If you were looking for the best tactic to hit your competitors in a short time, look no further, the answer is in... Comparative Advertising!
William Bernbach, the greatest guru of advertising, once said, “You can say the right thing about a product and nobody will listen. But you’ve get to say it in such a way that people will feel it in their gut; because if they don’t feel that, nothing will happen.” The battle for market share is really tough, with so many competitors in every product category. The most significant way to win, is to make your mark quickly and indelibly. And the fastest way to ensuring the viewer’s attention towards your product is through the mother of all big fights, namely, comparative advertising. It’s one of the most potent arrows in the strategy quiver of advertising. Hence, only the bravest should use it. And generally, only the bravest do!
Comparative advertising has been lauded for being the most aggressive and factual of all advertising strategies. If handled intelligently, it always works. Comparative ads cannot be denied of their charm. It’s high-decibel marketing, which attracts viewers and advertisers alike. It gets you hooked as you wait expectantly for the competitor’s next move. But the critical aspect you need to master even before entering this war zone is speed. You need to think and act at lightening speed to win this game of one-upmanship. Competitive reactions to comparative ads are the fastest, and most debilitating. Ergo, if your response is not fast enough – and factually superior – you might just have signed your last pay cheque. Consequently, your strategy has to be flawless, for any weakness can prove hugely beneficial for your competitors, who would be anyway braying blood because of your initial brazen attack. Clearly, ‘comparative’ could easily end up being more than what you asked for!
Many ostensibly classic comparative ads fell flat when the advertisers realised that not only was the competing brand getting more publicity, but also was in reality better. That’s the killing part of the story. Firstly, when you compare your product with the competitor’s, both get a share of the limelight – the other brand gets a free piggy-ride on your back. But secondly, and most importantly, your arguments have to be strong for the spotlight to remain on you. If you are not 100% sure of your product, it’s strongly advisable not to go for comparative advertising.
Some classic examples have benchmarked the history of comparative advertising. And leading the fight club is the protagonist of this story, Pepsodent, which, in its advertisements, claimed, “New Pepsodent is 102% better than the leading toothpaste.” The ad showed two boys being asked the name of the toothpaste brand that they used. One happily exclaims Pepsodent, while the other’s disgruntled response, though muted, clearly points cynically towards Colgate (especially as a background jingle similar to the one in Colgate’s ads is used quite appropriately). Incidentally, at that time, Colgate toothpaste ruled the market with a massive 59% market share. Expectedly, Colgate took HLL (which owns Pepsodent) to court, and HLL had to withdraw its ads.
On the personal care front, HLL stirred another hornet’s nest when it came out with an advertisement that read, “The Truth, Not Just Promises.” The ad went on to explain how ‘Fair & Lovely’ was much more effective than ‘No Marks’. Ozone Ayurvedics, the owners of ‘No Marks’, did not take this lightly. They felt this was wrong & unethical. They got their facts in order, and claimed in return that No Marks had the highest content level of active ingredients – about 59.5% of their product’s total composition, compared to 0.66% in Fair & Lovely. With these and many more such shocking statistics, No Marks sure had a point to prove. HLL is surely getting cold feet on seeing a much stronger competitor; and if it continues like this, the faith of consumers might slowly get eroded.
Similarly, the Kiwi Liquid Wax Polish ad showed a squeamy and clearly unlikable liquid (polish) dripping from a bottle marked X, while no such liquid dripped from the Kiwi bottle (what else!). The shape of the bottle X left no doubt that it was Cherry Blossom. Amusingly, even the government body MRTP agreed so – and the ad was ruled a case of disparagement. Subsequently, Kiwi was asked to discontinue the same.
But poor Colgate, its cup full of woes continued from another front. When Vicco tooth powder (remember the inimitable Vajradanti!), in its ads showed an allegedly useless – and obviously unattractive – oval shaped tin of a competitor, though without any label, everyone could still identify the “useless tin” as a Colgate tooth powder can. Once again, MRTP noted that the advertisement created an impression in the viewers’ minds that the can was of Colgate, and they would be inclined to believe that the product was absolutely useless, which was not right.
