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Research Insight | Referencing a Rival Brand Can Increase Consumer Engagement

Whether it’s T-Mobile slamming Verizon’s poor network coverage, Burger King making fun of clowns, or Pepsi provoking Coke on social media (“We don’t have Pepsi, Coke OK? #SixWordHorror”), brands often reference competitors in public messages. Yet not all competitors are equal. Some are bound by rivalry, a special competitive relationship based in a shared history. This research shows that rivalries have a special appeal to consumers because of their narrative, storylike quality.

Drawing from rivalry theory and the storytelling literature, the authors argue that rivalries feature two key elements of stories: identifiable characters (like Ronald McDonald) and a plot that is inherent to human life: repeated conflict and competition for supremacy.

In two archival Twitter studies and three experiments, the authors find consistent support for the “rivalry reference effect.” Referencing a rival rather than a normal, nonrival competitor can increase consumer engagement because consumers perceive the message as embedded in a larger narrative. The effect occurs for multiple brands across many different product categories, and holds for both loyal supporters of a brand as well as neutral consumers with just basic knowledge of a product category. This illustrates how widely the effects of a rivalry reference can be felt, as the group of neutral consumers is usually far bigger than a company’s loyal consumer base. Interestingly, the rivalry referencing effect is stronger for negative rather than positive messages.

This research shows how managers can use the rival to their advantage, leveraging their joint history to craft social media content that is engaging to both loyal and neutral consumers.

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What You Need to Know

  • Distinguish between rival and nonrival competitors, with rivals sharing a special competitive relationship based in a joint history, like Coke and Pepsi. 
  • Use your longtime rival to your advantage: By targeting rival rather than nonrival competitors in public communications, you can boost consumer engagement.  
  • Capitalize on the narrative appeal of rivalries, which are appealing to both loyal and neutral consumers.  


Brands often make references to competitors in their public communications. Yet not all competitors are equal—over time, certain pairs of brands may develop special rivalry relationships. This research examines whether these relationships can alter the effects of interbrand communications. Drawing on rivalry theory, the authors distinguish between brand rivalry, a special competitive relationship between brands based on a shared history, and competition, a situation where brands merely have currently opposing goals. A series of studies using complementary methods (two archival studies using large-scale Twitter data and three preregistered experiments) provide evidence for the “rivalry reference effect” across multiple brands and product categories. That is, referencing a rival (vs. a nonrival) competitor in a public brand message increases consumer engagement. The effect is mediated by increased story embeddedness, defined as the perception that the reference is embedded within an ongoing story. The authors also show positive downstream effects on purchase intentions and test two moderators: brand preference (loyal vs. neutral consumers) and message valence (negative vs. positive). This research highlights the potential appeal of brand rivalry to consumers, illustrating how and under what conditions brands can use their rivalries to their advantage.