One thing struck me as I sat at a large round table at an Economic Club of Washington event listening to David Rubenstein, philanthropist and head of the Carlyle Group, interviewing Ola Källenius, the head of Mercedes Benz.
It wasn’t Källenius’ calm and natural presence, his great sense of humor, or his casual sophistication. Nor was it that he was considerably younger than I expected. It was the fact that he never once mentioned a Mercedes competitor by name.
This may not seem like much of a challenge, but Rubenstien didn’t make it easy. He kept up a constant line of questioning about other car manufacturers—he questioned Källenius about Tesla and the electric market, he attempted to engage him in a conversation about BMW, Audi, Porsche, and VW, and he even asked, “Other than Mercedes, which German brand would you recommend?”
How to Artfully Avoid Mentioning the Competition
Now it wasn’t apparent to everyone in the room. But as soon as I noticed that never once did Källenius repeat back a competitors’ name, I started to take stock of his tactics. Here’s what I learned from watching him navigate this dance:
Carefully redirect the conversation
No matter how hard Rubenstein tried, like a seasoned politician, Källenius redirected the conversation back to Mercedes. He had a subtle way of dodging other brands without avoiding the question. The closest he came to naming a competitor was referring to Tesla as “the company from California you mentioned,” or referring to the other German manufacturers as “brands from the same region in Southern Germany.”
It was clear that Källenius was sending a message that Mercedes doesn’t compete with others—others compete with them. It’s a strong message, and one that any brand hoping to define their category can learn from. Källenius was singular in his focus on Mercedes, never deviating from a conversation focused on the profound distinctions of their brand, product, and culture.
When brands compare themselves to a competitor, hoping to convince consumers that they’re superior due to a product function or technical feature, they almost always lose. We’ve seen this in the past with Pepsi challenging Coke on taste, automobile brands pitting themselves against the better-selling competition, and countless others. The unintended consequence is that the brand comparing itself to the leader not only increases the leader’s visibility, it solidifies the leader’s higher position in the mind of consumers. When I hear Pepsi claiming they’re better than Coke, it tells me Coke is better. Not necessarily a better product—that’s irrelevant—but a better brand!
Own the narrative
Standing for something so clear that it cannot be compared is the strategy of leadership brands. Källenius clearly believes that Mercedes stands alone and that audiences view it as one of the most prestigious symbols. He’s not about to let the mention of competing brands pollute the clear space that Mercedes occupies in their minds.
Källenius sits at the top of one of the strongest brands in the world, and certainly one of the most revered. He knows a thing or two about brands, and the fact that he never let another brand enter the conversation was clearly intentional. I’ve never seen a Mercedes ad that compares its product to another brand—or Coca Cola, Rolex, or many other leadership brands for that matter.