afaqs! Throwback: Surrender, your campaign has been hijacked

By afaqs! news bureau , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | October 07, 2014
We bring you yet another afaqs! article from the past. This one's all about the how and why of ambush marketing.

When Snapdeal tried to steal Flipkart's thunder in print, we were reminded of the recent communication battle between Dettol and Vim. And the cola wars of the yesteryears. And the blatant war of words between TOI and HT, one we're yet to see the last of. It also reminded us of a story around the subject that was first published on on September 15, 2010.

Not too long ago, Indian consumers were baffled by the tussle on outdoor hoardings that screamed for their attention. First, a shampoo brand, claiming to be the leader in its space, launched an outdoor campaign that said, 'A Mystery Shampoo 80 per cent women say is better than anything else'. This was Procter & Gamble brand Pantene's extensive teaser campaign, which was supposed to be a precursor to its new, revamped avatar.

Competing Hindustan Unilever shampoo brand, Dove seized the opportunity to take a pot-shot, with massive hoardings of its own claiming, 'There is no mystery; Dove is the No. 1 shampoo'. Often, one found these hoardings strategically placed near Pantene's 'mystery shampoo' ones. While the marketing managers applauds HUL's clever attempt at playing spoiler to P&G's Pantene re-launch ambitions, industry observers have mixed opinions on how consumers received the campaign.

The practice of pulling a fast one on the competition is an old one -- some call it campaign sabotage or hijack; academicians feel it is a form of guerilla marketing; while marketing consultants prefer the term 'ambush marketing'.

Examples are aplenty. One may recall the Airtel digital TV 'red couch' teasers on television, which were sabotaged by Reliance's Big TV commercials. Or the 'sky wars', where Jet Airways put up a hoarding announcing its changed avatar; while Kingfisher jumped at the opportunity to put a hoarding above that one, declaring, 'We made them change'.

Other popular examples include Nescafé launching its granulated coffee a week before Bru was to have done the same, sabotaging the latter's entire sets of creatives; the Zee-Bhaskar combine Diligent Media Corporation taking The Times of India Group to court because the latter's campaign for Maharashtra Times had 'sabotaged' the Grey Tape launch campaign for Diligent's newspaper, Daily News & Analysis (DNA); Dainik Bhaskar's teaser campaign for its launch in Ranchi being hijacked by Hindustan; and of course, the usual Pepsi- Coca-Cola jibes and the Nike-adidas wars.

afaqs! explores exactly why a brand resorts to a strategy like this, and how much of the envelope can and should be pushed, without being too offensive or irrelevant.

A question of 'when'

At what point in a brand's campaign cycle can sabotage take place? The answer is: at absolutely any point; but experts agree that the teaser phase is when a brand is most vulnerable to attack.

According to Anand Halve, director, chlorophyll, there are three key "occasions" when sabotage is likely to take place. The first is the teaser phase of a campaign, which is equivalent to giving competition "advance notice"; so that a competing brand can step in prepared and do its job.

The second situation is akin to "bleeding with a glass jaw" in boxing parlance. Just as in boxing, a glass jaw is a chin that practically begs to be punched severely; a brand might open itself up for attack by providing gaps that a competing brand can fill in. For instance, a bizarre claim made by brand X can have brand Y jumping in to convey how it is better. "Here, you're just asking to be hammered, by providing an opening that begs to be filled in on how XYZ is better than I am," shrugs Halve. While teasers only give a time gap for sabotage, this is like a disguised invitation to be hit by the competition.

The third scenario is simply a creative way to steal someone's thunder. For instance, Pepsi's 'Nothing official about it' was a statement on Coca-Cola's 'Official sponsor of the Cricket World Cup' years ago. It was a way of turning a competitor's bragging to rubble.

"There was no question of any opportunity being created by Coke, nor were there teasers for Pepsi to pick on; but this was simply irreverence on Pepsi's part, which made the word 'official' sound stupid," says Lloyd Mathias, chief marketing officer, Tata Teleservices, giving an advertiser's perspective.

But of all these cases, teaser campaigns are obviously more vulnerable than others -- particularly when they are about intrigue, and not central to the campaign to follow. On the other hand, if the teaser is just the prequel to a strong, well thought-out, long-term position, it is quite safe.

