We’re in an Age of Brand Wars—Get Your Front Row Seat to the Fight(s)

Bud Light versus MillerCoors while Pizza Hut goes head-to-head with Domino’s

A giant hand extends its index finger; atop the finger balances a ruler; on top of the ruler two teams battle in tug-a-war
These rivalries between brands keeps consumers engaged and reinvigorates their passion once they choose sides. Getty Images

It’s a battleground out there. Mass retail brands are falling every week. Profits are either down or up in smoke. Holiday discounting was at its deepest level on record. Challenger brands continue to tear down established brands twice their size. For most advertisers, the future is at best uncertain, at worst bleak.

Yet turn on your TV screens, and the commercial breaks remain filled with purpose-led advertising, promoting generic messages of positivity and togetherness and pulling heartstrings with an emotional soft sell. In a time when brands should be developing sharp elbows, advertising remains decidedly warm and fuzzy. The result is brands have lost their edge and most communications lack competitiveness.

As a marketer, 2019 is not the time to be pulling your punches. Now is not the time to be indirect with your message. Advertising needs to wake up to the climate we are in. The debate is tough; the politics are nasty. To compete, you need a clear and compelling argument, a bold voice and a willingness to get down and dirty.

It’s been refreshing to follow the brand war that Bud Light started with their great adversaries MillerCoors. Spurred on by data highlighting America’s growing corn syrup concerns, Bud Light had the courage to spend their Super Bowl investment directly calling out Coors Light and Miller Light for containing the stuff.

To compete, you need a clear and compelling argument, a bold voice and a willingness to get down and dirty.

But as the #Corntroversy has unfolded, it’s been great to see MillerCoors take on the challenge. A full-page ad in The New York Times made their perspective on corn syrup’s brewing value clear.

And so the brand battle line was drawn. Taste versus health: The ultimate Game of Thrones.

Too many brands have forgotten that their purpose is to drive action, to inspire your people and your advocates. To do this, your brand needs to contain a point of view. It has to take a position. It needs to stand both for and against something, to create a sense of fight and challenge. Without this, brand purpose can’t create the momentum necessary to drive your business forward. The litmus test when brands are searching for their purpose should be identifying something that they believe in so strongly that they’re willing to fight their competitors about it.

MillerCoors’ CEO Gavin Hattersley’s comments after the corn syrup debate sum it up. “Our distributors are proud, they’re fiercely competitive, and they like nothing more than a good fight. … Nothing we could have done could have fired them up so much. Our employees are just as fired up, and the next few months are going to be interesting for sure.”

These days we feel like constant victims of the secret sell. Every day we are coerced by over 5,000 advertising messages. Our TV commercials are more subliminal than ever. The Fyre Festival influencers we follow on Instagram are being secretly paid to con us. The digital platforms we use are secretly hijacking both our votes and our brains. We (rightly) feel constantly manipulated by the dark arts of advertising.

In this context, the idea that brands might actually fight for our attention is flattering. The idea of a brand punch up feels suitably old-fashioned. We’d rather hear from a brand who is direct and straightforward, showing their wares and presenting us with a clear and competitive choice. It helps us regain control.

Recently in the U.K., Pizza Hut has taken the fight to category leader Domino’s with a new brand platform. Drawing a battle line between Domino’s and Pizza Hut, the campaign highlights that, while Domino’s is committed to simplification, Pizza Hut is setting out to add value to the pizza-ordering process, making it more surprising, tasty and enjoyable. Now consumers have a clear choice: functional pizza or enjoyable pizza. Aside from the sales impact, what’s been most interesting about the success of the Pizza Hut campaign is the incredibly positive response from pizza buyers across the internet. It turns out that people have been crying out for some brand fisticuffs. Why? Because it feels refreshingly direct.

For challenger brands like Pizza Hut, Avis, Pepsi, Samsung or Burger King to get a foothold, they need to stand on the shoulder of a giant—and then punch them in face.

That is exactly why February’s Bud Light fight has been so notable. Bud Light sells more beer than any other brand. They spend the most money and have the most consumers to lose. The golden rule of the brand war game is that market leaders don’t acknowledge their competitors, but rise above the fray and act like they exist in a category of one. No surprise that MillerCoors couldn’t disguise their glee at being featured so heavily in a spot paid for by their archrival.

The lesson? Don’t start a fight if you haven’t done the math. But if you’re a challenger, it’s time to review the soft, heart-warming purpose-led advertising that resonated perfectly not long ago. Thanks to our current socio-economic climate, there’s an edge in the air. It’s time for brands to embrace that edge, to get competitive and not be afraid of the hard sell.

So roll up your sleeves and dust off your gloves because the brand wars are heating up.

Ben Essen is chief strategy officer at Iris.