Having an Enemy Is Not Enough

A friend who runs a very large brand asked me what I thought about the value of identifying an enemy, which seems to be a very popular idea in marketing these days. To me, the benefits fall into three buckets:

  • The most obvious benefit of having an enemy is that it insures conflict will be present–implicitly or explicitly–in just about everything you do. From a story point of view, that’s important because conflict is the engine that drives story.
  • Also, to the extent that story is a powerful tool for channeling the efforts of a team, having a clear enemy in your sights can be a great way to effectively shorthand your story in order to keep your team focused and nimble.
  • The most important benefit by far is that, if you do it right, having an enemy aligns you with your customers in a way that builds connection and loyalty.

Turning almost any competitor into an enemy can get you the first two benefits, but the third–using the battle to help build a relationship with your audience–only happens if you are truly challenging the conventions of your category in some fundamental way.

Think about wireless carriers. AT&T has a clear enemy in Verizon, but there is nothing in that pitched battle that engages and energizes AT&T’s customers. The vast majority of us relate to the two biggest carriers like serfs relating to the lord of the manor: grudgingly, with no more loyalty than our contracts require. T-Mobile, on the other hand, has been playing Robin Hood, challenging the whole oppressive system on behalf of us cellphone serfs. As a result, T-Mobile is generating intense loyalty while rapidly increasing its share of the market. (If you’d like to learn more about T-Mobile’s marketing effort, there is a lot of nice detail here and a compilation of the TV spots here.)

I think it’s fascinating that both Robin Hood (T-Mobile CEO John Lagere) and Little John (CMO Mike Sievert) worked for AT&T before they joined T-Mobile. Presumably, they were just as capable of creative, highly competitive marketing tactics when they were at AT&T, but the brand gave them no higher cause to fight for. For AT&T, having a clear enemy may have kept some story energy alive in its communications, and it may have helped to keep the team focused, but I don’t see that it did anything to build loyalty among AT&T’s customers.

Apple, of course, is famous for the fanatical loyalty of its fans. In the late 1990s, Apple had a wonderful enemy in Microsoft, happily personified by Bill Gates playing the role of Darth Vader himself. (This was, of course, before Gates metamorphosed into the world’s greatest philanthropist.) On the surface, Apple was telling a story of freedom battling against tyranny and mindless conformity. That story is engaging as far as it goes, but ultimately we know how that story is supposed to end. If tyranny is not eventually defeated, the audience grows discouraged, but once tyranny is vanquished, the story is over.

Fortunately for Apple, deeper story currents were at play, stories that got energy from Apple’s own internal conflicts. On the one hand, Apple was exhorting independent, creative people to believe that knowledge is freedom. That is the deepest meaning of the apple with a bite out of it. On the other hand, in a networked computing environment, there is a lot of security in staying with the undisputed category leader. That story is safety in numbers, and it tugs in exactly the opposite direction. Of course, Microsoft was sitting right on top of the safety-in-numbers story. But to be relevant and authentic, Apple needed to embrace both sides of the conflict in its own way. The iconic characters Apple chose for its Think Different campaign–Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Edison, Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammad Ali, et al.–were not carefree dropouts. On the contrary, they all struggled against great odds, at times imperiling their own freedom, in order to promote freedom, knowledge and creative expression for everyone.

Freedom versus tyranny is not a bad story, but it is not nearly as compelling, emotionally engaging and sustainable as freedom versus safety. You can only sustain a story over time if the external conflict (good guys versus bad guys) is a reflection of the deeper internal conflict within each of us. Safety versus freedom is an ongoing, universal story engine because–if you want to live well–you can’t afford to sacrifice either one.

Of course, now that Apple has ascended to the throne, it can no longer play the rebel, and Samsung would like to get some street cred for challenging the king. Samsung has identified Apple as its enemy and lobbed some clever story grenades, but the story that Samsung tells seems to be mostly a tactical battle in a war of features. As with any category dominated by feature wars–toothpaste, razors, flat-screen TVs, etc.–we can see what Samsung is trying to do, but we don’t get a clear idea of who Samsung is. As a result, Samsung is spending a lot of money building market share while largely failing to build much of a relationship with its customers. With a deeper sense of story, Samsung could accomplish both at the same time.