Thursday, August 12, 2010

Which shampoo has won the mystery stakes?

What's in it for the consumer really? Now, that's the real mystery!

Hindustan Unilever and Procter & Gamble are at it again. They remind me of the protagonists in that infamous test series that India played with Australia Down Under. They seem to be as feisty as Harbhajan Singh or as sullen and morose as Andrew Symonds was a few years ago, as they kept going at each other and the media often got into the contest to complicate things and muddy the waters even more. This seems to be happening all too often with these two companies as well. Some time ago Rin and Tide Naturals had fought the detergent war with a comparative commercial and even went to court on which cleaned whiter. I often wonder what happens to people in these two companies when they get promoted. How does their job description change? Well, my guess is from washing clothes, they graduate to washing hair! That is precisely what has happened as now it is the shampoo brands that are scrapping. Let's take a look at the latest provocation.

The mystery unfolds

It all started with a teaser campaign with the line ‘A Mystery Shampoo. 80% women say is better than anything else'. It was a high-profile multimedia effort using hoardings, TV and today's darling - the social network. Actors Katrina Kaif, Neha Dhupia and Shilpa Shetty were crowing on social network sites about how good the shampoo is, and posted their transformed looks on various sites, and how happy they were to sign on this brand as endorsers, and how soon the mystery would be out.

I am sure the client and the agency must have preened and patted themselves on the back for these “honest testimonials' from these celebrities. After all, we know how truthful actors are about everything including age and relationships! The competition (read HUL) did not seem unduly impressed or fazed. Of course, a basic research on Google (where would we be without it) would reveal that a similar mystery campaign was launched in 2008 in the US for Pantene and also the competitive action and strategies. In any case what happened was swift, dramatic and unfortunate for P&G. Before the big reveal of the Pantene announcement, presumably slated for August 1, HUL took over hoardings, newspapers and TV with its messaging: “There's no mystery Dove is the no.1 shampoo”.

The thunder of the mystery seems to have been stolen and there was no mystery as to on whose face the egg was. After all, shampoo and eggs do have an affinity and a connect!

The trouble with competition

One of the sad realities of business is that there are always competitors. The days of HMT are sadly gone and seem destined never to return as today, competition presents itself from the unlikeliest of nooks and corners and continues to perplex. One of the earliest manifestations of action like this that tickled watchers of advertising was the conflict between Hertz and Avis, the car rental companies in the US. Hertz being the market leader by far was bursting at the seams with customers (lucky them) and often could not even afford to clean the cars before handing it over to a waiting, often irate customer. Avis, the No.2 company that had made a virtue of being No.2 (with its campaign “because we try harder”), wished to capitalise on this and ran a campaign that said “our ash-trays are cleaner”.

It did seem a marketing coup of sorts till Hertz got into the act by asking, “What would you say in your advertising if you had half the number of cars, half the number of people to handle them and half the locations? Right, your ash-trays are cleaner! And then they had an endearing question at the end of the ad asking “Who's perfect?”

Certainly no one is perfect, not the no. 1 car rental company then, and certainly not half the competitors in business whether it was in the past, today in the present, or tomorrow in the future. Remember Pepsi's campaign during the 1996 cricket World Cup in India? After losing the sponsorship bid in India to Coke its arch rival, Pepsi used celebrities such as Sachin Tendulkar, Dominic Cork, Courtney Walsh and the umpire Dicky Bird in saying ‘Nothing official about it' and in the process making the sponsor sound officious, stuffy and old in the bargain. Of course, it is hardly relevant that it was the sponsor for the 1999 cricket World Cup in England. And despite my memory being a bit dodgy, I certainly do remember what happened in my early days in advertising in the computer category. Zenith Computers (or so I think) ran a campaign listing its features in a full page ad, leaving half a page ad free for any of the competitors who could match them. It was asking for trouble as HCL (again writing from memory), as aggressive a company as one is likely to find, came up with an ad and features that were far superior, or so it claimed. In any case I had certainly no way of discriminating between bits and bytes then and certainly not even now but certainly there was no doubt as to which of the two ads had the sharper bite.

