This game ain’t for the weak hearted!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Comparative advertising has irresistible appeal for marketers, especially when it is backed by a genuinely better product. But there are definite risks as well, so this strategic tool has to be used very carefully

“Don’t Dew it” is the aggressive advertising campaign that Coca-Cola is running in US these days. What Coca-Cola is doing is completely unthinkable and probably something no one has ever done before. Anyone who buys PepsiCo’s Mountain Dew would get a free sample of Coca-Cola, “Vault”. How many times has this happened to you, when you have purchased a product and got its competitor’s brand for free? Probably never. But Coca-Cola thinks it’s hit the right spot. According to it, once consumers get to taste “Vault”, they will convert, for they would like it more than Mountain Dew. Considering that Mountain Dew holds 80% of the market share for citrus drinks while Vault holds just 4%, not many have actually tasted Vault! With the slowdown taking its toll, marketers are being driven to extremes. Coca-Cola feels this is its golden chance. It’s hit on Pepsi’s hottest property. In the past, the only carbonated drink that’s managed to do well and even increase its market share by 0.2% has been Mountain Dew. But then Pepsi is unfazed. It’s not surprised by such moves. It was in the 1970’s that it invented the “Blind Taste Test”. Consumers were given two glasses of drinks – one with Pepsi & the other with Coke. They were asked to taste both and then select which one they preferred. A lot of people chose the glass which had Pepsi. The outcome of the Pepsi Challenge was that Americans preferred Pepsi. So Pepsi would probably soon come out with a better trick and outdo Coke. After all, it’s not new to this “Attack” game!

Rise of comparative advts .
The markets have slowed down. Getting to the consumer has got even more difficult. A number of marketers the world over are openly declaring war. Love it or hate it, but the fact is comparative advertising does grab eyeballs. Dunkin’ Donuts has been using this strategy time and again against its rival Starbucks. Like Pepsi, it too did a taste test and concluded that “hard working” people prefer Dunkin’ Donuts coffee while the “elitist” preferred Starbucks. In fact, in 2005, Dunkin’ gave away $100 to dozens of its faithful consumers in Chicago to go and buy Starbucks and discovered that a loyal Dunkin’ Donuts customer couldn’t understand why anyone would pay as much as $4 for a cup of coffee. Moreover, they felt that drinking coffee at Starbucks was like celebrating Christmas with strangers. Talking of “taste-tests”, Burger King took the challenge to a different level - literally. Its tests did not involve shopping malls or department stores; rather they involved 13 planes, two dog sleds and one helicopter. The fast food chain sought out farmers in far flung places like rural Romania, Thai villagers and even people of Greenland. They did this for they wanted the results to be totally unbiased. As one of their advert claims, “What happens if you take Transylvanian farmers who’ve never eaten a burger and ask them to compare Whopper versus Big Mac in the world’s purest taste test?” As expected, each of them preferred Whopper to McDonald’s Big Mac. Today, advertisers are going to any length to convince consumers that they’re the best.

Masked-no more
Recently, Horlicks took Heinz India’s health drink Complan head on. Its advertisement categorically claimed that Horlicks had better nutritional content and was cheaper than Complan. So while Complan just made you taller, Horlicks made you taller, stronger and sharper. Of course, comparative advertising is not new to India, but it used to be much more subtle. Earlier, the advertisements relied on tricky lines and ambiguity. Remember Surf and Tide, showing orange and blue-green-yellow packs of detergents in their respective ads as comparisons? Amul’s Mithai Mate commercial showed a housewife using a hammer and various other tools to open a can of condensed milk. Even though the shot was digitized, you knew it was Nestle’s Milkmaid. This was Mithai Mate’s way of showcasing its easy-open can. Britannia saw its “Good Day” turning not-so good when Unibic India launched its “Great Day” biscuits with a tag line, “Why have a good day, when you can have a great day.” Whether it was inspired by Jim Collins best selling novel “Good to Great” we don’t know, but it sure had Britannia clamouring hastily to the courts. When Subhiksha was on an aggressive expansion spree, its print ad campaign compared its own prices with that of competitors, showing how Subhiksha was much cheaper than others. The ad also saw Food Bazaar, owned by Future Group, taking Subhiksha to court on grounds of inconsistent comparisons. While Future Group took Subhiksha to court, its Big Bazaar launched aggressive campaigns against its competitors Shopper’s Stop, Lifestyle & Westside. What’s it with this advertising strategy? For one, they’re no more as subtle as they used to be - at least in India. It’s hard times and companies are making sure their advertisements are working harder for them. This year could see a rise in comparative advertising with advertisers getting more aggressive in their quest for the consumer’s moolah.

Not everybody’s cup of tea
As aggressive comparative advertising will increase, so will complaints and lawsuits. This game is not for everybody. You need to be absolutely sure of your product offering to be able to compare it with the competitor’s brand. Apple was absolutely sure of its product and used a comparative advertising strategy against Microsoft to bring out the difference in the “image” of the two brands. It worked, for it changed the viewers’ perception totally. Its commercials have shown the Mac Guy vs PC Guy. The commercial starts with the Mac guy introducing himself “Hello, I’m a MAC…”. He is young, casually dressed and smart. The other guy in formals is slightly older and boring. He introduces himself as “I’m a PC”. He comes across as too formal, stuffy and frustrated with the MAC guy’s abilities. It was a battle of cool kid vs nerd. And Apple proved its point – as was visible in the increase in MAC sales. Apple was aware of the problems of Microsoft’s Vista and brought it out through its “Mac Guy vs PC Guy” ads. For two years, Microsoft didn’t do much. Then, in August last year, it finally retaliated with its “I’m a PC” ad, thinking this would reverse the fall of image and brand value that’s been eroding fast. The strategy boomeranged, as for a layman, the line “I’m a PC” sounded familiar, but he was left wondering “where’s the Mac Guy”. The ads were so similar to Apple that Microsoft didn’t realize it had unwittingly poured all its money into promoting Apple’s computers instead of its own software. For people thought “Ok, this isn’t an Apple commercial, but it’s about the PC that is competing with Apple.” In times like these where every penny counts, this was a blunder for Microsoft; while it worked superbly for Apple, for now the young, trendy, smart and intelligent image of the brand was firmly entrenched in the minds of all who saw its ads.

Comparative advertising can be criticized, can be scrutinized, can be called “in bad taste” (remember the controversy that Burger King created when it took its “burger-taste-test” to far flung places of the world where the poor people didn’t even know what a burger is) – it can be called whatever, but it can never ever be called boring. It’s a potent weapon that needs to be used wisely. It’s like a brave warrior challenging his opponent to fight a duel. If done carefully, it can be a valuable tool in providing information, and helping consumers compare various product offerings in the market. If your product is better and your advertisements convincing, the consumer might reach out for your product and not the competitor’s.

Look how IFB Bosch showed that its washing machines used only four and a half buckets of water as compared to others who used nine buckets. This claim worked very well especially in the metros. So, if your product is indeed better than the others, then now is the time to use this potent tool. However, a word of caution - this game ain’t for the weak hearted!