In Brand Strategy, we introduce the concept of laddering, an attempt to deposition a competitor by highlighting an attribute or area where they are weak. It’s the corporate equivalent of buying your wife an exceptional Mother’s Day gift because: 1) you love her; and 2) you want to highlight what a sh***y gift she got you for Father’s Day.
The best laddering in marketing was executed by the George Bush campaign in 2004. After numerous debates and ads highlighting Mr. Bush’s character, none put him in a better light than one particular ad. This was accomplished indirectly, since the ad was only about his competitor, John Kerry. Titled “Whichever Way the Wind Blows,” the spot shows Kerry windsurfing, as a metaphor for his flip-flopping on issues. The last 10 days of the campaign, team Bush flooded Ohio with this ad. Bush never looked more resolute. Kerry was done.
Laddering is effective, as it’s a twofer — people are organically reminded how much your adversary sucks, and by contrast how wonderful you are. We have an easier time believing people are bad vs. good — a survival mechanism. Maybe Trump does want a wall. Regardless, it highlights how weak previous administrations have been on immigration. And perhaps he was jonesing to hear the Marine Corps belt out the the the national anthem this week, but more likely he was trying to deposition the NFL — I’m patriotic, they are not.
Tim Cook: Gangster
The only big-tech CEO openly going after other tech CEOs is Tim Cook. Marc Benioff has also been critical of Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL), but Salesforce (NYSE:CRM) doesn’t carry the same heft as the most valuable firm in the world, whose CEO is the likable heir to Jesus (Jobs). Over the last 12 weeks Apple has squared its PR guns, and Mr. Cook’s bully pulpit, not on innovation or a new product, but on how much the other guys suck. They did this through laddering.
People don’t buy Apple products for their privacy settings. They buy them to communicate sexual fitness, as luxury items signal our status to potential mates. However, Mr. Cook had his “Whichever Way the Wind Blows” moment on MSNBC when he emphatically stated:
“Privacy, to us, is a human right.”
Yeah, Tim, easy for you to say. I bet Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) is against offshore drilling, and it doesn’t cost them much to take that stand, since they’re not in that business, just as you aren’t in the data business. Wrapping himself in a privacy-rights blanket isn’t meant to keep Tim warm, but make Zuck cold. Very cold.
Soon after, Mr. Cook announced Apple was in the process of searching for a city for their second headquarters. Why did the obsessively private firm announce this? So Mr. Cook could point out they’d do it better, and not make it “a beauty contest.” Take that, Bezos.
Finally, the star at Apple’s recent Worldwide Developers Conference was not the HomePod or the Apple Watch, but new features to help parents manage their children’s use of Apple devices. Apple is starching their hat white and consciously uncoupling from the rest of big tech. It may be the most innovative PR act of 2018, with the exception of Facebook’s burn-the-clock strategy, which rendered Congress and the EU Parliament impotent.
NYU Stern professor Sonia Marciano says that strategy is less about focusing on your strengths, but where the variance is. Laddering helps identify the variance. Laddering is a terrible construct for your personal life. The fewer conflicts we view as zero sum, the better. Making the other guy look bad so you can get a promotion will make you miserable in the end, and it’s not team play.
Gift-giving is better sans the passive aggression, or trying to outshine the other. It’s true what they say about gifts. As we get older, we don’t care much about the item… but the thought or emotion around it. Last Father’s Day my six-year-old gave me a large drawing of all the reasons he loves me. That was meaningful. What was profound was several days later, in his room, I found eight drafts of the sketches.