Marvel versus DC, Starbucks versus Dunkin', iPhone versus Android, McDonald's versus Burger King, Uber versus Lyft, Instagram versus Snapchat. Our world is rife with competition. And with connected consumers feeling empowered by the huge effect their digital dialogue can have on a company's reputation, there are some massive opportunities on the line for brands seeking to grab the attention and advocacy of these god-like customers and clients.

Is "competition" a bad word?

Many brands owe much of their enormous success to their rivals and the way these "worthy opponents" forced them to up their game. Remember the Nike and Reebok rivalry of the 1980s and '90s? After Nike debuted Michael Jordan's iconic Air Jordan shoes, Reebok was never able to recover and was eventually acquired by Adidas.

Since rivalries can inspire excellence and innovation, why is it that competition can sometimes be seen as a "bad word" in certain circles? Could it be because, like anything else in life, competition can have a dark side, but in our concern to bring attention to this, we lose sight of the ways that it can also be a force for good?

Are competition and collaboration enemies?  

Collaboration--rather than competition--has become a buzzword in business organizations large and small. Competition between employees, it is often claimed, is inherently toxic and detrimental to teamwork. Collaboration--not competition--the thinking goes, is the key to creating positive work environments and cohesive, high-performing teams that come together with a shared purpose to achieve a common goal.

But let's not be so quick to assume that collaboration is necessarily superior to competition, or that the two are enemies. If competition is inherently toxic and detrimental to teamwork, then why do professional athletes, for example, talk so frequently about competition between themselves and their teammates and how this inspires them to surpass their limits? If competition is so divisive, why do professional sports teams demonstrate such intense levels of camaraderie and effective coordination?

Research shows that rivalry is essential for developing the ability to perform at higher levels, as well as the willingness to take strategic risks. Studies also show that exposure to competition in the early stage of a business's life increases its long-term survival prospects. So, how exactly can you use competitiveness and rivalries in your favor? Here are three approaches.

1. Look at competition in a whole new light

Competition, at its best, is a form of collaboration. Whether a competition occurs on the playing field of the marketplace or the stadium arena, people have to come together in the first place to define and agree upon the rules of the game, as well as the consequences for breaking them. In this sense, competition is nothing more or less than a mutually agreed-on form of "oppositional collaboration" or "collaborative struggle." Competition isn't actually about "destroying" your opponent but about what amounts to a mutual agreement to enter into an intense, co-created challenge for the purpose of cultivating excellence.

When competition is freely entered into with all parties bound by common "rules of engagement" that ensure the "fight" remains fair, the virtues of competition become clear. (Just as its dark side becomes clear when we imagine professional sports played without rules, referees, or the ability to call "foul.")

2. Use rivalries to inspire the natural desire to excel

"It was always very important to Apple to have an identifiable rival.... Whether that was Microsoft, IBM, or Google, or whoever it was, whether it was real or somewhat manufactured, it came to be important in [Steve] Jobs' mind to motivate the workforce, marshal the troops, and get them working hard," wrote Sam Sommers in a book he co-authored, called This Is Your Brain on Sports.

Rivalries motivate employees to achieve more and push past their limits to garner success for both themselves and the companies they work for. According to the study "Reversing downward performance spirals," negative feedback from a rival can be turned to your own advantage by the desire to prove them wrong. And, because rivals tend to be evenly matched (this speaks to the "worthiness" of an opponent), the will to win--that is, to excel--is strengthened.

L.A. Lakers legend Magic Johnson, for example, knew he needed to step up his game when going up against his archrival, Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics. Johnson once commented, "When the new schedule would come out each year, I'd grab it and circle the Boston games. To me, it was The Two and the other 80."

3. Use rivals to drive innovation and compete for the right reasons

Brand competition helps drive product diversity. No matter how niche an item may be, connected consumers will always want options, preferring to start with a wide survey of products, rather than focusing on one in particular, with a particular emphasis on customization or personalization. The modern, empowered consumer expects and even demands that brands will continually strive to excel, and by definition, this means surpassing their rivals.

Connected consumers also want brands to compete with each other for the right reasons: not solely for the sake of profit or market share but for a commitment to social good. Provided this commitment is authentic and a brand is prepared to walk its talk (with its customers and employees alike), it is already well on its way to successfully hacking one of four hidden gaps in connected consumers' purchase journeys.    

When understood and engaged as a special kind of collaboration, where each rival depends on the other to provide the challenges necessary for growth and innovation, competition need no longer be a bad word. Instead, competition can be a creative endeavor where winning and losing become secondary to playing the game for the right reasons. (Ultimately, for the love of the game.) As Matshona Dhliwayo put it, "The strong overcome their opponents, the mighty crush them, the shrewd outwit them, the cowardly hide from them, but the enlightened transcend them."