use advertising strategies to differentiate themselves on their unique qualities, and to show discerning customers why their products have the advantage over another option. In combination, competitive and comparative advertising can work together to help you reach your widest audience. 

As with a lot of modern marketing efforts, though, the key to unlocking the full potential of both strategies is authenticity. Stick to the facts, be straightforward about your values, and you’ll have success.

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Megan Wells
Megan Wells
Megan is a content writer and strategist who loves to dig into the ways technology is changing consumers' relationships with brands.

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