Jan 8, 2009

Mktg - Who is better ?

Ramanujam Sridhar

Comparisons are odious, but that’s not preventing brands from going all out and claiming their rival’s inferiority..

Comparisons are as old as the hills. Men tend to compare wives (though one suspects discreetly). Wives tend to compare their husbands’ salaries (one suspects directly). Parents tend to compare grades of their children (one is certain unfairly). Children tend to compare pocket money (one is sure bitterly) and cricket writers tend to compare cricketers and teams irrationally. The advertising industry in India, though it has used men, women and children in its ads, has been, till recently, fairly reluctant to compare its clients’ brands with the competition. This was in startling contrast to what was happening at Madison Avenue where Pepsi continued to take potshots at Coke with impunity summer after summer.

Apple, despite being much smaller than IBM, was taking big blue by the horns. Its ad, “Welcome IBM” that was released when IBM entered the PC business, showed that it had the gumption to take on the giant. In defence of Indian advertising it must be mentioned that till very recently it suffered from the restriction that Indian brands could not name their competition or say they were better. However, this did not prevent brands such as Pepsi, whose famous “nothing official about it” campaign in 1996 had Coke blushing despite winning the sponsorship deal for the prestigious cricket world cup that was being held in the sub-continent, courtesy Pepsi’s ads featuring cricketers like Courtney Walsh, Dominic Cork and the charismatic umpire Dickey Bird which made consumers smile even as Coke was sweating. But suddenly Indian advertising has become a lot more hard-hitting and is not averse to making comparisons, even if they are a bit unfair or think twice about saying that they are better than the competition.

Hamara Bajaj aur tumhara 100cc

One of the most visible campaigns that I have seen in recent times features the Bajaj XCD 125. It features two young men, one smug and portly and the other lean and cheeky. I suspect that these commercials have made these models quite famous. Crucial to their success, in my view, is that they do not have the classic good looks that one normally associates with models and advertising. Let me try and recount the commercials that I remember quite well.

The one I first saw featured these two young men at a traffic signal comparing notes and bikes. The thin one asks the portly one if he has bought a new bike. One has bought a 100cc bike which costs more and gives less mileage than a 125 cc bike to the obvious delight of the Bajaj owner. He exhibits the typical insensitive glee that youngsters exhibit when they do one better than their peers. The fun does not stop in the commercials that follow. The next one features these two gentlemen again having a conversation, albeit unwillingly. When the portly man sees his tormentor again he says, “I know what you are going to say. You are going to say that your bike is 125cc; it gives more mileage and costs less. His tormentor, the Good Samaritan that he usually is, says “No, I just wanted to tell you that your zip is open”. But the fun doesn’t end with that. Our portly model goes with his wife to buy a durable.

The salesman at the outlet has an intrigued expression on his face when he sees our famous model. “I know you … I have seen you somewhere,” he says, while our model has a confused look on his face, which turns to anger when the salesman recognises him as the one who has bought the more expensive motorcycle. “So what do you want,” he asks expansively, “a TV?” to which our beleaguered and harassed model says with a touch of anger, “No, fridge!”

Riding on someone else’s bike

These commercials work because they are simple. They have a quiet sense of humour which younger people who are the target audience for motorbikes can relate to. It also appeals to not-so-young people like me to whom riding a bike is a distant, if not fond, memory. But it looks like the ads have caught the fancy of other advertisers and agencies as well. Because Sun DTH, which was doing pointless, song-and-dance commercials thus far suddenly cashed in on the popularity of this genre of advertising and the histrionic ability of the models that we spoke about so glowingly earlier. It features the same two celebrated models comparing notes and prices as they seem to love doing. Only the roles are different this time around.

Our portly model is the fortunate one this time around. He has a Sun DTH which has many more channels, is better on every count and costs a fraction of the competing brand.

Boy, is our man thrilled! For once he has the last laugh, our man who has been laughed at for so long in his career on the small screen. It is a bold commercial, tongue-in-cheek and yet delivers the price and feature advantage message forcefully. Interestingly, it uses two celebrity models whose roles are reversed. Is it a risky strategy to use two models who are so well associated with another brand? I am not sure and honestly I do not care, for as a consumer, I enjoyed watching this commercial too.

My child is growing taller than yours

I grew up in Madras in the Sixties and quibblers please note that that was how the city used to be called those days. Of course, the name might change even if the weather can’t. And at that time I sincerely felt that life was one big Horlicks bottle! I was given Horlicks after I brushed my teeth, was given Horlicks when we visited anyone and had to drink Horlicks when I was sick. “Drink Horlicks, it’s good for you!” I would be told in case I had the temerity to say no. Horlicks was part of my life if not in my blood stream.

This, of course, was before the days of Complan “the complete planned food that has 23 vital ingredients” (see, I remember the advertising).

Then Horlicks tried to come out with flavours and made its advertising younger, smarter and edgier. Complan continued with its strategy of targeting mothers and obviously all mothers wanted their children to grow taller. Horlicks, just a little like Boost, started to target children. Malted beverages are an interesting category and while children are the users it is the mothers who bring the bottle or the container inside the kitchen.

And then the trouble begins

As the markets got larger and kids got smarter (if not taller) the competition got murkier. Complan had a doctor comparing how their brand was better than “Brand H”. Horlicks went to court and the ad had to be pulled off. This, of course, was 2004. But now the brands have become bolder. The new commercials that have recently come on air have mothers discussing the prices of their beverages, the heights of their children and the material used. Complan says Horlicks uses inferior ingredients while Horlicks says Complan is much more expensive. Then Heinz waved a study report to demonstrate that children grow twice as fast as children drinking Horlicks. The courts were roped in and the judge restored sanity to all the hostility by saying that “in this world of advertisement one is bound to say that one is better than the other … If such ads are taken seriously, then as per claims made by these companies, children consuming these products should be growing taller and taller.”

The times we live in

Yes, we live in troubled times. Advertising agencies must seize advantages when they exist or create them should the opportunity present itself. Comparative advertising is here to stay. Should you use it?

Yes, if you have a demonstrable advantage. Yes, if your target audience can understand and appreciate your differences. But just remember that every action of yours could have a competitive reaction that is stronger and backed with more media weights.

After all the ads that Avis came out with saying that it was No.2, Hertz hit back strongly saying, “For years, Avis has been telling you that Hertz is No.1. Now we’re going to tell you why.”

Don’t get carried away by the excitement of comparison, lest you get carried away by the competition.

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)