title-bar

The gate crashers: Ambush marketing gets new spin as social media rises

By: |
New Delhi | Updated: November 4, 2014 4:41:02 PM

Brands are taking to the digital platform to create a buzz with customers joining in.

When Apple launched its iPhone 6 models and there were reports of its phones getting bent in back pockets, rivals were quick to cash in on a snowballing situation.When Apple launched its iPhone 6 models and there were reports of its phones getting bent in back pockets, rivals were quick to cash in on a snowballing situation.

Year 2014 could well be labeled as the year of the gatecrashers. In March this year, PepsiCo trumped arch rival Coca-Cola as the soft drink sponsor on the marquee star studded television property, the Oscars. But the Coca-Cola logo was still seen on three pizza boxes delivered to A-listers who were a part of the awards ceremony. It all began when talk show hostess Ellen DeGeneres joked about the growing hunger of attendees during the awards and ultimately brought out three pizzas from Los-Angeles based pizzeria Big Mama\’s & Papa\’s. To cut a long story short, the pizzeria happened to be a long standing customer of Coca-Cola. The same night, DeGeneres tweeted from her Apple iPhone, even while Samsung was the official sponsor. The Korean handset maker had reportedly paid television network ABC $18 million for five minutes of prime time ads, plus product placement during broadcast.

The word “ambush” means an attack. Most often, it comes from a concealed position and via a cloak and dagger strategy. While earlier ambush marketing was mostly associated with cola companies, bike and soap manufacturers, this year has seen some major duels between the e-commerce giants. Some brick-and-mortar retailers have also had to get into the ring, propelled by the aggressiveness of the e-commerce brands. When India\’s e-commerce posterboy Flipkart came out with the ambitious “Big Billion Day”on October 6 promising customers never-before deals, discounts and surprise gifts across more than 70 categories of products, its full page ads said, “Today, don’t look anywhere else. India’s greatest sale ever is here.” To which, rival Snapdeal was quick to respond, “For others, it’s a big day. For us, it is no different.” E-commerce giant Amazon adopted a smart marketing technique where, when users typed www.bigbillionday.com, they landed on the Amazon home page instead of Flipkart. Amit Agarwal, country head and vice president at Amazon India however said that they did not buy the referenced address.

In addition, Amazon.in hijacked Flipkart’s sales blitz for ‘Big Billion Day’ by launching ‘Mission to Mars’ shopping weekend during October 4-6. It also celebrated the Diwali Dhamaka Week during October 10-16  and Dhanteras Dhamaka during 21 October which again gave great offers and deals. “The response from customers on the first day of the Diwali Dhamaka Week went beyond our wildest expectations. Traffic on that day was 200% more than that on our previous biggest day, which was October 6,” said Agarwal.

Responding to Flipkart’s Big Billion Day, Future Group, which owns the Big Bazaar retail chain, ran a full-page ad which read, “No deal can win the trust of a billion people. You have to earn it.” The ad further said, “You can’t take a nation for granted even for one day. Since 15 years, we have always offered honest promotions and discounts. We stock enough to let everyone benefit it, only to give you the most genuine offers and sales.”

Kalyan Krishnamurthy, senior vice president—retail, Flipkart said, “The objective behind the Big Billion Day was to have an online sale that India has never seen before. With regard to the promotion around this campaign, we used a blend of traditional and modern mediums. Out of home and digital mediums were specifically targeted towards the metro cities and television and print used extensively to reach the greater masses across the country.”

Ad film maker Prahlad Kakar from Genesis Films says what is frightening about this e-duel is the kind of deep pockets that they have. “They operate on huge volumes and no brick-and-mortar retailer can hope to compete adequately. Here the ambush is really about offering the cheapest deal to consumers. And consumers get free home-delivery and can return products if they do not meet quality standards. As a business, it is far more ruthless than the business of soaps or colas. And there is no brand loyalty at this stage. The consumer will bite the bait as long as it’s a good deal,” he says. Kakar says that eventually the e-commerce market will have to polarize into brand loyalists. “Which is why, this pull and push on advertising does make sense. Whoever offers the best deals on a consistent basis will win long term.”