A frame of reference

It does make sense for smaller players to have a frame of reference. Even if your office is a hole in the wall, it might help to say you are “opposite the Empire State Building”. And the same strategy has worked for smaller brands such as Apple and Pepsi that have eyeballed their larger, more influential and better established rivals, and taken them on without fear of the consequences and actually benefited. Apple with its “Welcome IBM” ad when the giant had entered the personal computing space had given the impression that here was a leader welcoming healthy competition for the benefit of the human race! Hardly! Pepsi has taken potshots at Coke regularly whether it is the MC Hammer ad or the now redone ad of Coke and Pepsi salesmen. So there is no denying the fact that having a competitive frame of reference and comparing themselves to larger, well-established players can help smaller brands if helped by smart execution and nimble on-the-ground action. But does it help all brands, across categories and where customers are not necessarily young and on the ball?

Learning from the mystery

So what happened in the case of the mystery shampoo? HUL and its agency can certainly pat themselves on the back for capitalising on some obvious Zenith-like gaps that P&G had provided for them, by having too long a gestation period for the teaser campaign and replicating something that they had done globally. I think multinational companies need to rethink their strategies of replicating and borrowing from other markets in today's Internet age. Despite all this talk about social media, I often wonder if we are missing an important point. Social media is all about engaging the customer in dialogue. What is the great opportunity for engagement in paid celebrities saying they have tested the product and find it good? They better find it good. It is like Shah Rukh Khan saying it is safe for him to drink Pepsi when he is the brand ambassador. Well, if they paid me several crores, I might even drink castor oil and quickly wash it down with whisky off camera!

What about the consumer?

When Symonds and Harbhajan behaved in their self-indulgent, insensitive way, they spared little thought for lovers of the game the world over, and, of course, we had a largely biased and interested media on both sides adding fuel to the fire. This perhaps is not as bizarre, but I think often companies miss the point. Building market share and loyalty with the customer is not only about taking potshots at the competition, scoring brownie points and getting reams of editorial in social media sites. It is about something much more lasting. It might make sense where the audience is young and discerning like Apple's customers and fan club may be. But do shampoo users care a fig? Of course, given the abundance of my hair I am not the target customer, but it would make sense for these companies that spend so much time having a go at each other, in testing whether all this really makes an impact on the market place. Do customers really care which the mystery shampoo is? This campaign reminds me of a lot of advertising that is aimed for the benefit of the creative director in the other agency, for him to notice and compliment in the pub when the rivals do bump into each other. But does it do anything for the consumer? A mystery, if you ask me!

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm. He blogs at


Venkatesh said...

Really interesting and a lively article. It reminds me of one more dig that TOI Bangalore took against The New Indian Express way back in 1998 or 99 (not sure of the exact year) when they introduced the cover price of Rs.1. In reply to a comment about TOI on the front page of The New Indian Express, TOI wrote back on the front page of it's Bangalore edition referring to Indian Express as Ex-Press! So, the competition war will go on and the consumers can just have the last laugh :-)

Sidharth Malhotra, ISB said...

Although I agree that companies need to delve deeper into the consumer's mindset to understand what he wants, however, the real reason for such campaigns might lurk in the urge of companies to get out of the clutter advertising hazard. The more the clutter, the more similar products look to the consumer. That is probably why P&G launched the mystery shampoo campaign - to catch a passerby's attention (even if he/she may not be an end user) and enter the daily chit-chat conversations. If you succeed in doing that, brands obviously have a larger chance to get a buy in and consequentially a buy decision by the consumers.

In that respect, HUL did steal P&G's thunder!

Mohan Ram said...

All this fuss about sham poo! The FMCGs have sunk to an all time low in ethics with their ads for fairness creams which lighten one's pigment in six weeks and shampoos which will make one look like Katrina Kaif or Kajol or whoever! On top of it all, they take mindless potshots at each other.
They purvey malt drinks which turn students in to Einsteins and increase brain power. How dishonest can one get? The MNCs are the worst of the pack.

Does the tactic work? Is the Indian consumer such an idiot? I wonder!

Mohan Ram