My Brand Strongest

When you are challenging a market leader, you need to have a few tricks up your sleeve and one such is comparative advertising with its cheeky humour and hard facts, but it can invite lawsuits


A bunch of tough looking middle-aged men sit atop a herd of elephants. The beat of a motorcycle, which is distinctly familiar, plays in the background. The camera then cuts to the sound of a speeding Dominar 400 swerving effortlessly till it catches the attention of the men. As it approaches the elephants, it brakes easily and weaves through the herd before zooming away again. The voice-over says ‘Haathi mat paalo’ before closing the advertisement with ‘Dominar 400, go hyper riding’. 

This is clearly Dominar, a motorcycle from Bajaj Auto, taking on the well-entrenched incumbent Royal Enfield. Sukesh Nayak, chief creative officer, Ogilvy, says the ‘Haathi mat paalo’ line was a reference to the frequent trips to the mechanic. “It is important to engage, entertain and make a point,” he says. Understandably, Nayak does not want to speak about barbs aimed at Royal Enfield but the comparison is impossible to miss. 

Dominar was unveiled in December 2016 and this commercial went on air last August. It had a short burst of good fortune with this ad — within a month of airing it, the bike’s sales went up to 2,250 units from 1,900 units. But, a year later, this September, it was selling only 1,200 units. Perhaps, the humour did not sit well with the target audience.

Other brands too have tried such jokey campaigns and been burnt. More recently, this April, ITC’s B Natural had put up hoardings and ads inviting competitors Real and Tropicana to take a pledge to “abandon concentrates”. Competitors did not respond with a laugh. PepsiCo India Holdings, maker of Tropicana, filed a plea in the Delhi High Court and the newbie juice brand had to pull out the ads. Internationally, Samsung launched its ‘Ingenious’ ad campaign this July. It showed an Apple store attendant frustrated by customer queries on the phones’ lack of features when compared to the South Korean brand’s latest Galaxy 9 series. The ads were shared and liked, but it did little to change iPhone’s sales figures. It sold 41.3 million in June quarter this year, up from 41.03 million the same quarter last year.

Over the last one-and-a-half years, three big brands were given the brush-off when they tried comparative advertising. So is it a strategy that still works? 

Most often, the challenger with intent to be provocative and gain market share uses this form of advertising. It is a move that is more tactical — to gain a foothold — than strategic. That is, they are rarely combined with product innovation, which give companies a longer-standing lead. But it has given us inspiring stories in the past, in which undisputed leaders were challenged and beaten, especially if there is a superior product on offer.

Turning tables

It was a hopeless situation for a new entrant. Tata Salt was sitting on a market share of over 80% and the management at DCW Home Products, a group that made its money thus far manufacturing chemical products, had its task cut out. With consumer research not throwing up anything tangible, finding a chink in the Tata Salt armour was looking impossible.

Recalling the scenario, Hemant Mishrra, then head of sales and marketing at DCW and founder of Neeti Brand Accelerator, says Tata Salt did no advertising and had taken its position for granted. Time was spent with the consumers who, after much prodding, did not seem too thrilled with the lumpy salt with a yellowish colour. “That hidden dissonance was the opportunity,” says Mishrra. 

It led to one of the most astute comparative advertising campaigns. DCW’s brand, Captain Cook, was a white salt that was free flowing. Competition was not named and with an entertaining television star of the day, Sushmita Mukherjee (of Karamchand fame) as the endorser, the challenger struck the right chord. Mukherjee was shown struggling to pour a lumpy salt into a plastic container, even as Captain Cook flows smoothly. “We wanted to keep the viewer engaged and disrupt the existing mindset,” points out Mishrra. 

Conventional wisdom has always suggested that the challenger’s pricing should be cheaper than the leader or at best match it. Instead, Captain Cook charged a 50% premium (Rs.3 being the MRP compared to Tata Salt’s Rs.2), which came from the confidence that the consumer would just lap up a better product. By the end of 1992, less than a year after launch, Captain Cook was a Rs.30-million brand. Sustained advertising coupled with a good product and good distribution ensured that the brand in four years clocked a turnover of Rs.1 billion. At its peak, Captain Cook had a 15% market share. Tata Salt with all its brands has a market share of close to 30%. 