Social media has made this sort of warfare a lot more common. When Apple launched its iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus models, there were reports of its phones getting bent in back pockets. Rivals were quick to cash in on a snowballing situation. Samsung Mobile said, “Curved. Not Bent.” LG said, “Our phone doesn’t bend. It flexes on purpose.” Even a chocolate brand such as Kit-Kat said, “We don’t bend. We break.”

Piyush Pandey, executive chairman and creative director for Ogilvy & Mather, India and South Asia, says that a lot of the so-called ambush campaigns miss the mark completely. An instance of a successful ambush campaign was one that involved the late singer Michael Jackson, he recalls. Jackson had a multi-million dollar contract with Pepsi and was supposed to perform at a concert in Thailand, but postponed the concerts pleading illness and dehydration from the heat. Rival Coca-Cola almost instantly took a shot at Jackson by running a print ad in Bangkok which said, “Dehydrated? There’s always Coke.” “That kind of a campaign stays in memory,” says Pandey, “Others fade in, fade out.”

Kiran Khalap, co-founder, Chlorophyll, a brand consultancy, says that ambush cannot be a long-term strategy for any brand’s marketing. “What it can do is give a quick boost in a crowded and heavily advertised environment and so you see more of it around big televised sports events such as the Olympics or the World Cup football or cricket. Needless to add, the device needs to be both accurate and timely; otherwise the allusion to the brand you are stealing from will be lost. Finally, this strategy suits challenger brands more than the leader brands,” he says. Even though Coke is number three in India, because it’s a global leader it may not be able to don the challenger’s role in India and use this technique always, he points out. On the other hand, Pepsi has been the consummate practitioner of this technique since 1985, even when Coke misfired with New Coke. “On social media, the war has carried on between the two cola majors and shows no signs of abating,” says Khalap.

Pepsi’s ambush campaign against pet rival Coca-Cola in the 1996 Cricket World Cup remains one of the most memorable campaigns for India. The official sponsorship was bagged by Coca-Cola by paying R40 crore as sponsorship fees. Pepsi waltzed right in with a creative approach to take on the official sponsor of the event with its witty tagline “Nothing official about it”. More recently, the two rivals locked horns at the Indian Premier League (IPL) 2014 season as well. As the beverage sponsor of the event, PepsiCo held the rights to serve drinks in all the stadiums. But Coca-Cola was seen selling its drinks outside stadiums. What’s more, it also installed low-cost mobile vending machines to serve cheaper priced drinks outside some of the stadiums.

According to Khalap, one of the best examples in ambush marketing still remains the Go Air -Kingfisher-Jet Airways example. Jet Airways put out an outdoor hoarding saying, “We’ve changed.” Kingfisher was quick to respond with, “We made them change.” Go Air said, “We’ve not changed. We are still the smartest way to fly.”

It’s been an open war between the two major publishing houses in India—Bennett Coleman & Co Ltd (BCCL) which publishes The Times of India and The Economic Times and HT Media which publishes the Hindustan Times and Hindustan among others. The Times of India has recently gone on to release a video called “The TOI challenge” trashing rival Hindustan Times’s reach in Delhi. To which,  Hindustan Times has responded with an animated video if its own called “The curious case of the eternal crybaby”. The bone of contention is the readership figures released by a revamped Indian Readership Survey (IRS) which shows falling share for most publications. Hindustan Times however has shown increased readership as per the survey. The two have engaged in verbal duels at various points.

For instance, an ad onSeptember 13 in The Times of India said, “The truth shall prevail. Especially at 6 am”. The ad further read, “You may have read some claims and counter claims about readership and circulation of English dailies in Delhi and NCR. But the truth simply is: for the ‘regular’ copies of the TOI and HT (i.e., fully loaded copies that carry supplements and are listed in ABC as single or combo) TOI is 38% ahead of HT.” The ad further invited readers to get a firsthand experience of the newspaper’s leadership by taking up The Times of India challenge, by contacting TOI and visiting a newspaper depot. The Economic Times also took on HT numbers with a headline which read, “All Down & Out, HT Up and About, Media industry foxed.” Similarly, HT published an editorial piece in the main edition saying “TOI cannot digest readers’ message, shoots messenger”.

