Punch them in the nose.

Since the dawn of time, companies have waged high-profile internal and external wars against their competitors. We're all familiar with the epics: battles like Facebook vs Google and Mac vs PC; they are fought in the public eye with online ads, conferences, billboards, magazines, TV and, increasingly, social media channels.

But what about the world of start-up competition? Do the same rules apply if the world isn't watching? And what about the underdogs?

Take the case of Salesforce.com. In 2002, the then three-year-old company waged war on its established, enterprise competitors, Siebel and Oracle, with a now famous  battle cry, "no more software!" Or, for a more recent example, look no further than Box.net's ongoing mission to overtake Microsoft Sharepoint, the so-called "old guard" of enterprise-collaboration software.

So why wage war? These battles serve a primary purpose for start-ups trying to get a leg up on the status quo. They grab attention by cleverly drawing sharp contrasts between competitors across brand, product, or the customer experience.  Perceptions are created, articulated, and reinforced so that purchase and buyer criteria is locked-in to bring favor to the company. This is a very traditional marketing tactic used in highly competitive, established markets where the new entrant has a clear advantage as the new kid in town and wants to put that advantage to the test.

Surprise them. 

In the online realm, many start-ups are using software (via Web services) to completely disrupt traditional industries and their old ways of doing business. The competitive strategy for this type of company is different, because it's baked in—it's inherent to the business model. The disruptive nature of the product or service is designed to be both different and better than the old way. The new way is usually cheaper (AirBnB), faster (TaskRabbit), more efficient (Uber) and ultimately a far more positive experience (Dropbox) for customers, providing the unique advantage of being highly discoverable and accessible through any device, any time.

As a result of these innate advantages, these companies don't need to invest in expensive traditional competitive campaigns to draw sharp contrasts to their differentiators. They can stay on the "sunny side of the street"—leveraging their business model and product/service uniqueness through the experience itself. Marketing tactics are important here, but are not aimed to bloody the nose of traditional competitors in their industries  (at least not in the beginning of the courtship). These markets are typically so large that there is little need to rattle the cage of the traditional guys too soon.  Surprise them by being in their blind spot and scoop up underserved market share.

Turn them into your mascot.

Not all competitors will be your rivals in the traditional sense. At Get Satisfaction, we have to compete not only with other vendors in the customer-engagement space, but also against an overall set of dog-eared antiquated business practices in the service and support sector. Get Satisfaction was founded to more challenge these dated practices than a particular vendor in the industry. Differentiating your product or company from another company or product is easy; but to compete on a philosophical level like this, first you have draw a clear definition (almost a parody) of the old competitive ways (as much as the products themselves).

When this affected Get Satisfaction, we got creative. Enter Jargon, the customer-service robot, the absolute antithesis of honest, open, authentic conversations between companies and customers. Jargon the robot gives us a chance to poke fun at the tired sterile ways customer service teams handle customer interactions. We look for opportunities in our marketing campaigns to showcase our epic battle with him—doing our part to do away with all the "corporate speak" from call center days to new more social online communications.

Jargon serves two equally important purposes: to draw a sharp contrast between the traditional customer service flaws for external audiences, as well as to rally our team internally by representing our shared mission. Jargon reminds us that there's a greater purpose we're serving—behind the physical software code that fuels our service.

With Jargon, we've identified our competition as the "jargon" that is perpetuated by service and support organizations whose only focus is on efficiency rather than connection and engagement. 

How you decide to engage with competitors can only be judged on a case-by-case basis, but what’s universal is the importance of taking the time to differentiate your company and product from everyone else’s. What are you doing to set yourself apart? What path are you taking to differentiate your brand from the competition?