Original tank image credit: Ryoma Onita
Barry W. Enderwick
Jun 25 · 4 min read

In case you’ve missed it, a war is being waged by two snack bar brands since March. Unfortunately, neither one of them is coming out looking good. Before I get to why that is, let’s set some context.

How it Began

In March of this year, Clif Bar took out a full-page ad in The New York Times “inviting” KIND to go organic. To be clear, it wasn’t an actual invitation but a back-handed way of marketing Clif Bar by calling out the fact that they use organic ingredients and KIND doesn’t. They also tweeted at KIND:

Needless to say, KIND wasn’t having it:

The Escalation

Then, about a month later, KIND petitioned the FDA to come down on companies that use vague terminology to market snacks they consider to be unhealthy, as healthy. It’s an admirable goal. After all, who wouldn’t appreciate more transparency when it comes to their food labels?

But then in an oddly aggressive move, KIND went on the offensive. In what they have called “not a response” they launched a website calling out Clif Bar, among others, for their high sugar content.

They have also launched TV commercials that specifically call out Clif Bars:

Why this is Problematic for Both Brands

Both Clif and KIND have made moves that are usually associated with a challenger brand. In other words, a company that for whatever reason is not capable of being in first place in their particular space, railing against the competition to gain attention and maybe market share. A classic example of this kind of positioning is T-Mobile.

Except, if we look at the messaging on their websites and as well as their advertising, neither of them are actually challenger brands. And when brands that are not challenger brands act like ones that are, it causes cognitive dissonance for consumers. Not to mention that there are other reasons why doing this is not a great idea. Let’s look at why for each brand.

Clif Bar

Let’s start off with Clif Bar, a privately held company that seems to have rooted their brand for living life outdoors and in doing right by the world. In addition to the bars, they have a sustainable winery and a family foundation that supports environmental causes.

So, given all of that, why did they feel compelled to take out a full-page ad in The New York Times passive-aggressively attacking KIND? From a brand perspective, it makes zero sense. Nothing about what they’ve done aligns with any other part of their brand.

Plus, in name-checking KIND, they invited scrutiny on themselves and comparison by consumers who might have otherwise never have given it a second thought. On top of it all, they spent their own marketing dollars to do it!

KIND

On the other side of this fight, we find KIND. The entire KIND brand is rooted in, well, being kind. They hit on that with every ad they’ve ever done.

That is, until now. Their move to get the FDA to re-approach label would still align with the KIND brand as it would benefit (i.e. be “kind” to) consumers.

But the response to the original tweet and subsequent campaign name-checking Clif Bar and others is decidedly aggressive, not kind.

Why is this problematic? When a company goes 180 degrees against its brand position, it can have devastating results (see also Netflix and Qwikster). While this may not rise to the level of Qwikster, it causes the consumer to re-think what the brand means to them

Not to mention that they too are spending their marketing dollars essentially advertising the Clif Bar brand. Even if they do so in a negative way, it is still free advertising for Clif Bar. Consumers have a high evaporation rate when it comes to details. In all likelihood, they may remember that KIND said something negative about Clif Bar but they will remember seeing the Clif Bar brand.

It’s Lose-Lose

It might be tempting to point out that not only are people still talking about it but other people like me are still writing about it so it must’ve worked! And hey, it’s great that these brands are taking a stand.

Except that isn’t really true. The talk about this isn’t about how great KIND or Clif Bar is, it’s about the battle itself. And the stand they are taking has nothing to do with elevating their own brand and everything to do with trying to tear down each other’s brands.

Which means that while they are distracted with this nonsense, another brand could come in, act like a first place brand, and own them both (metaphorically).

What is even more amazing is that if you look at who Clif Bar targets, active outdoor types who are looking for energy-dense snacks, and who KIND targets, everyday snackers, this tit-for-tat makes even less sense.

Bottom line, if your brand is a challenger brand then own it. But crossing over into challenger brand status when you aren’t a challenger brand by picking a fight you can’t win is ill-advised and a waste of time, money, and energy.

Barry W. Enderwick

Written by

Brand/marketing executive, former Netflix, MZ. I write on startups, strategy, business, culture & design. Also on Instagram @craftbarry @inthechipswithbarry

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