Thursday, January 8, 2009

Who is better? You or me?

Comparisons are odious, but that’s not preventing brands from going all out and claiming their rival’s inferiority..

Pepsi and Coca-Cola took brand wars to a new height.

Comparisons are as old as the hills. Men tend to compare wives (though one suspects discreetly). Wives tend to compare their husbands’ salaries (one suspects directly). Parents tend to compare grades of their children (one is certain unfairly). Children tend to compare pocket money (one is sure bitterly) and cricket writers tend to compare cricketers and teams irrationally. The advertising industry in India, though it has used men, women and children in its ads, has been, till recently, fairly reluctant to compare its clients’ brands with the competition. This was in startling contrast to what was happening at Madison Avenue where Pepsi continued to take potshots at Coke with impunity summer after summer.

Apple, despite being much smaller than IBM, was taking big blue by the horns. Its ad, “Welcome IBM” that was released when IBM entered the PC business, showed that it had the gumption to take on the giant. In defence of Indian advertising it must be mentioned that till very recently it suffered from the restriction that Indian brands could not name their competition or say they were better. However, this did not prevent brands such as Pepsi, whose famous “nothing official about it” campaign in 1996 had Coke blushing despite winning the sponsorship deal for the prestigious cricket world cup that was being held in the sub-continent, courtesy Pepsi’s ads featuring cricketers like Courtney Walsh, Dominic Cork and the charismatic umpire Dickey Bird which made consumers smile even as Coke was sweating. But suddenly Indian advertising has become a lot more hard-hitting and is not averse to making comparisons, even if they are a bit unfair or think twice about saying that they are better than the competition.Hamara Bajaj aur tumhara 100cc

One of the most visible campaigns that I have seen in recent times features the Bajaj XCD 125. It features two young men, one smug and portly and the other lean and cheeky. I suspect that these commercials have made these models quite famous. Crucial to their success, in my view, is that they do not have the classic good looks that one normally associates with models and advertising. Let me try and recount the commercials that I remember quite well.
The one I first saw featured these two young men at a traffic signal comparing notes and bikes. The thin one asks the portly one if he has bought a new bike. One has bought a 100cc bike which costs more and gives less mileage than a 125 cc bike to the obvious delight of the Bajaj owner. He exhibits the typical insensitive glee that youngsters exhibit when they do one better than their peers. The fun does not stop in the commercials that follow. The next one features these two gentlemen again having a conversation, albeit unwillingly. When the portly man sees his tormentor again he says, “I know what you are going to say. You are going to say that your bike is 125cc; it gives more mileage and costs less. His tormentor, the Good Samaritan that he usually is, says “No, I just wanted to tell you that your zip is open”. But the fun doesn’t end with that. Our portly model goes with his wife to buy a durable.

The salesman at the outlet has an intrigued expression on his face when he sees our famous model. “I know you … I have seen you somewhere,” he says, while our model has a confused look on his face, which turns to anger when the salesman recognises him as the one who has bought the more expensive motorcycle. “So what do you want,” he asks expansively, “a TV?” to which our beleaguered and harassed model says with a touch of anger, “No, fridge!”Riding on someone else’s bike

These commercials work because they are simple. They have a quiet sense of humour which younger people who are the target audience for motorbikes can relate to. It also appeals to not-so-young people like me to whom riding a bike is a distant, if not fond, memory. But it looks like the ads have caught the fancy of other advertisers and agencies as well. Because Sun DTH, which was doing pointless, song-and-dance commercials thus far suddenly cashed in on the popularity of this genre of advertising and the histrionic ability of the models that we spoke about so glowingly earlier. It features the same two celebrated models comparing notes and prices as they seem to love doing. Only the roles are different this time around.

Our portly model is the fortunate one this time around. He has a Sun DTH which has many more channels, is better on every count and costs a fraction of the competing brand.
Boy, is our man thrilled! For once he has the last laugh, our man who has been laughed at for so long in his career on the small screen. It is a bold commercial, tongue-in-cheek and yet delivers the price and feature advantage message forcefully. Interestingly, it uses two celebrity models whose roles are reversed. Is it a risky strategy to use two models who are so well associated with another brand? I am not sure and honestly I do not care, for as a consumer, I enjoyed watching this commercial too. My child is growing taller than yours
I grew up in Madras in the Sixties and quibblers please note that that was how the city used to be called those days. Of course, the name might change even if the weather can’t. And at that time I sincerely felt that life was one big Horlicks bottle! I was given Horlicks after I brushed my teeth, was given Horlicks when we visited anyone and had to drink Horlicks when I was sick. “Drink Horlicks, it’s good for you!” I would be told in case I had the temerity to say no. Horlicks was part of my life if not in my blood stream.

