Another round of comparative ads is on, this time between media giants. Does this oft deployed tactic actually work in favour of brands?

Another classic, no holds barred battle is brewing in the advertising space, where hitting ‘below the belt’ becomes a question of tactical, rather than ethical relevance. The battle is being fought for supremacy over the Chennai market, and the opponents are India’s leading newspaper brands – The Hindu and the Times of India. In an attempt to garner attention and awareness for its 4-year old Chennai edition, Times of India delivered the initial blow. Going by the Times of India’s advertisement in question, the people of Chennai are subscribing to a newspaper that is so dull and boring that it makes you go to sleep, as depicted by the sleeping man amidst the slow moving police drill or atop the political cavalcade. The attack, it seems, hit The Hindu where it hurt, and the latter responded in kind. Its campaign, which runs across print and television mediums, attempts to highlight the lack of awareness of its rival newspaper’s readers by showing various clips where the rival newspaper’s readers are asked quite simple general knowledge questions – none evidently is able to answer. Though the ad does not openly point out the giant, the silent mouthing by the featured individuals of their choice of newspaper makes the elephant in the room quite visible.

The country has been witness to numerous comparative ads over time, and undoubtedly, these ads are often fun to watch for viewers. But does directly targeting competition help you or leave you ill disposed?

In December 2006, the New Yorker quoted a 40 year study that documented that 66% of companies which placed more emphasis on defeating competition and getting market share than primarily on increasing profits, went out of business. A much cited analysis (on data spanning 45 years) by Dr. J. Scott Armstrong (Wharton) and Dr. Fred Collopy (Case Western) concluded that “firms should focus on profits, and not competition.” Even the classic Blue Ocean strategy authors Drs. C. Kim and R. Mauborgne of INSEAD repeat the rhetorical, yet powerful statements: “Stop benchmarking the competition”; “Turn your attention away from competitors”.

But what about our Indian markets then? P. S. Mann, Creative Director, RKS BBDO, feels targeting your competitor doesn’t work. According to him, consumers are more intelligent than they are perceived to be and therefore they do not base their buying decisions based on what they see in advertisements. He believes that even if the competing brand gets a negative image, the publicity won is enormous. Mohit Ganju, CMO, IndusInd bank, feels that comparative ads do not benefit anyone since they leave the customer confused, and while these ads create a lot of buzz, the noise surrounding them stops customers from taking a final decision.
When talking of comparative ads, the cola brands cannot escape mention. Pepsi and Coca-Cola are up there among the leading brands that made this concept popular in the Indian advertising world. Thums Up vs. Pepsi (Akshay Kumar’s car accident ad and the followup spoofs, 2008) and Sprite vs. Mountain Dew (The Do jhaadhi ke peeche spoof of Sprite, 2007) are popular in marketing folklore. So intense has been their battle that it even reached judiciary, when Pepsi took Coca Cola to court over their spoof where cricketers portrayed in a Pepsi ad were called monkeys (‘Don’t be a bandar, drink the thunder’ went the punchline). One problem with comparative ads is that they prove to be a whirlpool-like trap; where once a brand starts to fight, it has to deliver blow after blow when the opponent responds, or else accept defeat. Therefore they often turn out to be highly expensive ventures and should be undertaken by brands with fairly deep pockets. Moreover, some battles are inconsequential, whereas others have winners and losers. The Candico Mint-O campaign that positioned itself as ‘All mint, No hole’ to counter Polo’s ‘Mint with the hole’ campaign, was a brilliant concept. But the company could not sustain the brand for long and Mint-O finally was sold off to ITC.

A case in point when it comes to such campaigns going overboard is the billboard war between Audi and BMW, which began with Audi displaying its vehicle with a confronting statement saying, “Your Move, BMW”. It was followed by BMW putting up a billboard next to Audi’s saying, “Checkmate” with its car below it. Audi, not accepting defeat, replied by putting yet another billboard next to the two previous ones, with the statement - “Your pawn is no match for our king”. Below it was the photograph of its concept car. Heights were reached when BMW, not finding any more billboards to buy, brought in its inflated air balloon to place above the existing billboards, with the statement, “Game over”, above the picture of it’s F1 sports car. That marked the end of this battle, but the war wages on to this date.

This may be short if one goes by the standards of some other landmark campaigns. One of the longest running series has been the Mac vs. PC ads, where Apple continuously and openly derided Microsoft’s successive operating systems and the brand Microsoft was represented by a guy who looked like a far bulkier looking version of Bill Gates. While Microsoft kept responding to the campaign with ads of its own, Apple ran 66 ads between 2006 and 2010, and a general consensus is that Apple gained much more in comparison.

Something similar seems to be taking place in the current battle, with TOI coming out with a new advertisement, in response to (The) Hindu’s campaign that says, “Congratulating the competition for finally waking up to the Times of India”. Clearly, the brand recall is up for both brands in the fray – this very article being evidence enough of that. Yet, should not these giants give at least a considerate ear to international research that forecasts negative returns for companies focused on anti-competitive marketing? Well, before you say yes, the fact also is that Indian markets are quite unique and need not behave critically like their Western counterparts. The Indian consumer purchases products based on quite uniquely different parameters and that may well work for such anti-competition marketing campaigns. We’ll keep watching, and reporting (and by the way, did you hear about how our chief competitor A_ Age goofed up on its statistics big time?).

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Source : IIPM Editorial, 2012

An Initiative of IIPMMalay Chaudhuri and Arindam chaudhuri (Renowned Management Guru and Economist).

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