Mocking competition in advertising: when effective?

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Competitive advertising is an age-old tactic by brand owners. The intent is to create preference for one’s own brand by showing competition in poor light. In this ‘type of advertising, comparative advertising (where there is a feature-to-feature comparison) and negative advertising (focusing on what’s bad about the competition rather than what’s good in one’s own brand, usually seen in political advertising) are variants in execution. In a way, all competitive advertising is ‘negative’ (as it disses competition) but if the execution is subtle, humorous and even self-deprecating, it doesn’t appear so ‘negative.

Here are a couple of examples:

When Penn tennis balls wanted to dramatise how they are better than ‘competition’:

Tata Salt wanted to compare how they are better than generic table salt (even if you don’t follow Hindi you will get the drift – no pun intended):

Mentioning competition in advertising has happened in the following contexts:

When a brand with its own positive equity and ‘fan following’ takes on a big brand in the domain.

Samsung vs iPhone

The attempt was to convey that Samsung phones were better than what was considered to be the benchmark or gold standard in the industry – the iPhone. The execution painted iPhone users as dimwits who got poor value out of their brand choice and Samsung users as the smarter lot. It worked because there is a sizeable market for ‘Apple hate’ and this group thrives on seeing the Apple fail or at least shown in poor light. It reconfirms their own belief that Apple products are over-priced and poor value. Other beliefs like ‘Apple is just good at copying but makes a song & dance about its products’ come into play.

The outcome of the exercise is that it elevated Samsung as the only worthy competitor (among a sea of Android phones) to iPhone. With ‘iPhone 8’ likely to be announced later this month, the comparisons are already about the already released Samsung 8 but not with any of the other Android phones. However, in my view the Samsung effort to constantly take a dig at iPhone (a strategy not in practice anymore) only worked to make its own brand owners feel happy about their choice and did not really succeed in creating dissonance among iPhone owners.

Mac vs PC

The Get a Mac campaign, which began in 2006, had over 60 spots, with each focusing on one feature of Mac which was ‘superior’ to the PC. The core strategy was right it because it focused on several common frustrations faced by the Windows PV user (remember this was during Windows Vista) – threat of virus, bloatware and so on. The execution was great.

Writing about it in 2008, I said:

Why does it work?

1. Everyone loves a comparison: from movies to sporting events everything in life is compared. It provides a reference point.

2. The execution is entertaining: the humour between the two characters is like watching a comedy show. As the Effie Awards press release said: ‘humor, class, and honesty without falling into the trap of overtly negative competitive advertising’.

3. It gets the competition’s goat: it hurts the competition and evokes intense reaction from supporters of the PC. ‘You think you are great? You are not important to me’ kind of reaction is an acknowledgement that this works.

The campaign won the Grand Effie for Advertising Effectiveness in 2007.

BMW vs Audi

In 2006, BMW released an ad in South Africa saying:

Congratulations to Audi for winning the South African Car of the Year 2006. From the winner of the World Car of the year 2006.

Audi responded with:

Congratulations to BMW for winning World Car of the year 2006. From the Winner of the Six Consecutive Le Mans Races 2000-2006.

Other brands joined the fray too with Bentley having the last word. Jaguar took a dig at competition too in these set of ads.

When a strong brand reacts to a strong new entrant in the category. The reaction could be to a threat, real or imaginary

The Hindu vs Times of India

In 2011, Times of India attempted to re-position the market leader in Chennai, The Hindu as boring – ‘sleep-inducing journalism’. In 2012, The Hindu reacted with the ‘Stay ahead of the times’ campaign which was seen as a roaring success. I think the response from The Hindu worked because TOI is strongly linked with ‘Page 3’ news, sensationalism and even sleaze. So their original attempt at re-positioning The Hindu as staid & boring backfired.

Mahindra SUV vs Jeep Compass

Recently, Mahindra XUV500 released an ad to announce the various rally wins of the vehicle. It was clear that the headline, without naming any competing brand, made a sly reference to the upcoming Jeep Compass. In my such a reaction towards an as-yet unknown competitor was unnecessary. It sends out a subliminal signal that the lead brand has panicked.

When a relatively small brand or new entrant attempts to elevate itself in imagery by comparing itself to a market leader:

Micromax and iPhone

A few years ago, during the launch of iPhone 4S in India, Micromax attempted to position itself as a smarter alternative to the expensive iPhone. Naturally, hardly anyone would take such a comparison seriously.

Of course, there are other well-known examples of effective competitive advertising (Rin vs Ariel and Pantene vs Dove, for example). Overall, I think the parameters for success indicate:

– a certain level of credibility, equity in the brand which is taking on competition
– less mean-spirited more light hearted in tone of voice
– humourous put-downs
– feature to feature comparison with facts, proof

Your thoughts on comparative advertising? Which campaigns were effective for you? Do comment in.

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