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Palm Column

Attack ads do more harm than good

by Shawn Barnett
August 2000, issue 35

About sixteen years ago, I remember how disgusted I was when I went into a Burger King restaurant and saw a poster showing the "Burger King" wrestling and twisting the leg of a prone and wincing Ronald McDonald. How arrogant, I thought. Today, all these years later, McDonald's is still the world leader in fast food, and the very Burger King in which I saw the poster is now closed; its windows are boarded up and weeds grow through the cracks in the asphalt. Only a few years back, Burger King advertised that their new fries were voted "better than McDonald's." I tried them. They weren't. But even though their food was generally better, Burger King has done far worse than the Golden Arches. And all this time, McDonald's remained silent to the attacks. They just kept putting out their positive message and making consistent food. Regardless whether you wince at the thought of eating there, clearly most Americans love McDonald's because they serve up tasty food of consistent quality from town to town across the Nation.

Coca-Cola, too, has faced an onslaught of attacks from PepsiCo over the years. Pepsi recently renewed their most successful attack, brainchild of the eventual Apple CEO, John Scully: The Pepsi Challenge. They face off two unmarked glasses, and the true Coke lover (all of 17 years) steps up to find that he likes the sweeter of the two drinks. Behold! Pepsi! But the truth is, sweeter or not, Coke continually outsells Pepsi because of its brand recognition, smart advertising, an enduring sense of nostalgia, and that unique semi-sweet bite that cannot be duplicated. Does Coke ever counter-attack Pepsi? No. Sell your message, be above the fray (after all, you are winning), and make a great product. You'll stay on top.

I could use John Scully here to segue into Apple vs. IBM and the legendary 1984 commercial, but you get the idea (though, given the above example, it is interesting that Mr. Scully was involved in both scenarios, and, while clearly a great leader, he was unable to get his blowhard ad men to blow hard enough to knock down those walls of Jericho).

Which brings me to today, and Microsoft's ad with the refrain: "Can your Palm do that? Only if it has a Pocket PC in it." Admittedly clever. I even like it. But I'm afraid it's inadvisable. You never mention your competition if you can help it. Even if your cleverness does reinforce the will of your current users, rallying the troops and perhaps attracting a few new rebels, you've done two things wrong: You've pointed out that you have such serious trouble with the competition that you have to go on the attack, and you've turned the already clear Victor into the Underdog. Americans love the Underdog. By going on the attack, you reinforce their already victorious image with impressions of valor, virtue, fearlessness, and honor in the face of shameless attacks--especially if they never acknowledge your attacks. Even a sense of pity can be fostered for the poor winner, sealing their place forever in the winner's circle of the customer's mind.

Here's how it goes

Palm Computers: They're small, they're simple, and they get done what you need done. That's why they're successful (it's not because of great ads, that's for sure; except for the recent train and golf video ads, which are indeed good).

As Palm goes more and more corporate, I worry that they'll lose sight of this. That doesn't mean they shouldn't put as much functionality into the products as the market demands, but it does mean that they need to stay above it all when it comes to advertising and PR. To survive Microsoft's multi-pronged attacks, they need to do what McDonald's, Coke, and IBM have done. Just continue to establish their brand and make great products, ignoring any derisive shouts from far below on their mountain of market share. I've already seen some childish mistakes from two of the Palm OS manufacturers, trying to fight back against the MS rhetoric, even creating a new attack of their own. One thing I've seen over my years of watching the industry is that you never take on Microsoft with words. Such a move invites disaster.

Instead, you just do as Intuit has done. They've faced one of the most ruthless attacks from Microsoft that has been mounted, with the most-often-free Microsoft Money versus Intuit's Quicken. Even though MS had the force of their OS and bundling agreements, even though they duplicated Quicken's feature set, and even though they had a more obvious name--Money--Intuit just stayed on track. They got the word out, made their product better and better, and they have prevailed.

Please don't take this as Microsoft bashing. Almost all my software products are Microsoft by choice, except the ones that other companies make better. Indeed, it is interesting to note that this is the first time I've seen Microsoft take this tack in advertising; they're usually the one being attacked. Usually by staying above the fray and making superior and affordable products, Microsoft wins, driving the competition out and creating a market in which only quality products need apply. Palm is clearly one of those products, or else Mighty Microsoft wouldn't feel the need to taunt.

And get this

To cap it all off, we received a flyer from a friend and reader that advertised a Microsoft seminar at which there would be a very special door prize: a Palm VII. A simple wireless device that can connect you to the Internet and get your email. Hmmm. Can your Pocket PC do that?

Apparently not.

Shawn Barnett can be reached via e-mail at

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