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Faculty & Research


The Rivalry Reference Effect: Referencing Rival (vs. Non-Rival) Competitors in Public Brand Messages Increases Consumer Engagement

Journal Article
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 (Kilduff, Elfenbein and Staw 2010), the authors distinguish between brand rivalry, a special competitive relationship between brands based in 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 pre-registered experiments) provide evidence for the “rivalry reference effect”, across multiple brands and product categories. That is, referencing a rival (vs. a non-rival) 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.

Associate Professor of Marketing