Shimone cringed as she looked through the negative comments and snide remarks of Nike fans on Adidas's Facebook page: "Congrats on finally getting the running shoe we had two years ago!"

Ugh. Despite all the detailed planning of this latest campaign launch, she still felt anxious about and unprepared for the avalanche of social media trash talk that she found awaiting her on the brand's social media pages.

She was doing everything her job as social media manager required: managing the performance of the company-owned social media touchpoints, fostering engagement of Adidas fans, and developing relevant content that communicates Adidas's positioning and message.

Still, Shimone wondered whether she could or should do something about the rival Nike fans and their persistent and negative interaction on Adidas's social media pages. Did those comments hurt the Adidas brand?

She realized the industry needs new metrics to understand and manage that type of rival-brand attack.

Shimone is not alone in feeling that the tools she has do not help manage or measure some forms of contemporary online consumer behavior, such as rival fan engagement.

We see similar rival fan dynamics in polarized brand dyads across verticals, including in politics, sports apparel, consumer goods, events, universities, and entertainment products. For example, Coke fans post derogatory comments on Pepsi's fan page. Apple supporters post sarcastic comments on Samsung's Facebook page. Crest fans belittle the new brand extension of Colgate on Colgate's page. And Xbox and PlayStation fans endlessly duel to defend their brand choice.

Although there is growing concern about those interactions and their toxic impact on Internet culture, not much is known about their triggers and potential impact on brands' broader social media engagement.

Our paper, "Battle of the Brand Fans: Impact of Brand Attack and Brand Defense on Social Media," challenges the implicit assumption that negative comments and interactions of rival fans hurt the involved brands—at least on the social media channels on which those comments and interactions take place.

For all 10 brands we studied, we found that negative comments by rival-brand fans are met by strong counter-reactions from fans of the attacked brand. That reaction typically turns the overall sentiment positive and greatly increases the overall volume of comments—a key metric of online engagement.

In some cases, the brand fans even counter-attack and start bashing the rival brand on its own social media pages. Such fan and rival-brand fan behavior also acts as an important but missing link between marketing actions, such as new product introductions and advertising and social media performance.

How to Define Rival Fan Metrics

How do rival fans engage on social media? In our paper we identify behavior among rival fans that we've termed ADA: Attack, Defense, and Across.

  • Attack. This first step happens when fans insert negative remarks into the brand's ecosystem. For example, when Samsung fans post negative or sarcastic comments on Apple's fan page, they are attacking.
  • Defend. Fans of the attacked brand come to the rescue. They defend their brand by actively objecting to the negative remarks. You can see that in the rivalry that Coke and Pepsi fans resume on the Pepsi Facebook page right after the Pepsi halftime show at the Super Bowl:

    "Pepsi... watered down Coke! And Katy Perry? Yuck!? What's with the horrible halftime shows anymore? Need real musicians out there for a change!"

    "Was an awesome show Pepsi!! Put Coke to shame! Their commercial even sucked. WELL DONE! CONGRATS!!!
  • Across. The across step happens when fans are mobilized and post across brand pages.

Our study has two important findings illuminating the processes of rival fan engagement:

  1. ADA is dynamically driven by brand-related events, such as new product interactions, advertising campaigns, and brand crises.
  2. ADA affects the social media engagement of the brands involved and amplifies and prolongs the impact of brand-related events.

Although ADA posts are small in volume, making up only 1-6% of total posts, they act as a buffer, softening the impact of negative comments. ADA can change the valence of social media engagement and also increase the volume of comments. Brands are not always destined to the adverse effects of negative comments, especially in the case of brand-related events.

Allowing negative comments does not hurt the brands involved; rather, it increases the buzz. Those synergistic effects might come at the expense of other categories (with less exciting polarized rivalry) or from third brands (that do not see such strong rival fan passion and are seen as less relevant by potential customers).

On the flip side, avoiding ADA or failure to engage in rivalry may open the door for third brands to break into the top. For instance, rather passive Adidas appeared to have ceded its Nike-challenger status to aggressive newcomer Under Armour, which takes Nike head-on. ADA also becomes an important dynamic in winner-takes-all types of decisions, such as in politics.

Brand Rivalry as a Marketing Strategy

Investing in brand rivalries and rallying one's own troops by planned provocation might even be a marketing tool worth a thought, as some brands have been able to take advantage of those dynamics.

Burger King, along with its advertising agency David Miami, costumed a restaurant in New York last year as a spooky McDonalds branch:

Even though McDonalds fans tried to counter-attack the initial ad with comments, such as, "I'll calm down when all kneel before the god Ronald McDonald and pray for a nourishing rain of Big Macs and fries," and "Had McD's for lunch. Mmmmm, so much better than Booger King," Burger King fans soon counter-attacked with hundreds of comments, such as, "Famous fries ???? When I got my fries some were bitten and they were soggy," "Burger King is better than McDonald's anyways," and "Burger King is real meat and grilled Delicious!!!!!" The Burger King praise soon overshadowed the posts of the McDonald fans.

The recent Nike Kaepernick campaign once more revealed that these rivalry dynamics are persistent in the category. With the Kaepernick campaign, Nike got almost all the attention in the athletic apparel category after the campaign's launch, thus crowding out competitors. But, the reactions to the campaign—positive or negative—have also introduced a flood of tweets, Facebook comments, and shares about Adidas and reactions of Adidas fans.

Competition is not a zero-sum game on social media. In marketing, competition focuses on the prosperity of one brand at the expense of the rival brands. But the mobility and connectedness of consumers on social media have made brand ecosystems connected and interdependent. The social media performance of one brand is also impacted by that of its rival.

Going forward, brand and social media managers—especially in these polarizing industries—need to adopt more coordinated and collaborative content and competitive strategies to unlock the synergistic power of rivalries.

In other words, it's time to make some frenemies.

More Resources on Brand Rivalry and Social Media

Coke vs. Pepsi; iPhone vs. Android: How Rival Brands Fare on Social

How Effective Is Your Brand on Social Media? Here's How You Can Measure That.

How to Triumph Over Trolls and Misinformation: Janice Person of Monsanto on Marketing Smarts [Podcast]

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image of Behice Ece Ilhan

Dr. Behice Ece Ilhan is an adjunct professor at Kellstadt Business School at DePaul University, teaching MBA-level brand management, marketing strategy, and consumer behavior classes. She is also the founder of Dygetic, a strategic brand storytelling and cultural brand strategy consultancy.

LinkedIn: Dr. Behice Ece Ilhan

image of Raoul Kübler

Dr. Raoul V. Kübler is junior professor of marketing at the University of Münster, in Germany. His research focuses on user-generated content, social media, digital marketing, marketing ROI, and Big Data in general.

LinkedIn: Raoul Kübler

image of Koen Pauwels

Dr. Koen Pauwels is distinguished professor of marketing at Northeastern University, in Boston. He is the author of Modeling Markets and Advanced Methods for Modeling Markets for researchers, and It's Not the Size of the Data—It's How You Use It for managers.

LinkedIn: Prof. dr. Koen Pauwels

Twitter: @romimarketer