Kesh King, the Ayurvedic hair oil brand from the Emami stable, recently put out a print advertisement saying it was “two times effective at half the price” of Indulekha, Hindustan Unilever’s (HUL) hairfall treatment oil. HUL responded in no time with front page print advertisements in leading national dailies for Indulekha, which entered the `2,000-crore club in 2019, just three years after being acquired. While the Indulekha advertisement refrained from naming its competition, it attempted to showcase its product superiority, claiming that “it grows new hair” which was “clinically proven”.
The gloves are clearly off between the two. An HUL spokesperson told FE it had secured an interim injunction restraining the advertisement from the Calcutta High Court. “The ad in question was disparaging Indulekha, HUL’s leading Ayurvedic hair health brand. The High Court’s ruling reaffirms the need to stay true to consumers by providing accurate information in advertising and, specifically, comparative advertising. It highlights companies’ and brands’ responsibility to provide accurate information to consumers, which in turn helps them make fully informed choices. Indulekha Bringha Oil is formulated using centuries-old pure Ayurveda techniques and processes. The oil is free from mineral oil, synthetic dyes and synthetic perfume and has been clinically proven to reduce hair fall and grow new hair in four months for men and women,” says a company spokesperson.
In response to queries from FE, an Emami spokesperson said the company will not comment on the case since it is sub judice.
The Kesh King advertisement is yet another example of an increasingly common strategy deployed by companies. Just last January, a Sebamed campaign took on HUL’s legacy soap brands Lux and Pears, comparing their pH level with that of detergent bar Rin. Back then, HUL had approached the Bombay High Court against Sebamed.
While brands have been using comparative advertising as a tactical marketing weapon for decades, analysts say they tend to bare fangs mostly when the stakes get higher. The fact is, at 85%, hair oil penetration in India is the highest globally and market share growth for one will come largely at the expense of another. The total market size is upwards of `8,000 crore.
In the case of Kesh King, domestic revenue growth rate has remained stagnant around 13% between FY19 and FY21, according to Statista Research.
Opinions differ on whether comparative advertising actually works. The tactic makes sense when a company is trying to convert customers largely from that one brand that it identifies as its closest competitor. “In the short run, comparative advertising appears to be a poor tactic to grab consumer eyeballs,” says Sonam Shah, founder and CEO of Treize Communications, a brand and communications consultancy. “It shows that the brand needs its competitor to reach its target audience.”
Adds Naresh Gupta, co-founder and chief strategy officer of Bang in the Middle, “When you’re competing in a specific segment, you don’t want to give an inch to the other brand. Many smaller brands are now flexing their muscle in the market, and taking on big FMCG giants. It is a good thing to see because it means these companies have the courage and conviction to declare themselves the better brand.” Gupta, however, sas brands should be careful not to demean their competition.
According to Chapter IV of the Advertising Standards Council of India’s (ASCI) Code for Self Regulation in Advertising, advertisements containing comparisons where a competitor is directly named are allowed in the interests of competition, provided the comparisons are factual, accurate and capable of substantiation.
Manisha Kapoor, secretary general & CEO, ASCI, says, “The code states that advertisements should not unfairly denigrate, attack or discredit other products, advertisers or advertisements directly or by implication. The rules of generally accepted competitive behaviour in business need to be followed by brands when it comes to comparative advertising. Ads must certainly refrain from discrediting other brands.”
So where does a brand draw the line? Sahil Vaidya, co-founder, The Minimalist, recommends that it is best for brands to keep communication light-hearted when taking on competition. “These can very easily snowball into a mudslinging match, which is counterproductive and must be avoided. If brands want to use this tactic, it is best to adopt a fun approach without ruffling any feathers or driving animosity,” he suggests.