This, of course, was before the days of Complan “the complete planned food that has 23 vital ingredients” (see, I remember the advertising).
Then Horlicks tried to come out with flavours and made its advertising younger, smarter and edgier. Complan continued with its strategy of targeting mothers and obviously all mothers wanted their children to grow taller. Horlicks, just a little like Boost, started to target children. Malted beverages are an interesting category and while children are the users it is the mothers who bring the bottle or the container inside the kitchen.And then the trouble begins.

As the markets got larger and kids got smarter (if not taller) the competition got murkier. Complan had a doctor comparing how their brand was better than “Brand H”. Horlicks went to court and the ad had to be pulled off. This, of course, was 2004. But now the brands have become bolder. The new commercials that have recently come on air have mothers discussing the prices of their beverages, the heights of their children and the material used. Complan says Horlicks uses inferior ingredients while Horlicks says Complan is much more expensive. Then Heinz waved a study report to demonstrate that children grow twice as fast as children drinking Horlicks. The courts were roped in and the judge restored sanity to all the hostility by saying that “in this world of advertisement one is bound to say that one is better than the other … If such ads are taken seriously, then as per claims made by these companies, children consuming these products should be growing taller and taller.”The times we live in
Yes, we live in troubled times. Advertising agencies must seize advantages when they exist or create them should the opportunity present itself. Comparative advertising is here to stay.

Should you use it?

Yes, if you have a demonstrable advantage. Yes, if your target audience can understand and appreciate your differences. But just remember that every action of yours could have a competitive reaction that is stronger and backed with more media weights.
After all the ads that Avis came out with saying that it was No.2, Hertz hit back strongly saying, “For years, Avis has been telling you that Hertz is No.1. Now we’re going to tell you why.”

Don’t get carried away by the excitement of comparison, lest you get carried away by the competition.

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)

Monday, January 5, 2009

Will 2009 be the year of the client?

The client needs the ad agency’s empathy. In turn, she also needs to give the agency due respect..

The ad agency must make a sincere effort to let the client understand all the responsibilities that customer delight implies.

Last week, as we were celebrating India’s phenomenal run chase of 387 at Chepauk, Chennai I had a surprise visitor. It was my nephew who teaches Finance at Columbia University in the US who just dropped in. “I suggest you close down yourblog for a few months,” he said, with a look of unrestrained glee. When I asked him why, he said, “You had predicted the decline and (cricketing) demise of Sehwag and I am happy to tell you that you have been proved completely wrong.” While it is gratifying to note that people actually read what one writes, I wonder if they need to remind people who stick their neck out of their forecasting faux pas! But some people never learn, for here in this column I am trying to predict what the New Year holds for marketing, advertising and the consumer who is really going to be the key as she has always been.Doom & gloom import department

The USA has exported several products, services and ideas to the rest of the world. This time around it has done one better as it has exported a dark and murky mood of gloom and doom, most certainly to India and the rest of the world if media reports are to be believed. India, too, has had its own share of problems to add to the sense of despair, what with the mind-boggling and despicable catastrophe that followed in Mumbai just a few weeks ago. As a consequence, even if India Inc is not as deeply mired in the confusion that has engulfed the financial and business world, it seems to be thinking, acting and behaving as though there is no tomorrow.

In my view, the mood is worse than the actual situation but I guess corporate India believes that it is better to be safe than sorry which is perfectly understandable given all that has just hit us. But in the same breath, there is no denying the fact that it has had an impact on consumer sentiment. The reality is that many of us have become poorer and our ability and our confidence to spend have been reduced if not completely eroded. There is a palpable erosion of confidence as some of us fear for our jobs as well.

Industries such as the automotive sector that grew exponentially on the basis of easy and poorly administered credit are now probably much harder hit than other sectors and I am sure that other industries such as real estate that expanded as though there was no tomorrow are now licking their wounds! A far cry from the days when they were licking their lips in anticipation of killings made on unsuspecting customers like you and me. The fluctuating stock market too has added to the morbidity of the situation and the anxiety of troubled and beleaguered investors.

