Business, Politics and Mudslinging at the Top

Last year Quartz published an article comparing Bing’s direct jab at Google (the ‘Scroogle’ campaign1) to tactics commonly used in political campaigns2.

There’s an old saw about the difference between elections and sales: Businessmen have it easier than politicians, since 49% of the market makes a firm well-off but a politician facing the same result is a failure. The relative ruthlessness of each sector, it goes, is reflected in politics’ all-or-nothing mudslinging versus the more genteel world of corporate marketing. The tech industry might be shaking up this conventional wisdom thanks to its firms’ all-or-nothing strategies; in this new world, 15% of the market isn’t enough for some players anymore.

Quartz, along with several politicians they interviewed, thinks this for of direct attack is here to stay:

But this is far from the last time we’ll see the tech companies adopt the language of electioneering. “Whether it’s opposition research, messaging or coalition-building, political campaigns have road-tested this stuff,” the Republican strategist says. “You see it all the time—you see those Samsung commercials, which are clearly aimed at the iPhone,” the Democratic consultant says. “It’s always entertaining watching the big guys go at it.”

I think the point about ‘all-or-nothing’ strategies becoming more common is a good one, confirmed by Peter Thiel’s new book, Zero to One3:

…for Thiel, the only way a startup can be sustainably successful is if it totally owns a category, like Google did with search (and continues to do so, with a full 67% of the global search market).4.

What’s interesting about mudslinging, though, is that I see it mostly among the top players in markets that are highly commoditized (like online search) or high-growth markets, where competition is ruthless. Uber and Lyft’s recent tangle5 is another good example of head-to-head combat between industry heavyweights.

I wonder if this type of mudslinging is inevitable—even if you don’t instigate it your company will likely experience it if conditions are ripe for attack.

My company, The Iron Yard, recently became the largest code school in the country (USA). We’re not a smear-campaign type company, but thinking about increased exposure has certainly made the leadership team wary of the fact that negativity is coming our way in some shape or form eventually. Better to think about that now, though, than be forced to after the fact.

1. You can see Bing’s Scroogle material on Scroogled.com2. You can read the full article about Bing, Google and politics on Quartz’s website.3. You can read more about Zero to One on zerotoonebook.com4. You can read more about Thiel and the book in this Business Insider article.5. You can read more about the rivalry between Uber and Lyft on the WSJ Digits blog.

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Practicing the art of bringing guns to a knife fight.

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