Are we living in an attack culture in America today? Sure seems so. With Fox News, Michael Moore, and the nuclear nature of political discourse in general - not to mention political advertising -- the jugular is being pursued with not just passion, but glee.

Politics, of course, reflects the temper of the times. And there is ample evidence of a national bad temper, a growing aggressiveness just about everywhere we look, from Simon's slams on "American Idol," to road rage and air rage (with new rages being identified regularly), to the narratives and graphics of video games. Add to that another example of our take-no-prisoners culture: the Web site breakupnews.blogspot.com, which, according to Newsweek, "provides a forum for the recently dumped to dump on their exes."

Not surprisingly, therefore, we're seeing a new, more hyper-competitive (if not downright hostile) edge to business. A perfect example of this was reported recently in the New York Times, which devoted 1,700 words to a pitched battle between the Lockheed Martin Corporation and United Technologies, the parent of Sikorsky Aircraft. The struggle is over the contract to build the next fleet of presidential helicopters, and because Lockheed Martin has put together a group that includes European partners, Sikorsky isn't waving the flag, but stuffing it down their competitor's throat.

"Only skilled, trustworthy American hands" an ad for the company reads, will "ensure mission safety and the security" of POTUS. Normally this kind of attack would be reserved for closed-door arm-twisting sessions, but in today's attack culture there is no hesitation in putting the negative advertising messaging right out there. Another recent example came about as a result of AT&T's announcement that it wasn't going to pursue any new residential customers.

Seizing that as an opportunity, Qwest immediately ran a full page ad inviting AT&T's customers to jump ship, with the CEO writing that "I do so in light of AT&T's recent announcement that they will retreat from marketing local and long-distance services to residential customers -- and especially in light of concern this news is causing in many local households." (While not as incendiary as Sikorsky, it's still the kind of undisguised land grab that would have been perceived as undignified a few years ago.)

Another reason we're seeing more assault marketing is that the business audience is ready for it, having been desensitized by seeing hand-to-hand combat in so many other areas of communication, it no longer seems unusual for a major American corporation to sound like a local candidate for sheriff.

An article in the "Harvard Business Review" last month by George Stalk Jr. and Rob Lachenauer proclaimed itself "The Hardball Manifesto" (with no apologies to Chris Matthews) and stated: "We believe the time has come to rebalance the hard and the soft. Softball players that have survived until now -- think of most airlines, the U.S. auto industry, the recording industry, to name a few examples -- are in deep trouble. Hardball players are taking their places at an unprecedented rate."

The Manifesto provides a set of rules like "Strive for 'extreme' competitive advantage" and, interestingly, "Avoid attacking directly."

In the latter, the authors aren't talking about attacking from a marketing and sales perspective, but from a strategic perspective. They give the example of Southwest Airlines, who prospered not by direct assaults on the hubs of the major airlines, but by indirect attacks, utilizing secondary and tertiary airports. While doing this, though, Southwest ran highly aggressive advertising that took on the major carriers directly.

For entrepreneurial, growing businesses, the question of when to attack your competitors is a critical inflection point. How much should your marketing and sales strategy define itself against them, or reference them? It used to be a staple of Marketing 101 that you never mention your competitors in your advertising. Why give them the air time? Why feel like less than a leader? While there are some classic examples of challenger brands taking on #1 (Avis, of course, and also the Pepsi Challenge), for the most part this wasn't standard marketing procedure. Now, however, this brass knuckles environment forces you to make some hard decisions, and here are some guidelines to help you through it all.

Assess your adversary. Are they a trusted and beloved company, or perceived as an arrogant bully (no one would really care if you bashed Wal-Mart). Sometimes, though, attacking even an icon can give you some much-needed visibility; case-in-point, Dean's Beans took on Paul Newman, a battle celebrated in an April 2004 Inc. article.

Make sure you can win a war. Don't start something you can't finish. Assess resources and staying power across your organization -- which means don't go after your competitors with advertising if they have an overwhelmingly powerful sales force that can shout out your message in the field.

Give yourself flexibility. Give your people the ability to go "negative" when they need to, without building it into every PowerPoint presentation and splashing it all over your Web site.

How permanent are your advantages? It's a quick-shift business world, and it would be a strategic mistake to position your company based on short-lived competitive strengths. And if something is working for you in the marketplace, you could be shooting yourself in the corporate foot to make that strategy too visible.

Understand your industry. Though we live in an attack culture, there are still some precincts of business that recoil at steroidal marketing, and engaging in those tactics would backfire. That's changing, though. Even hospitals, who once saw themselves as loftily above the fray, are taking off the surgical gloves and running highly competitive marketing efforts based on their rankings, their patient outcomes, and other advantages.

In short, business rules are changing, and what was once considered inappropriate conduct is rapidly becoming normative - like it or not. Put-down programming, insult humor, shock jock shtick and other slapdowns are streaming from the larger culture into the way we compete today. And whether it's right for your business or not, it's a reality that needs to be part of your most important conversations, as does a gimlet-eyed view of your vulnerabilities: Where could an aggressive competitor poke, prod and embarrass you? Better to see yourself naked before someone on the Internet does.


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