Brand New Smackdown

Written by Alokananda Chakraborty | Updated: Jan 14 2009, 03:21am hrs
Its the Pepsi Challenge all over again. This time with deodorants and direct-to-home television and health drinks rather than between two near-indistinguishable colas.

Sample this. A scrawny guy in a swish bar. An axe in each hand, it looks as if he is waiting for his kill. As if by divine intervention, he spots two gorgeous women, and guess what, they start gliding their way towards him. Without wasting a minute, Scrawny Guy manoeuvres the two axes around his body much in the same way the loser-type boy in the ad for brand Axe splashes the deodorant all over himself just so he can spellbind women. Of course, the ladies approach him purposefully, only to walk past to a well-favoured gentleman standing right behind him. Ouch.

Yunhin haath maat ghumao, says the voiceover. The message: Get Set Wet Zatak. Get very, very sexy. Axe What in heavens name is that

One more example. Two middle-class-looking menthe ones you saw in the Bajaj XCD 125 motorcycle ad discussing the performance and prices of their respective machineson their rooftops inspecting their dish antennas with great relish. Thin Man is happy to note that Not-So-Thin has also taken a direct-to-home connection.

Thin Man: Kyon naya dish

Not-So-Thin: Haan

Thin Man: Mera bhi 65 channels.

Not-So-Thin: Are yeh to mera jyada hai: 130 channels.

Thin Man: Zee, Star Plus, Colors hain

Not-So-Thin: Isse bhi zyada NDTV Imagine, Sony aur Bindaas Bhi. Kitne mein liya

Thin Man: Sirf 2,490.

Not-So-Thin: Yeh tera jyada hai. 499 only.

Not-So-Thin is happy. Hes has got much more for much less! Reason:

He has Sun Direct DTH service and not, as youd have guessed by now, Tata Sky.

In other words, Ghar ghar main Sun. Tan, tana tan.

Looks like advertising is getting down and dirty in the trenches.

As clients tighten their purse stringsfaced as they are with an overall economic slowdownits a no holds barred battle for market share out there. Brands are baring their fangs more than ever before taking competition head on in their mass media communication. As categories mature, companies have become more fierce in protecting their turfs, says Samit Sinha, managing partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting. When the market is growing, there is always room for everyone to grow. But when growth plateaus, one tends to grow at the cost of another.

Of course, every brand has to identify its closest competitor. Usually, one from whom it is trying to win market share. Whenever there is a brand that is entrenched in the market or occupies dominant mindshare, the number two and number three figure that their shares will come at the expense of the number one, says a marketing executive with a DTH operator.

Taking market share from a bigger rival, by itself, may not be a good enough reason for comparative advertising. It has to be fact based, says Sanjay Nayak, president, McCann Erickson Worldgroup, the agency on the SUN Direct account. The main premise is that you have a certain superiorityit could be technology-based, or price-based or whatever. Only then does a side-by-side comparison make sense. Bottomline: You must have some news to deliver about how your product can change the life of the customer.

An advertising strategy driven out of a customer relevant opportunity backed with smart execution rarely backfires, says Sanjay Behl, group head, brand and marketing, Reliance Communications, which operates BIG TV DTH that made headlines last year with its launch ad showing a red sofa that looked suspiciously similar to the one in the teaser ads of Airtel DTH.

Such comparative advertising is common in the West, wherein brands actually name competition and take digs at each other. They are allowed by law to do so, points out Sinha. In India, while libel and slander cases are not so rampant, we really havent seen much of direct comparative advertising earlier, ads in which brands are actually naming the rival.

Admittedly, comparative advertising is not a new monkey. Indian advertisers have, in the past, used the technique to attract the fragmented attention of the consumers. It is also not difficult to remember the instances of brands taking potshots at a rival brands communication ideas, even when there was no proven superiority to talk about. Pepsi, Sprite and Thums Up have routinely made pointed references through their communication. The zara fresh socho campaign for breath freshener Cloretswhere Clorets takes a dig at Chlor-mints wisecracking duo some years ago, is among the more memorable examples. Again, when Bombay Dyeings premium shirt brand Vivaldi made jest of Peter England and Allen Solly, lampooning their alter ego and Friday Dressing concepts, there was no major surprise except for the fact that Bombay Dyeing is seen to be far too laid back to do something like that.

Its just that now comparative advertising is back with a vengeance. Post the Airtel-BIG TV DTH spat over the red sofa, there have been at least half a dozen brands that have locked horns with their chief rivals. When you have specific facts to back up your claim, whats the harm in telling the consumer all asks Sanjay Nayak of McCann Erickson Worldgroup.

