Mumbai: It started with the notorious cola and detergent wars, and then led to corporate biggies in the consumer product space washing their dirty linen in public
Comparative advertising is not a new phenomenon in corporate India; it has ruffled many a feather in the past. Though there is no compelling evidence in support of the proposition that such advertising—where one brand makes random attacks or disparaging comments about its rivals—helps brands in any way, leading companies continue to indulge in such tactics.
In the past two weeks, there have been three instances of leading brands taking to authorities in retaliation against what they thought was “offensive” advertising on the part of their rivals.
Leading textiles firm Raymond Ltd, for instance, found footwear retailer Metro Shoes Ltd’s new commercial in bad taste. The commercial showed a man wearing a suit with no shoes on, followed with a tag line that said: “The Incomplete Man”. This got Raymond upset because it was in direct conflict with its decade-old slogan—“The Complete Man”. Raymond, in an official communication to Metro Shoes, alleged that “the advertisement is a clear evidence of mal-intent and deliberate denigration of the Raymond brand ,with the ad being poorly executed”. It asked Metro Shoes to either withdraw the advertisement or face legal action.
In retaliation, Metro Shoes went to the Advertising Standard Council of India (ASCI), a self regulatory body of the advertising industry, asking it to settle the controversy. “The idea was to convey that a person without shoes is incomplete. There is no mal-intent behind the ad because Raymond’s product line is completely different from ours,” said Sohel Kamdar, vice-president, Metro Shoes. ASCI is looking into the matter.
In a similar episode two weeks ago, Wipro Consumer Care and Lighting and Godrej Consumer Products Ltd, both leading consumer products companies, filed suits against each other in the courts alleging wrongful advertising on each other’s part. First, Wipro Ltd got an injunction from a Hyderabad court on an ad by Godrej, which claimed its soap brand Godrej No. 1’s leadership over rivals such as Santoor soap, a Wipro brand. Wipro cried foul citing the ad to be “unfair, unethical, incorrect and misleading”. A week later, Godrej challenged Wipro for advertising its liquid detergent brand Wipro SafeWash, which claimed supremacy over Godrej’s own brand Ezee. The Punjab court, where the company filed the case, passed an interim injunction restraining Wipro from continuing the controversial ad.
On the face of it, such aggressive tactics may seem damaging for brands, specially the aggressors, but some marketing experts say it actually helps them get immediate consumer attention. Beverages giants Coca-Cola India Inc. and PepsiCo Holdings Pvt. Ltd successfully cashed in on this phenomenon in the 1990s. “When Coca-Cola became the official cold drink of the 1996 cricket World Cup, Pepsi came out with the campaign ‘Nothing official about it’ and it immediately hit a chord with consumers because of its cheekiness,” recalls Rohit Ohri, managing partner, JWT India Ltd, PepsiCo’s advertising agency. Later, Coke came out with another campaign: “Eat Cricket! Sleep Cricket! Drink only Coca-Cola!”.
The two companies have, in fact, fought several such brand wars in the past, but their brand custodians feel it didn’t hurt them in any way. “Since soft drinks is more of an impulse purchase, it worked fantastically for Pepsi. These ads were basically to enhance the virtue of colas, which is fun,” says Ohri. “The benefits of comparative advertising for the category were great and since soft drinks are all about fun, it worked well for both Coke and Pepsi,” recalls Vikas Gupta, a former marketing head for Coca-Cola.
Yet, there are experts who say that such impudence or aggression may not always yield desired results. Their argument: If a brand is in the public eye, it better be for a good reason. “In the US, these things are common. There, companies would name the rival brand, too, in their communication. But, in a country like India, such advertisements face the risk of inviting consumers’ ire because average Indians abide by the ‘live and let live’ credo,” says Pranesh Mishra, president and chief operating officer, Lowe India, a leading advertising agency. “In fact, research shows that consumers don’t necessarily like comparative ads where a brand directly attacks its rivals,” he adds.
While there are examples of ad wars helping brands draw instant consumer attention, there are also cases where such misdemeanor has led to legal tangles, resulting in wastage of money, resources and bad publicity. In 2003, for instance, Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL), the largest fast moving consumer goods company in India, came up with an ad for its Ayush soap brand that showed another soap, identifiable with Dettol, a leading antiseptic soap brand from rival Reckitt Benckiser Group Plc.’s stable, followed by a tag—“You do not need just an antiseptic. You need a protector.” The ad had Reckitt Benckiser up in arms and the matter ended up in courts. Similarly, Marico Ltd and HUL got involved in a similar tangle and the matter reached the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission.
It goes without saying that all these incidents got widely covered by the media, and experts feel that not all publicity is good for brands. “When such a matter comes into public domain, it dilutes the status of the aggressor,” says Lowe’s Mishra. Adds Ohri: “If a company is not truthful in making claims, then there could be some impact on the brand.”
Experts say comparative advertising at times hurts the entire product segment. “In the cola ad rivalry, the two companies never attacked each other’s products. Their rivalry was more of a creative kind, so, it only built consumer interest in it,” says Gupta, the ex-Coca-Cola executive, adding that “if brands make allegations about products, then they will not only hurt their rival, they might end up hurting the entire product category”.