Ambi Parameswaran Founder, Brand Building“Comparative strategy is a staple for a late entrant. The way to do it is to highlight a feature of existing brands that customers do not like or identify a new segment altogether and then go for it,” says Ambi Parameswaran, founder, Brand Building. He adds that for it to work, other marketing variables such as pricing, packaging and distribution need to be in place too. 

Highlighting a weakness of an existing brand is seldom easy. When the leader has an overwhelming share of the market, the weakness does not always come to the fore and lies dormant in the minds of the consumers. Salt is a low-involvement product and Captain Cook drove home the point that free flow was now the norm.

Mohan Goenka Director, EmamiWhen a product category is defined by a brand, such as Tata Salt or Colgate in toothpaste, there is always a good chance of comparative advertising working. The case was no different with Fair & Lovely, a Hindustan Unilever (HUL) brand, which sits pretty in the fairness cream business. It has been synonymous with women users and in the midst of a research exercise, Emami observed that 30% of the users were men. “There was obviously a latent desire for a men’s fairness cream but there was no brand there,” says Mohan Goenka, director, Emami. This led to the launch of Fair And Handsome in 2005 with the advertising campaign quite mischievously saying, ‘Be fair, be handsome. No more chhup-chhupke’.

Not surprisingly, it took off and forced HUL to launch Menz Active just a year later. “The insight was that men were using the existing women’s fairness brands secretively and there was no pride in doing that. Men’s skin is thicker and there was an opportunity for a new product only for men,” says Goenka. Fair And Handsome was initially launched in Andhra Pradesh, which had a large proportion of men using fairness creams. “Besides, Emami’s distribution was very strong there and we later rolled it out nationally,” he points out. On the back of the advertising campaign, the brand took off very quickly and, in 2007, it signed Shahrukh Khan to endorse it. Successive brand extensions such as a face wash gave Fair And Handsome a two-third market share, or about 66%, with Fair & Lovely’s face wash accounting for around 25%.

Moving the mind

It was a case of sticky situations that confronted Darshan Patel, the then managing director of Paras Pharmaceuticals, when he launched Moov and later Fogg. Moov was attempting to take on Iodex in the pain rubs market. Iodex was sold in a small glass jar, was known to leave a greasy stain on the back and had a strong odour as well. By contrast, Moov came in a tube and was easier to use apart from leaving no stain or odour. It soon became the market leader. At its peak, Iodex had a 70% market share. Moov managed a 12% market share. Today, with the market composition changing to include sprays, gels and creams, Iodex is at 15%, while Moov is at over 20%. Volini and Relispray account for 40%, and the rest of the market is with smaller players.

Moov was Patel’s gig at Paras Pharma in the 1980s. More recently, in late 2011, he launched Fogg after founding Vini Cosmetics. This deodorant brand was up against HUL’s Axe, which had a 25% share with a multitude of others accounting for the rest. Axe was a cool, sexy brand and appeared to be in no trouble. “The feedback was that it was getting over quickly,” says Patel. The result was Fogg with a non-aerosol pump devoid of gas and lasting for a longer time. Its advertising relentlessly harped on that and the “no gas” line took off. Within two years of its launch, it removed Axe from the top slot and had 8% of the market share by end of 2012. Today, Fogg has 20% of the pie while Axe has around 7%. 

In each of these cases, successful comparative advertising was backed by a high media spend. Parameswaran says this is a key ingredient in ensuring the success of comparative advertising. As far back as 1992, when there were just a handful of television channels, Captain Cook spent a handy Rs.100 million. Mishrra says 60% of that was on Zee, the channel that had just been launched, with the rest on Doordarshan. “Zee was the challenger and Captain Cook was one of the early advertisers. That helped in getting very good rates,” he says.