The troubled agency

There is no denying the fact that the agency business has been booming over the last three years and for many of us the first six months of the current financial year too have been exceedingly good. And then we walked into a Brett Lee bouncer, without a helmet! To the slightly older lot reading this column it was like what happened to a bare-headed Nari Contractor who barely survived after being bounced by Charlie Griffith in the West Indies. I am quite sure the prognosis for advertising has to be better.

The other reality is that multinational business, which is no small proportion of our Indian advertising pie, could be guided by the poor sentiments globally. The head of the local operations of a multinational company spoke to me of the firm directive he had received from his boss in North America asking him to stop all advertising in India. His protests that India needed advertising to build the brand locally and was doing comparatively better fell on deaf ears. One does hope that this is just an isolated instance and not something that is going to become the order of the day. And yet in the same breath we must mention that large categories such as FMCG have to continue their advertising spends. People will hopefully brush their teeth, bathe and on occasion wash their hair, downturn notwithstanding.

While the financial markets have been the cause of a lot of the global turmoil, in India at least there is still an opportunity for advertising agencies in the form of public sector banks which are being frequently asked to reduce their lending rates and raise their deposit rates. Let’s not forget too that these banks are being politically induced to advertise these changes at frequent intervals in tune with the actual and frequent change in rates. Advertising agencies too would do well to remember that there is an election due next year and irrespective of the quality of candidates who would be fielded and irrespective of the creativity in the advertising that some of the political parties might approve, there is no denying the fact that crores of rupees will be spent on advertising. Something to look forward to even if the result at the end of the exercise may not be all that heartening!

Insurance as a category would continue to spend as the industry tries to persuade people who are worried and are probably likely to look more seriously at their own future and the future of their families in troubled times. Maybe we will see more campaigns like the ‘Life enhancement’ campaigns that ICICI came out with recently. The cement industry had a dream run over the last three years as prices kept going up without any real marketing efforts from the cement companies, though one tended to hear whispers of a cement cartel, not that it called for a great strategy. Many of the cement majors have significantly enhanced their capacities in recent times and have also been hit by the palpable slump that the real estate industry has been exposed to and the lethargy of the Government to get into infrastructure with the seriousness that the sector and the economy deserves. The cement industry will have to spend in 2009 as the attractive home loan rates of the public sector banks will make a difference to individual construction. At least that is the hope!The client’s world

The client is the most important constituent in this entire marketing communication equation. She is the source of all business, benefits, accolades, awards and, on occasion, heartburn. Yet, one wonders if we are more often than not paying lip service to the concept of being close to the customer and talk about aspects such as customer delight without really understanding the true responsibility of what that concept means for the service provider.

To me, this is the key strategy for the advertising agency in the New Year and the months that follow it. The client is the very reason for our being and the very centre of our business. And today the client is troubled, to put it mildly. She needs the agency’s empathy, not criticism. And there is another reality too. There was a time and an age when clients did not give the agency the respect or the ears that they deserved. But today the client is willing to listen as she needs all the advice she can get on what might work in these troubled times. Of course, the flip side to this is that the agency and its personnel must be in a position to provide value.

To do or not to do

Today the agency has to do a few things and do them quickly in 2009.
Be there for the client in every which way possible and that includes senior agency management.
Seriously look at cost control. That does not mean a reduced retainer fee as much as exploring the other costs of advertising, like film production.
We have experimental movies being produced by young, enterprising film producers which are pathbreaking. How come advertising does not believe in experiments?
The terms of engagement have been more or less predictable, boring even. Different times may need a more innovative way of charging for services. How ready is the agency for this?
Digital is in. But is the agency in on this or is it still talking about the revolutionary new medium?

It is time for the agency to take a few hard decisions. For a long time we have hemmed and hawed about the poor quality of people in our business and have lamented about how difficult it is to get talent and how easy it is for us to lose talent to other industries. Now is the time to clean up our act.

It is often said that tough times bring out the best in us and perhaps the advertising industry is at the crossroads again. But then it has survived several crises before and will meet this challenge too, as long as we can keep a cool head amidst all this turmoil around us.

Welcome to the party and have a wonderful year in 2009!

The writer is CEO of brand-comm and the author of One Land One Billion Minds.