KS Chakravarthy (Chax), national creative director, Draftfcb Ulka, cites an example. When Maharashtra Times tried to hijack DNA's outdoor teasers, not much happened; DNA's hoardings of people with taped-up mouths was merely the opening salvo of a strong 'Speak Up, it's in your DNA' juggernaut. "MT wasted some money; DNA went on to become the launch of the year," muses Chax.

Decoding sabotage: the 'why' of it

Why would a brand take open swipes at its competitor in such abrasive ways? "For the same reason someone would wear a yellow suit -- instant attention," quips Sainath Saraban, executive creative director, Leo Burnett Delhi.

Sabotage usually happens when brands stop talking to consumers and start talking to each other, experts feel; and it may not be in the interest of either brand, if the objective is all wrong. Most of the time, this is just an opportunity to show off how clever a brand is, with the target group being the competing brand/agency. It becomes about one-upmanship. "The consumer is often left confused, and may still not know why to buy your brand," shrugs Vikram Mehra, CMO, Tata Sky.

According to a survey done by chlorophyll, women didn't get the Dove-Pantene saga at all; nor did they fully comprehend the play on the word 'mystery'. The logic is simple: If one were to take a pot-shot at a long-term property associated with a brand, such as a claim like one-fourth moisturising cream, or even Nike's tagline 'Just do it', at least the effort has a chance of being understood. Whether it works or not is another debate.

"But if you attack something as obscure as a 'mystery shampoo' and 'being number one', which the consumer might not so strongly associate with any of those two brands, then it doesn't work," Halve deduces.

Typically, the brand that faces eyeball to eyeball competition goes the sabotage way the most. Furthermore, categories that enjoy just two big players as adversaries are happiest doing this.

It is interesting to note that market leaders usually stay away from acknowledging competition. Would it perhaps be logical to conclude that a challenger brand is most often seen sabotaging a market leader's communication efforts? Not really. Branding experts feel it is not a challenger brand that sabotages, it is the challenger mentality in any brand that does so -- the 'panga lena hai' attitude. It's akin to the Shah Rukh Khan versus Aamir Khan debate. Shah Rukh knows he's the numero uno, but still likes to behave like a challenger, and attacks Aamir all the time.

Sabotage is obviously a short-term strategy, a pit stop, and there may not be anything wrong with that. It is said that the really good ones make a statement about their own brand -- taking a swipe at competition is the icing on the cake.

The Pepsi-Michael Jackson world tour incident, a few years ago, is an example of a sabotage that had its roots in a sound strategy. As is known, the tour was cancelled halfway, leaving millions of fans disappointed globally. Coca-Cola was quick to step in with the line, 'Dehydrated? Time for a Coke'. Consumers loved it, because it came from what Coke stands for as a refreshment drink.

But if a brand bases its long-term goals on sabotage, then, says a senior brand analyst, a brand becomes like Pakistan, about being "all that India is not".

Fiery or backfire?

Not every hijack attempt works in favour of the cheeky brand. Often, the hijacked brand also gets the benefit of the hijacker's media budgets. The primary objective of a hijack is often entertainment, at the cost of being persuasive enough to sell your product.

"You're not in the business of advertising only to entertain; every marketer's primary objective is to get people to buy your product... let's not forget that!" cautions Mehra of Tata Sky.

Others such as Chax also feel that if a brand attacks a competitor's inherent brand values, it can work. For instance, when Thums Up said 'Grow up to Thums Up', it was attacking Pepsi where it hurt -- its inherent sweet taste, and the vulnerability of its kiddy-consumers to being called kiddies. But when the attack is purely on a competitor's ad, research finding after finding indicates consumers don't understand or appreciate such efforts.

It would be apt to ask here, where does one draw the line? How competitive is too competitive? Saraban of Burnett feels it depends on the people creating and approving the communication. If it's a one-off project and they're getting their kicks, then no worries. "And there are no absolutes here. One man's 'tongue-in-cheek' is another guy's 'in bad taste'," he muses.

Harish Bijoor, brand strategy specialist and CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc, puts all his cards on the table when he says competitor snooping is the bigger issue to address. "We need to understand how this happens, whether it should happen and whether it is entirely ethical at all," he states.