When HUL’s Pepsodent decided to take on market leader Colgate in 1997, it unleashed a campaign around it being 102% better than the leading toothpaste. It was the beginning of one of the bloodiest ad battles. From a media budget of Rs.100 million for Pepsodent in 1995, HUL upped it to Rs.400 million two years later. That, combined with a strong campaign, ensured that Colgate Dental Cream’s market share fell by 2.4% as early as September 1997.

HUL’s Rin also lost market share — estimated to be around 4% every year — to Tide from 2006 to 2008. Tide was perceived to be a better product, with its sharp advertising around whiteness. It had an 8% market share, while Rin had slumped to 5%. Over a long weekend, in the last week of February 2010, Rin launched a counter-strike by taking over all primetime slots on news and general entertainment channels. The ad made a direct comparison between Rin and Tide (the brands shown as being used by two mothers) ending with the ‘Rin boy’ cheekily asking, “Aunty chaunk kyun gayi?” with the word chaunk being an obvious reference to Tide’s ‘Chaunk Gaye’ line. In barely four months, the market for both brands were the same — Rin with 8% and Tide lost ground to settle at around 7.5%. By the time the issue went to the courts, the damage had been done. Rin had a media budget of Rs.100 million per quarter and that amount was spent over a two-week period starting with that weekend. Responding to a query on adopting comparative advertising, HUL’s spokesperson in a statement said the focus has been on taking the brand promise in an engaging way. “It is normally not a long term brand building strategy,” added the statement.

George Angelo CEO, Anchor Health & Beauty CareThose with relatively smaller budgets were helped by ingenious thinking. When the Anchor group, known for its electrical business, took a close look at the toothpaste market in the mid-1990s, there was little it could do against Colgate with over a 60% market share. Even a biggie such as HUL with Close-Up and Pepsodent had made only limited progress. Anchor turned to research, which said the calcium phosphate in Colgate was sourced from bone ash, which traced its origins to animals. That led to the launch of Anchor, a ‘100% vegetarian toothpaste’ in 1997. “It was subtle repositioning,” says George Angelo, CEO, Anchor Health & Beauty Care.

Barring Babool, a toothpaste brand then owned by Balsara, there were no brands of consequence at the lower end of the market. Those who could not afford Colgate either opted for unknown smaller brands or just used tooth powder. For the larger players, high volume at the lower end with low margin did not make sense. Clearly, Anchor had an opportunity by way of an interesting positioning and also a way to dominate a segment nobody really cared for. “We spent more money on the trade to introduce them to Anchor and offered them better margin,” says Angelo. By pricing Anchor at Rs.35 for a 200 gm pack (market leader Colgate was priced at Rs.54) and positioning it as a vegetarian toothpaste, the new entrant managed to cleave the market.

According to Angelo, the brand focused most of its attention initially on states such as Gujarat and Maharashtra, apart from Punjab and Rajasthan. “These had a very large vegetarian population and took to the brand easily. This also had a lot of first-time users, who had till then used tooth powder,” he says. Advertising was restricted to television channels specific to these markets. By 2003, Anchor had a market share of 7%, forcing Colgate to launch Cibaca, a brand acquired from the erstwhile Hindustan Ciba-Geigy, in the lower price point.

Though brands such as Anchor and Captain Cook made their mark for a fairly long time, they were victims to the whims and fancies of their promoters. Anchor’s owners were caught up with selling their electronics business to Matsushita Electric, which was a long drawn out process. That took away focus from the toothpaste business and Anchor today has barely a 2% share. Captain Cook had a new owner when DCW was acquired by International Bestfoods in early 1999. Captain Cook remained core to Bestfoods’ portfolio and managed to get to a market share of 15% in urban India. By mid-2000, Unilever acquired Bestfoods globally. With HUL having its Annapurna salt brand, there was little place for Captain Cook and it just faded away. Interestingly, HUL has not had it easy with Annapurna, which, apart from salt sells, wheat flour as well.

