When comparative advertising works

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‘Is comparative advertising dead?’ asked an article recently. The thrust of the argument was that:

– product differentiation is dead and hence comparative advertising is dead
– comparative advertising is driven by pompous marketer’s ego
– its impact on the consumer was minimal

The article cites examples from the FMCG world and the recent spat between Airtel & Jio in India. In my view, a poorly thought through and executed comparative ad campaign (in this case, Airtel) should not be the reason to summarily dismiss the format as a marketing tool.

Herewith some unsolicited views on the subject:

Comparative advertising is an attractive format for a late entrant in a category or a small player eyeing to take on a dominant brand. Both are done with an eye to force a comparison. The end result sought is to come across as a ‘better value’ or ‘superior choice’ between the two brands – to cause dissonance among the users of the dominant brand. The thinking is that any small shift in loyalty from the dominant brand will be welcome development. At the very least, such campaigns aim to move the competing brand’s user to be a fence sitter and open to place the new brand in the consideration set. Also the dominant brand need not be a market share leader but can be a mind-share leader. Samsung successfully pegged itself as an ‘iPhone rival‘ on the back of comparison driven by effective use of advertising, PR and social media. While there are literally thousands of Android based handset brands, Samsung managed to differentiate itself from that pack and be seen as the only worthy competitor to the iPhone. However, in my view the Samsung effort ended up pleading those in the Android ecosystem rather than convincing iOS users to switch. 

Globally, comparative ads have been around for decades. There’s this classic ad for Penn Tennis Balls from Fallon McElligot which was endearing simply because the comparison was tongue in cheek. And then of course, the ‘Get a Mac’ ads for Apple which take a dig at some of PC’s features and also highlight the positives of Mac OS X.

Over the years, many of the effective campaigns using this format have had a feature-for-feature comparison, based on facts (of course, presented in a manner that suits the challenger brand). Many years ago, HCL photocopiers in India created an ad campaign showing the then dominant photocopier brand, Modi Xerox in a poor light on a feature comparison. The famous ‘Mac vs PC’ campaign created by Apple also featured (no pun intended) ads which showed how better a Mac is when compared to the PC on a specific parameter.

However, it is very important that the challenger brand have some strength of its own, in terms of equity especially for those audience it aims to attract. If the challenger brand is considered not to be in the same league as the brand being compared to, it stands the risk of being laughed at or not being taken seriously. A few years ago, Micromax a relatively new brand created a market based on its ultra cheap handsets. It also created advertising making fun of the iPhone. I am sure such advertising would have been laughed at as neither of the audience (the potential iPhone buyer or the Micromax buyer) would have found it credible. It is an example of a poorly thought through strategy and execution making the challenger brand appear like a desperate wannabe. In the early 90s, the agency I worked for created a single print ad for a plastic water tank brand (I forget the name now). The dominant player in the market then was Sintex. The print ad had a headline ‘Bad news for Sintex’ and went on to dramatise why it is ‘bad news’ for that brand. The ad created a lot of controversy as it named a competitor brand. Moreover, it didn’t deliver for the advertised brand as it was seen as a ‘Johnny come-lately’. In 2010, Rin a brand of detergent from Unilever ran a TV commercial claiming to be better than Tide. It not only named the competitor but showed the product as well. In 2012, for the launch of its Chennai edition, the Times of India took on the market leader, The Hindu. The latter paid back in the same coin with a hard-hitting campaign of its own. The Advertising Standards Council of India, in its Code of Self Regulation has this to say in the context of comparative advertising:

Advertisements containing comparisons with other manufacturers or suppliers or with other products including those where a competitor is named, are permissible in the interests of vigorous competition and public enlightenment, provided:

(a) It is clear what aspects of the advertiser’s product are being compared with what aspects of the competitor’s product.
b) The subject matter of comparison is not chosen in such a way as to confer an artificial advantage upon the advertiser or so as to suggest that a better bargain is offered than is truly the case.

The comparisons are factual, accurate and capable of substantiation.

The advertisement does not unfairly denigrate, attack or discredit other products, advertisers or advertisements directly or by implication.

Does comparative advertising work only for product brands? Not necessarily. A comparison can be engineered between service offerings too. The most famous in this category is the Avis vs Hertz campaign of the 60s. Each of those ads highlighted the little things implemented by Avis which made renting a car a better experience and furthering the ‘we try harder’ platform.

Unfortunately comparisons as seen in FMCG advertising, as ‘tests’ between two brands or limited to a product window are the least effective. They are used as an after thought, over used and usually based on indiscernible or minor differences. The entire format has become a blind spot with each product window (including the screen split into half with hair oil A and hair oil B) looking and feeling the same. Also when it is limited to ambiguous, vague statements like ‘Brand A leaves less germs on the floor compared to Brand B’ including the visual element of more black dots on the right side of the screen compared to the left, the viewer stops paying attention. In fact, comparative advertising need not be dull or boring. The ‘Mac vs PC’ ads were fun, engaging.

I think comparison advertising can be an effective tactical move. If thought through and executed well, it can benefit the challenger brand giving it a fillip – to place it in the same league as the dominant brand. However, we need to bear in mind that there is an element of negativity in this format. Comparative advertising is discouraged by some as it is felt that speaking about one’s own positives is better than dissing the competition. In my view, it can work as a tactical measure as long as the comparison is based on facts and is in good taste. It may not work as a permanent product position for a brand as with this format, fatigue can easily set in.

All said and done, there are examples of comparison advertising produce business results. The Mac vs PC campaign which ran for many years, won the the Grand Effie in 2007 as it was said to be instrumental in achieving a 42% growth in market share.

Would love to hear your views. Comment in.

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