As must be clear by now, though effective, comparative advertising should be used with extreme caution. Comparative advertising is most effective when it’s factual, and there are significant & meaningful points of differences that are highlighted.
A term made famous by the duo of Al Ries and Jack Trout, guerilla warfare signifies a tactic that can be quite beneficially used in advertisements by new players entering the market. Under this, if you really are offering a better deal, it’s best to attack the leader headlong. And the louder you are, the better!
When Whisper entered the market, it took its competitor Carefree (J&J) headlong in true guerilla style by vociferously showing how it was qualitatively superior to the market leader – and all this without once naming the product. “Expensive BAS***DS!” was the advertisement that the budget airline Ryanair came out with, indicating in not so subtle a way how BA – that is, British Airways – was more expensive than Ryanair. British Airways did try to take them to court, but the judge concluded that the average consumer would not see the price comparison as misleading, and in substance the advertisement was true! So not only did Ryanair win the case, they won a lot of customers too.
When Captain Cook first launched its salt in India, it made an extremely loud reference to Tata Salt by showing a package that looked exactly like the Tata product. The ad showed how Captain Cook was better than the competitor’s salt because it was the only “free flowing salt.” This was an attribute that Tata Salt lacked, and Captain Cook made its mark in the marketplace by highlighting this aspect.
At the guerilla extreme, Duracell showed two Bunnies racing in its commercial, where the bunny powered by Duracell battery won the race hands down, while the other bunny with a black battery lost the race. The voice-over at the end of the commercial dramatically stated, “While Duracell Alkaline keeps on running, Eveready Super Heavy Duty can’t keep up... With up to three times more power, Duracell always beats Eveready Super Heavy Duty.” How much further overt could one get? This Eveready damning ad ran on Australian TV; and even though Eveready sued Duracell, it was of no use since the court concluded that the ad was not showing anything that was untruthful.
The joke’s on you!
Humour cuts ice like nothing else can, and especially so in comparative advertising. When Coke was selected as the official drink for the cricket World Cup series, Pepsi came out with a campaign, which went like, “Nothing Official About It!” And it was perceived as really cool. The campaign was probably one of the most memorable ones on Indian turfs. Similarly, in America, when Michael Jackson (Pepsi’s endorser) fainted during one of his stage shows, Coke came up with an ad that said, “Dehydrated? Try Coke!” People smiled, and both Coke – and even Pepsi lovers – enjoyed the ads.
A word of caution though. Comparative advertising is not mudslinging. Tongue-in-cheek humour is acceptable, and in fact appreciable. However, when you poke fun at someone, it can well hold you in bad light, if the ad is distasteful. When Pepsi came out with an ad that was a spoof on Hrithik Roshan, it was not appreciated by many. There were so many Pepsi drinkers who were Hrithik Roshan fans, and it hurt them to see Pepsi poke fun at their heartthrob. To top it all, Pepsi was not only sued by Coke, but as well as by Hrithik Roshan. In much similar fashion, Hyundai had, in many of its previous ads, made it almost a strategy to hit its competitors below the belt. Against Ford Ikon, it came out with acceptable ads that went, “Santro ends Ikon’s Josh.” But when Hyundai saw the Matiz car brand in trouble during the time when rumours were adrift that Daewoo (the parent company) was in the process of closing down, the northern dealers of Hyundai came out with ads, which screamed quite distastefully and unpleasantly in Hindi, “Car ghar par, company sadak par!” (Car’s at your home, company’s on the road). Though Daewoo did sue Hyundai, the bigger loss Hyundai suffered was because of subsequent consumer response.
The Last Word
Comparative advertising is actually a service to the customers. If it’s truthful and not unpleasantly disparaging, it can actually help customers make more informed choices. As David Ogilvy said a long time back, “The customer isn’t a moron; she’s your wife!” So if your product is superior, don’t hesitate to compare it with the leader and surge ahead. Truly, only the strong & confident can indulge in & win the big fight.