By Samit Sinha
Comparative advertising probably goes back at least a hundred years. Each country has its own norms and regulations outlining what is permissible and what is not. It is the most prevalent in the US, where not only is making direct comparisons between brands allowed, but is indeed encouraged. The assumption being that it makes advertising more transparent, which in turn helps consumers be better informed to make wiser choices.
While this practice was prohibited in many developed countries till about two or three decades ago, most now allow it in varying degrees. In India, however, it has been a relatively less common phenomenon, perhaps due to the equivocal guidelines and the fear of legal reprisals. Which is why the Dabur-Marico advertising spat stands out as somewhat unusual.
War of words
Dabur recently made a direct comparison between Parachute’s Jasmine Hair Oil and its own Anmol Jasmine Hair Oil. Dabur had also earlier released advertisements that featured a price comparison between Parachute’s coconut oil and its own Anmol coconut oil. In another instance, Dabur had compared its Amla Oil to Marico’s Nihar Shanti Amla Oil, and yet another time with an unreferenced sasta brand.
Last year, Dabur and Marico had locked horns in a different category — honey — when Marico had claimed its product to be 100% pure honey in a thinly veiled attack on other brands, particularly Dabur, which had failed the German NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy) test. Dabur retaliated by accusing Marico of making misleading claims and also attempting to confuse consumers by imitating its packaging. I doubt if consumers really care or bother to referee this game of one-upmanship. At best, this particular type of comparative advertising can provide a temporary tactical advantage, but makes no sense whatsoever as a strategy for building a brand.
Moreover, a comparison on price only goes to devalue the brand that claims to be cheaper, even in product categories and consumer segments where price is the most important consideration for purchase and adoption. Ultimately, it is an emotional connection that truly helps bond a consumer with a brand, not splitting hairs on features, functional benefits or price.
The wider perspective
One should view comparative advertising in a broader sense, which is not only about directly referencing competitive brands, like the Dabur versus Marico case, but referring to them without actually showing or naming them; instead using terms like “other” brands, “ordinary” brands and so on. For the longest time, much of television advertising for household products, especially detergents, did exactly that. These hackneyed commercials would typically feature housewives speaking to the camera, extolling the virtues of the advertised brand over competition, which I have to say, made for the most boring form of advertising imaginable. Happily, we don’t see much of those anymore.
Significantly, if one looks at comparative advertising even more broadly, one could include advertising approaches that poke fun at competition using sarcasm or stinging wit. The Mac versus PC campaign run by Apple comes to mind. Sometimes, even self-deprecation against the market leader works, as immortalised by Avis versus Hertz. Pepsi has been taking digs at Coca-Cola with irreverent humour for decades, which is quite far removed from a solemn comparison of features, attributes, functional performance or price. And when done entertainingly, or in a clever tongue-in-cheek fashion, it can certainly help a brand get real traction amongst consumers. In fact, the Pepsi brand has almost singularly been built as an antithesis to Coke, beginning with the famous Pepsi challenge in 1975, and thereafter always being at its rival’s throat with sharp, albeit light-hearted, attacks. A couple of great examples of such humour are the Porsche and Burger King print advertisements. They are old, but hold up for their outstanding creativity even today.
However, while this kind of comparative advertising can prove to be an effective brand building tool, it is a strategy best used by challenger brands, as conventional wisdom dictates that it does not behove a market leader to take potshots at competition. That is why, despite a great deal of relentless provocation, Coca-Cola has never directly attacked Pepsi in its advertising; usually leaving the job to Sprite internationally, and occasionally to Thums Up in India.
The author is managing partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting. Views expressed are personal.