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.)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Sachin Brandman

An endorsement that is truly synergistic with the maestro's core is yet to be seen..

Who is greater - Sachin Tendulkar or Don Bradman? I have never watched the great Don Bradman bat, live, poor me, born as I was in 1952, four years after the great man walked away, bat under his arm at the Oval, after being bowled by Eric Hollies for a duck (his eyes misted over perhaps by the tremendous reception), so I am least qualified to comment on the relative merits of either or “compare and contrast” as we were taught to in school. There is, however, no doubt that Sachin Tendulkar's 200 ‘not out' in a one-day international (ODI) has given Indians something to cheer about even if opinion is divided on Pranab Mukherjee's Budget which followed immediately after.

Sunil Gavaskar has promptly thrown his hat into the ring by saying Sachin is the greatest the game has produced, Don or no Don. David Frith, a celebrated writer of the game, on the other hand, whilst lauding Sachin's phenomenal achievements, says “Sorry India, the Don is better”. Let me present my two bits on the subject. Sachin is easily the greatest player that we have had the good fortune to see, live, and am I glad that I have watched him not only take on Shane Warne, Shoaib Akhtar, Brett Lee, Dale Steyn and Glenn McGrath, but also take them all to the cleaners. Having said that, I believe comparisons are odious. Bradman never wore a helmet, played on uncovered pitches, faced bodyline, did not have the super-compressed powerhouses (read bats) that today's batsmen use or had the ropes pulled in to allow sixes to be hit at will. So let's not get into the futile controversy of who is the greatest but let us just celebrate our own maestro and remind ourselves that a couple of years ago some were baying for his blood.

So let me just stay with Sachin the brand and the endorser of a million (okay, hundred) products, the man who has shown the way to sponsorship to a host of less talented sportsmen for over twenty years, the man who has earned crores of rupees and will continue to earn crores more as long as he wishes to earn them. How can brands capitalise on the aura around the man, use it and yet not get sucked into it? What should the strategy for ‘brand Sachin' be now that its valuation is at an ‘all-time' high?

Surrounded by men with feet of clay

The sports world has its own share of celebrities from different sports and from different parts of the world, many of whom probably earn a lot more than Sachin Tendulkar, given the popularity of the respective sports in the countries that they live in. Whilst the sporting prowess and the consequent ability of these people to make news and make money were hardly in question, there was another side to these great sportsmen: They all had feet of clay, to put it mildly. They had roving eyes, their marriages were as fragile as the Indian batting line-up had been in the past, their fingers were ever ready to send raunchy text messages, they indulged in scraps at bars, had the ability to resist anything but temptation … what colourful lives some of these celebrities have led! But while that makes for titillating reading to all of us, it has certainly given the sponsors quite a few sleepless nights. With every Tiger Woods joke doing the round on the Internet, Accenture must have squirmed just a little more. And this is perhaps the greatest advantage with Sachin Tendulkar, who has a squeaky clean, almost boring reputation, for which I am sure sponsors are willing to pay a premium. If there has been the slightest discordant note it has been the tax imbroglio involving his Ferrari and my personal quibble is he switched camps from MRF which picked him up as a fresh-faced kid, to Adidas. But who am I to crib?

Tendulkar power: just go get it!

I have been watching the sojourn of Tendulkar as a model and as an endorser over the years. Of course, he has been a very saleable commodity and has been cheerfully and freely used by his admirers. Was a time when he was the only batsman doing well whilst all around him the Indian team was collapsing like nine pins and Amul cheekily wrote an ad that read “Tendu ten don't” with a picture of a defiant little champion along with images of ten other desolate Indians. But then Tendulkar has always been in the news and for the right reasons.
The earliest commercial of Sachin Tendulkar that I can remember is for Pepsi, where a baby-faced Sachin and his school batting partner Vinod Kambli indulge in acrobatics to get the only remaining bottle of Pepsi after a round of strenuous practice, only to have it taken by the captain Azhar who cheekily says “Relax boys, have a Pepsi” while both have flabbergasted looks on their faces. Sachin grew in stature, became more mature even if his voice was a bit squeaky. One of the best fits for Sachin that I could remember was for Visa the credit card. Visa was looking for a young, middle-class Indian who had nothing but the ability to make it to the top, as that was the message it wished to convey to young India.

And which better role model than the young cricketer who came from a lower middle-class family, set Shivaji Park alight, broke records and later bowlers' backs to become the finest player that India had ever produced? The commercial was a hit. I remember the commercial being played during the tournament at Sharjhah were Sachin set the stadium and the whole of India alight with his once-in-a-life time ‘desert storm' when he beat Australia single-handed. I remember the client getting hundreds of calls that night for Visa credit cards. With every four that was being hit and with every exposure of the commercial, the wires were getting burned at the Visa call centre as everyone wanted Visa Power.

A true victor

Another landmark commercial for brand Sachin has been for TVS Victor that was launched just before the cricket World Cup in 2003 in South Africa. Sachin dazzled as he took on team after team and attack after attack with breathtaking freshness. India fell at the final hurdle but Sachin was the true victor, and TVS went on record to say that the choice of Sachin as their brand ambassador was one of the prime reasons for the brand's successful launch.

Yes, Sachin has delivered and not only on the cricket field but at the cash register as well. Other brands such as Boost have used Sachin as the ‘secret of their energy'. There have been scores of others, the more recallable ones being MRF and Adidas. Yes, the Sachin juggernaut has rolled on, taking several brands with it and I have only talked about a few because of constraints of space. Sachin is at the very moment at the very pinnacle of his prowess, and has a record that no one can hope to achieve, not even Ricky Ponting (who is suddenly realising that he will have a lot more catching up to do). So that brings me to the million dollar question: Here is the most saleable commodity India has, a jewel in our crown and the envy of the world. But being the brand he has always been, he has, naturally, a price tag, so will you or won't you sign on the legend?

Make the most of the moment

It is quite likely that the marketing machinery will get into high speed as the maestro's prices skyrocket. While one cannot put a price on his phenomenal ability, using him has been and will always be a business decision. Ultimately every celebrity decision is one of cost versus benefit. Consider that. Emotional decisions rarely work. I think it is time for brands to realise that they have to go beyond Sachin's presence and aura which will definitely help awareness.

But what next? The future will belong to any brand that captures the essence of the great man. And what is that essence? It is the ability to constantly reinvent himself. It is the enthusiasm of a child for the game, which enables him to dive full length to stop the ball after playing for 20 years. Brands constantly struggle to remain young, attractive and relevant to newer audiences. They should take a lesson or two from the ageless master. Let's hope that some brand, any brand, will capture the true essence of Sachin and achieve a brand fit that has not happened so far, in his case, at least. Someone has to write a memorable script that embodies the true Sachin, for what brand Sachin has been missing over the years has been a breakthrough script. Now that he has scored 200 in an ODI, it is perhaps time that the script too makes a dramatic entry.
And despite all the debate about who is the best, something tells me Sir Don Bradman would have approved of the successor to the mantle of the greatest batsman of all time.

(The writer is the CEO of brand-comm and the author of ‘Googly - Branding on Indian Turf'.)Ramanujam Sridhar

Image Source : 3BP