Rahul Kansal, executive president at BCCL, said, “Well, Hindustan Times’s figures do raise eyebrows. How can one publication have higher readers per copy than its competitor in market after market? After we presented an audio visual to advertisers and media planners in Delhi and Mumbai, pointing out these difficult-to-believe figures, not one person took us on, or disagreed.”

The Hindu decided to put its own spin on the entire matter. Its campaign showcased caricatures of HT and TOI and the communication each used to attack the other with a message from The Hindu saying, “Don’t be confused. Keep Calm and read The Hindu.” The message was followed by the publication’s claim of being Delhi’s and India’s most sensible newspaper and the undisputed number one in southern India. Suresh Srinivasan, senior vice president at The Hindu said that the whole affair began with HT Media running ads to legitimise the readership figures of the new IRS. “Naturally, the Times Group had to respond to that,” he says. “Our campaign was brought in, so that readers retain their clarity of thinking. We told our readers not to get embroiled in this numbers war by the two publishing houses.”

Aneil Deepak, executive director, DDBGroup and head of Ideas, DDB MudraMax, says that ambush marketing comes into play when brands know that they have been out-scaled. “When you don’t have the money to outspend competition, but you have the brains to out-think them, call in the guerillas.” But ambush marketing, he says, is a tough game. “The player who draws first blood always wins. Because whoever follows has to ditch its own (marketing) plans and spend monies reacting to a provocation. And no ambush marketing campaigns can be planned without strong legal counsel. The biggest risk is not being able to run the campaign, after huge production costs, if the said party is legally caught.”

Deepak says that one well-thought-out ambush campaign is the Steinlager “We believe” campaign. “Heineken was the official sponsor of the Rugby World Cup and Steinlager were sponsoring the All Blacks. Heineken was closely monitoring the situation knowing fully well that Steinlager would ambush. But, what Steinlager did was pure gold. They reintroduced their white can and positioned it as a lucky charm. The last time the All Blacks won the RWC, the can was white. So the spectators sneaked in the white can as their lucky charm. Steinlager won big in sales, awards and the All Blacks won the World Cup,” he says.

KV Sridhar, chief creative officer at SapientNitro, says that these days, ambush campaigns needn’t even be generated by brands. Brand loyalists (consumers) take it upon themselves to generate damaging videos against competing brands. The case of legal wrangles doesn’t arise because a lot of content is generated surreptitiously and goes “viral” on social media. “When Flipkart faced technical glitches on Big Billion Day, there were some interesting Twitter trends. A video titled ‘Flopkart’ appeared and went viral. It appears to have been user generated content,” he said. Sridhar, however, concedes that brands can also launch smear campaigns on social media surreptitiously. “They may have their social media armies putting such content out. And no one may ever stake claim.” Sridhar adds that a lot of real estate companies are known to engage in ambush warfare.

Pandey from Ogilvy notes that a lot of ambush campaigns are about marketers indulging themselves. “I haven’t heard of too many ambush campaigns seriously dislodging a competitor or even generating the desired buzz. Most ambush campaigns are created by marketers, for the marketers. For agencies, ambush marketing means that you need to be more agile. We are working in a competitive scenario and pressures have increased. That said, you can’t play reverse swing all the time and expect to make more than hundred runs on the cricket field. Your brand strategy has to be more than just the pot shots. The brand ideology and persona must be consistent.”

Get live Stock Prices from BSE and NSE and latest NAV, portfolio of Mutual Funds, calculate your tax by Income Tax Calculator, know market’s Top Gainers, Top Losers & Best Equity Funds. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Switch to Hindi Edition