Confusion as a Defensive Strategy

19 Jul , 2019  

Sometimes the best way to protect your brand is to confuse people.

An Illinois Election

A recent election in Illinois provides a good example of the confusion strategy. In 2016, Michael Madigan, a powerful state politician, faced a primary challenge from Jason Gonzales in a district that is 73% Hispanic.

Madigan, concerned about the threat, arranged for two other people to run in the primary, Joe Barboza and Grasiela Rodriguez. The two candidates didn’t raise any money and didn’t campaign.

The strategy? Confusion. Someone planning to vote for the Hispanic candidate might hesitate, “Wait, am I voting for Gonzales or Rodriguez? Or maybe Barboza?” At the very least, the move fragmented some of the Hispanic vote.

Putting fake names on the ballot isn’t the most elegant strategy, but it works, and Madigan easily won the primary.

Gonzales is currently seeking damages in court, claiming Madigan violated his rights. He isn’t likely to win. As the Chicago Tribune’s Eric Zorn pointed out in his column today, “It was a shopworn political dirty trick, nothing personal.”

Defending Through Confusion

Companies frequently use the same strategy; it is a classic defensive move. An easy way to block a new competitor is to simply copy it, blunting the news and creating uncertainly.

When Kraft Foods tried to enter the meal-kit business with the launch of Oven Favorites, for example, General Mills, owner of the well-established Hamburger Helper brand, introduced Oven Classics. Both products came in a bright red box. When Zimmer launched a new artificial knee for women, Stryker responded by noting that its new artificial knee “was designed with women in mind.”

Defensive strategies like this are rough and one reason why the topic of defense doesn’t get a lot of attention. People love to talk about disruption and innovation and mindfulness, but smart, strategic defensive moves are sometimes more important.


You can learn more about defensive strategy in my book, Defending Your Brand: How Smart Companies Use Defensive Strategy to Respond to Competitive Attacks. Order a copy here.

The next Kellogg on Branding program is coming up September 22 to 27 and it should be a terrific week. You can sign up here.

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