Falling apart

Being perilously close to the line of law is a danger comparative advertising runs and often renders it completely ineffective. In the case of B Natural, three days after the Delhi HC order, it tweaked its adverts to merely say they would make juices concentrate-free, without naming competition. The campaign, which was clearly intended for the heat of summer, appeared to have lost some steam. Other than a rap, the ads seem to have earned B Natural little. The company declined to take questions from Outlook Business.

RS Sodhi Managing director, AmulThere have been other high-profile cases that landed in the court such as Amul’s campaign against frozen dessert manufacturers, especially Wall’s. Timed again in summer last year, the advertisement showed Amul as being the real ice cream. It had to take the ad off air after the courts decided against it. Amul’s managing director, RS Sodhi, defends his campaign to say that the consumer buys frozen dessert thinking he is buying the real thing. “If frozen desserts are natural, what prevents these companies from using the word natural on their pack?” he asks.

The challengers, too, like to push the envelope, often to create an issue and force its larger rivals to respond. In the case of B Natural, it was Tropicana, the second largest player, who chose to respond, while the big boy, Dabur Real, was conspicuously quiet. In the midst of brands taking a potshot at one other, nothing has been as controversial as Patanjali. According to Prateek Srivastava, co-founder, ChapterFive Brand Solutions, a brand consultancy, Patanjali has managed to capitalise on the fact that there is an audience that has a certain level of mistrust towards multinational brands. “The problem is they went overboard. Here, that kind of advertising will never work,” he says, referring to Patanjali’s Dhitol ad campaign, which seemed to be taking a swipe at Dettol among other brands. That ad had to be pulled off, and now the company’s advertising has clearly been toned down, and focuses more on its brand and strengths.

Prateek Srivastava Co-founder, ChapterFive Brand SolutionsAcross its product categories, Patanjali has constantly derided competition either by direct comparison (most obvious in the battle against Dabur Honey) or by mercilessly spoofing competition, which was the case in its campaign for Dant Kanti toothpaste. The campaign for Patanjali bathing soaps was no different, where it spoke of brands such as Flux, Tears, Lifejoy, Dhitol and Glove as containing chemicals. Patanjali’s spokesperson stoutly backs their strategy: “We want to sell high-quality products at the lowest possible prices. There is no way multinationals can match us on this with their high costs.”

Parameswaran says one of the reasons for comparative advertising not working is when the consumer does not see the difference between what he is using and what the challenger is promising. “There must be a good reason to shift one’s brand,” he explains. Recently, domestic FMCG company, Jyothy Laboratories took on Harpic, the leader with a 80% share in the toilet cleaning business. Jyothy’s T-Shine was positioned as a product without hydrochloric acid and 100% organic. Its commercial showed T-Shine being compared to a hydrochloric-based toilet cleaner in a blue bottle. Harpic’s owner, Reckitt Benckiser, was the aggrieved party and got an injunction, which took T-Shine’s commercial off air. MP Ramachandran, Jyothy’s chairman, says hydrochloric acid has a pungent smell and is suffocating. “It is also corrosive,” he insists. According to him, Harpic has a 10.5-14% proportion of hydrochloric acid. “We have now changed our advertisement and do not use the blue colour,” says Ramachandran. What proposition he now uses to take on Harpic will be worth tracking.

Royal Enfield did not speed to the court over Dominar’s ad. Instead, its fan club stepped in. It ran its own campaign showing the elephant throwing the challenger off the road, with the line saying, “Don’t mess with us.” 

Srivastava says it is a bad idea to take on brands that are iconic. “It is unlikely to work since they have a cult status,” he says. For his part, Ogilvy’s Nayak says the objective of Dominar’s ad was to have a witty take and nothing more. “Naming competition is not a good idea and we would rather be subtle about it. This (400 cc) is a new category and will take time to build it” is his view. By all counts, the elephant, however, is not about to give up in a hurry.