Thursday, March 25, 2010

Who's the whitest of them all?

The marketing wars in consumer products are fought hard and bitter and the crown sits uneasy on the winner's head. Comparative advertising can be used to great effect

The detergents business is a dirty business, if you will forgive the pun. The contestants fight bitter and often unsavoury battles to garner a few percentage points of market share and once in a while, advertising is the means to secure the sordid end. Hindustan Unilever (HUL) has been the leader in the detergents market for as long as I can remember but its position has been challenged by a number of regional brands that have been eagerly snapping at its heels over the years, and recently big global players such as Procter & Gamble (P&G) too have joined the fray.

The last named, a global major that knows a thing or two about marketing warfare and strategy, is still a late entrant into the country. It would be reasonable to say that the company has come to terms with India and its consumers and has made slow but steady progress in recent times. P&G recently introduced a low-cost detergent, Tide Naturals, claiming in its ads that it provided “whiteness with special fragrance”. The product was clearly positioned against HUL's leading brands Rin and Wheel. This claim was challenged and the Madras High Court passed an order directing P&G to modify the ad as the company was not able to substantiate the claim. The court has granted an injunction and directed P&G to respond within three weeks.

But that was just the trailer with the main movie hitting the small screen over the weekend when the courts were closed, with a new Rin commercial (shown time after time in programme after programme) featuring two mothers with shopping baskets, waiting for their respective children to return from school. One of the ladies has Rin in her basket while the other has Tide Naturals. The Tide lady speaks smugly about the brand's fragrance combined with whiteness while the Rin lady, of the strong, silent type, waits for her son's shirt to do the walking and talking. The much-awaited bus eventually arrives (after all, it is only a 30-second commercial) and the Tide boy appears in a dull shirt (what else?) while the Rin boy breezes in, in a sparkling white shirt with a flabbergasted ‘Tide Auntie' staring in wonder. Of course, the well-behaved Rin boy cannot resist taking a potshot and innocently asks “ Aunty chaunk kyun gayi?”, a reference to Tide's advertising line thereby certainly providing enormous mirth to HUL's sales force at least, for it is still debatable whether this particular campaign will make them laugh all the way to the bank.

As commercials go it certainly didn't make me stand up and cheer, but to put it mildly, all hell broke loose as the media got into it. Dark threats were uttered secretly, if not publicly; legal action, complaints to ASCI were poured out … In fact “it was all happening” and people like me wondered what the lather was all about. While it seems obvious that the marketing bigwigs at P&G are getting hot under the collar, now that Holi has come and gone, let us objectively look at the situation and see what it means for advertising, the consumer and the companies in question.

The Leader Wears an Uneasy Crown

Hindustan Lever, as that's how people of my age would refer to the company, has ruled the roost in detergents, toilet soaps and shampoos for as long as I can remember. It also used to be the widow's stock, the safe option that you could bequeath to your family (people need to bathe and wash their clothes) and a ‘day-one' company on campus at IIMs. It continues to be one of the largest advertisers and one of the best marketing companies in the country. But things have changed and sadly, for the worse. I remember my boss in Mudra, A.G. Krishnamurthy, saying, “The moment you sign on a new business it is under threat.” If that is the case with advertising agencies, imagine the plight of market leaders! Not only national brands such as Nirma, but a host of other regional brands are snapping at HUL's heels, some with enormous success. The emergence of cable and satellite television has meant that a number of brands such as Power, Discount and Arasan from Tamil Nadu are giving the detergent major sleepless nights.

The fickle management graduates of today see dollar signs and their eyes seem to light up only when they see investment bankers and consulting firms (who are day-zero companies today) and are not enamoured of soaps and detergents as we were; of course, the less one speaks about HUL's performance at the stock market the better, as it brings up unpleasant memories, for me at least. Truth be told, companies such as Infosys have shown this company and the world a thing or two about stock appreciation and investor relations. To put it in a nutshell, we have a beleaguered giant being pushed to the brink, fighting for share and attention. I daresay the campaign has to be viewed in this overall context.

Comparison not new

Comparative advertising has been used to great effect by challengers such as Pepsi and mavericks such as Apple. In India Thums Up (earlier) with ‘Don't be a bandar' and more recently, Sprite, have cheekily continued to make youngsters smile and cheerfully sip the soft drinks, even as they took pot-shots at the competition. In recent times Horlicks and Complan have gone for each other's jugulars. As a general rule, comparative advertising works when the audience is more discerning and aware of the products in question. There is research to suggest that it works better in the case of high-involvement products. People buying cars and motorcycles might be interested in feature-for-feature comparisons, as to which has the greater bhp and fuel economy and so on. But will it work for detergents? In India, brands have desisted from naming their competition but the legal position is changing with the times and now brands can claim superiority as long as they do not disparage their competitors. Does the Rin commercial disparage Tide Naturals? Let's leave that to the courts and focus on the brand's choice of strategic direction.

Earlier advertising in the Indian context, in startling contrast to advertising from the West, fought shy of actually naming its competition. Pepsi would say ‘We replaced his Pepsi with a cola' in India, while they would say ‘We replaced his Pepsi with Coke' (in the MC Hammer commercial). Complan would say that they were better than brand “H” and even mentally-challenged consumers would recognise the blinding flash of the obvious and say, “Oh, are they talking about Horlicks?” Today it is okay to name the competition and often that can open up a can of worms. It is interesting to note that research suggests that when you claim that brand X is better than brand Y, consumers actually end up being confused as to which is actually better and end up buying brand Z. Often, we forget that consumers are not waiting with bated breath for our commercial and do not hang on to our every word the way we would like them to.

Questions remain

HUL might be patting itself on the back for hitting out at Tide which is a smaller player, but is the commercial really something to write home about? Is comparative advertising the way to go? How credible are these independent laboratory tests on which the commercial is based? How different is the theme of this commercial from detergent advertising of two decades ago? In the mid-Eighties Surf Excel ran a commercial with Lalithaji, where envious ladies tell the camera that she is showing off with new clothes on Sport's Day while the truth is that she has washed her clothes with Surf. (God, it must be tough to write detergent scripts!) Does the commercial disparage its competition?

While the timing of the release of the ad seems to have been planned to precision (over a weekend when the courts were closed), does the execution have the same meticulous attention to detail? Surely, surely, there has to be a better way of showing that your product is superior. I always believe that strategy sounds awesome on paper but customers don't get to see the strategy document, all they get to see is a 30-second commercial.

Having said all that, what is my personal view? Give me a “ Daag acche hain” any day!

Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly - Branding on Indian Turf.)


Sundaram said...

Hello Sridhar:

It is always a good feeling being entertained with information on the Indian sellng/marketing, competing aspects.

In the title, the leadership wears the uneasy crown, I got to feel, as an uninformed reader, that the situation with Infosys and say HUL or P&G is not quite alike. For one reason, the IT companies had many advantages in progress, tax preference, holidays,limited competition, stranglehold in some areas over a long period of time, to name a few. If this is compared with 'dog eat dog' kind of situation in soaps and suds industry, this may not seem fair. REquest your expert observations and somee leaboration.



Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Dear Sundaram,

You are probably right. It is true that IT and Software in India have concessions, perhaps because they give India some recognition globally.

The soaps and suds industry has so far been dominated by MNCs like Levers who are currently being challenged by a few Indian brands.

Keep writing. I really like your being in touch.