You should zig when others zag, despite what ankle-biters claim

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Breaking ranks is frowned on in the military, but it should be a plus in the business world, where many leaders pride themselves on a "we zig when others zag" management philosophy.

There's evidence, though, that the safest route is to zig when everyone zigs, or risk a public slap-down. And that's too bad.

Twice this year, major marketers have taken stances on pressing industry issues that differ from those of their rivals. In each case, they were loudly criticized by competitors for grandstanding or calling attention to problems their sectors would rather leave unacknowledged. Those charges probably carry some truth. But it would be better to see those companies applauded for taking a stand on something, anything, rather than encouraged to remain in the comfortable confines of corporate babble.

When Kraft Foods in January pledged to stop advertising unhealthy foods to young children, we reported, "Rivals are grumbling that the move plays right into the hands of government regulators and consumer health advocates pushing to end the marketing and even the sale of unhealthy foods, especially to kids. They see Kraft's move as a tacit acknowledgement of guilt in fueling the country's obesity epidemic-and one that damns them by implication."

Johnson & Johnson CEO William Weldon's recent call for pharmaceutical companies to be more transparent in drug advertising met with a similar response from rivals. "Big Pharma execs charge that it's little more than a public relations ploy, and say they have no plans to unite behind his cause," we reported. Our story quoted a pharmaceutical marketing chief saying, "I don't think you'll find anybody who likes being called out."

Kraft and Johnson & Johnson were looking out for their own interests in taking the positions they did, and both no doubt sought positive publicity with consumers and to lessen the heat from lawmakers. So what? These are carefully crafted business decisions, but that's what companies pay their senior executives to come up with. Rivals may not join the cause, but their knee-jerk criticisms discourage any move away from the pack.

"It's a good business strategy to anticipate issues that are going to slow your growth," said Stanley Bing, the Fortune management columnist and author ("Sun Tzu was a Sissy").

"They don't make these business decisions in a vacuum, nor should they," he said. Being "open and above board and the appearance of caring about your customers and giving thoughtful consideration to strategic decisions are all good. If you're Kraft, why would you want to be called in front of Congress?"

Bing said it's flat-out "stupid" of companies to criticize competitors for taking a stand. "It's extremely lacking in class," he said. "To some extent these companies are jealous they didn't think of it first. And they're conditioned by the marketplace to be critical of anything their competitors do."

It's also odd that companies sophisticated enough to understand-and use-publicity as a marketing tool would blast a rival for doing the same. "Why shouldn't it be done for publicity if you're publicizing that you have some smart and ethical people in your senior management?" Bing asked. "You don't get good publicity if what you do is just grandstanding. The media and the public are pretty sophisticated. You don't win their trust just by waving a stick around. You have to earn it through something that has meaning."

That's the key. Even if Kraft and J&J have something to gain from their decisions, the moves have to positively impact their customers along with their bottom lines. Who cares if McDonald's drops super-sizing and adds apples to ward off critics? Customers still get healthier menu options.

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