So unlike in the past, when the brand that was attacked was projected subtlyit could have practically been any other rival brandthe references today are direct and, at times, pretty merciless. Yesterday, when that said Your Brand was superior to Brand X, packs of Brand X were deliberately pixelated and any mention of that name beeped out. Things like digitising and colour-coding the rival also helped minimise the chance of being hauled up by the industry apex body, The Advertising Standards Council of India. But, of course, nobody was nobodys fool. The consumer got the pointhopefully more often than notthe agency was happy, and the marketing manager said that was money well spent.

Cut to the present. Your Brand is actually naming Brand X in its communication and, if alls going well, it is also kicking and nudging the pack of Brand X out of the framethe

TV screen in this case. Remember Rin Matic, and how it dodged the Ariel- green pack Or the latest series of ads from arch rivals Horlicks and Complan where each has names the other. While the spat has gone all the way up to the courts of law, the fact is, in the run up to the court case, there was no masking of the attack, no censoring of audio-visual cues and mnemonics.

But is competitive advertising such a great idea Some would go so far as to say that such a technique may backfire since every mention of a competitors brand in an ad increases the probability that the consumer will think the ad is for that of the competitor.

Indeed, advertising research commonly finds that a large part of the audience tends to believe that it is the competitors product that is being advertised. Needless to say, this can be absolutely fatalin effect, an advertiser could potentially be spending his hard-earned buck to promote a competitors brand!

So why take the trouble Whats the pay-off and whats the best way to do a comparison There are no easy and right answers to this, but most advertisers agree that when there are no tangible benefits for the consumer, the competition benefits the most. Reliance Communications Sanjay Behl says, An overt comparative advertising must be done in a good taste without looking down on competitive offerings. A dash of humor goes a long way in making it effective.

Pranesh Misra, chairman and managing director, Brandscapes Worldwide Consultancy, explains the point with a very simple example: I was very interested in Sun Direct when I first saw the TV ad, which talked about the Rs 499 pricing. But when I saw the print ad, which also said I have to pay installation fee of Rs 1,000 in fine print, which is non-refundable, my reaction was, whats the real benefit to me The price works out to be the same as that of the rival. This is clever advertising but not based on facts. In short, thats not the way to do it.

But if done well, comparative ads pay well, points out Sanjay Behl of Reliance Communications. Reliance BIG TV has garnered 40%-plus share of the new subscribers every month, consistently since launch. This is despite addition of new competitors and enhanced competitive activity since the launch of BIG TV, he adds.

If you have a category where the competition is clearly defined in a strategic way, attack advertising is signal to the users of a competitive product, Misra of Brandscapes adds. When Pepsodent says that the leading toothpaste does not have ingredient X, its a way to shake up consumers loyal to Colgate. In most cases, a market leader will try and ignore any rival. So Coke will never make any reference to any drink, let alone Pepsi. The task is left to Thums Up, and at times Sprite, which seem to wait for Pepsi commercials so that they can spoof them. If Coke were to take potshots at Pepsi it would be acknowledging the competition and, in the process, become just another contender to the crown.

Experts also say attack advertising will work as long as the communication adheres to the cultural sensibilities of the specific country. Misra, who has done a lot of work for Unilever brands during his long stint at Lowe, recalls the many instances when consumer pretesting of ads has thrown up negative vibes for ads in which competition is denigrated, or they are vilified without reason. There were times when we were told dont chuck the competitors pack into the dustbin; you can push it to one corner of the table and put your brand at the centre.

Such feedback just goes to show how far advertisers can go and what is acceptable to consumers and what is not. That is also one reason why we havent seen blatant comparison in ads in India, as Sinha has pointed out. Its like dont do to rival brands what you wouldnt do to other human beings, Misra sums up.

Stay out of trouble

Before embarking on comparative advertising campaign, you should:

Get the facts about your competitors right. Your competitors know their products better than you do.

Compare like products apples to apples and oranges to well... oranges. Otherwise the advertisement will be deemed misleading.

Following from the earlier argument, be specific when using research to establish a comparison. That is, use similar age groups or specific product variants and disclose it upfront.

Be careful if you are in a category where technology changes faster than the speed of spam. What was fact when you conceived your campaign may not be so when it hits the air.

Put yourself in the consumers shoes. Will the consumer get the correct impression about the products being compared Remember, the consumer doesnt always single out the ad and read/watch it. More often than not, it just plays in the background.

Take a second opinion. Pre-testing is a good idea, but when you are stretched for time to conduct a lengthy feedback process, seek legal advice.

Adhere to local sensibilities. Dont do to rival brands what you wouldnt do to other human beings.