Ashwini Gangal

The Handset Tease

As yet another handset brand takes on competition in its communication, we wonder what makes 'potshot advertising' such an attractive option for some.

There's good ol' comparison advertising -- in which the screen is split in two halves and you feel like you're in a classroom.

The Handset Tease
There's 'me too' advertising -- read: most men's deodorant ads.

And then there's 'potshot advertising' - where beeps and pixels are abused.

In its latest commercial for the Pinnacle series, Spice Mobile goes beyond just rattling off its product features and takes a dig at Nokia and Samsung - with the help of the humble beep, of course!

Other handset players have resorted to this tack before. Karbonn Mobiles did something similar for its Android A1 phone in the past. The object of the brand's wit at the time was Apple's iPhone 4. Instead of using a beep, though, the brand got a voiceover artist to strategically clear his throat whenever necessary. Around the same time, Micromax took an overt dig at the price of Apple's iPhone through a print ad for its A70. More recently, Micromax crafted a television commercial (TVC) for its Ninja 3.5 and 4.0 that was satirically crafted on the lines of Samsung's film for its Galaxy Y smartphone. Now Spice Mobile is the latest player to join the list.

The Handset Tease
The Handset Tease
The Handset Tease
The Handset Tease
The Handset Tease
"We want to be candid and bold," says Sapna Sharma, marketing head, devices, S Mobility, reminding us of
that confidently took on existing players like BMW and Mercedes. "Besides promoting our product features, the objective is to stand tight as a brand that offers the best in technology along with a couple of other leading brands and to disassociate Spice from other home-grown brands that speak more or less the same language as one another. We already have a strong hold in the entry segment; simultaneously, we want to target the premium audience (SEC AB), too," she explains.

What is it about handsets?

What is it about the handset category that makes 'potshot advertising' such a popular tactic? While superficial analysis may lead one to attribute this to category competition, there certainly is more to it.

One factor is size. While brands from other categories have taken to such gimmicks in the past (remember the 'sweet versus strong' battle between Pepsi and Thums Up or the infamous Rin-Tide war?), it's almost always been a fight between equals or near equals. With handset brands, though, it's invariably a smaller, Indian brand that challenges a larger player.

This could very well be because of the obvious disparity between the high end brands that have been around for a while and the newer, more affordable crop. "This is a David and Goliath play," reasons Harish Bijoor, brand expert and CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc. "When you don't have enough money to play with, you play with creative armour. Maybe even armour that stands out like a sore thumb."

Secondly, at the technology level, Indian handset players are making noteworthy efforts to catch up with the giants. That's probably why handset brands make no qualms about openly comparing their features with those offered by competing brands, at product launches and press events. In their ads, though, these comparisons are cloaked under humorous gimmicks.

Also, generally speaking, not all brands benefit from such communication tactics. The type of brand that stands to gain the most is either an obvious challenger brand, say a new entrant in a given category (consider the Mac versus PC series) or a clear 'No. 2' brand that is famously known to be just one step behind reigning competition (say, in the case of the print war between Avis and Hertz). Or, a brand that has little or nothing to lose by taking a dig at a much bigger player and consequently admitting - even embracing - its 'smaller brand' status. In this case, the brand actually benefits by just indicating that its product features are even comparable to that of iconic brands. Handset brands possibly fall in this third group.

From a category perspective, there are some product segments that create a more conducive environment for competing brands to mock one another. According to Naresh Gupta, managing partner and chief strategy officer, Bang in the Middle, these are categories with low differentiation, such as soaps or drinks and categories with very high interest and long purchase cycles, such as cars or homes. "The cell phone category," he explains, "is a strange one. We have a brand that leads desire, another that leads ownership and one that most consumers feel sorry about. And then at least 10 more that want to be the next big thing. This category has no rules."

Viable strategy?

Now, on to the issue of whether 'potshot advertising' works as a viable marketing strategy. According to Bijoor, it works but only for a quick while. "Such advertising attracts attention, but does precious little thereafter. Comparisons are really odious in this space of competitive creative advertising. It looks nifty, but that's it. For a longer lasting impact, advertising needs to rise above it all," he says.

Some experts feel such tactics come with a risk. Say, the plan could backfire and end up promoting competition. In the words of Jagdeep Kapoor, managing director, Samsika Marketing Consultants, "It is better to attract your consumers to your own brand than distract them towards competitors."

Or, it could antagonise potential buyers because sometimes, taking on an obviously larger player is like rubbing your own stature in your consumers' faces; while most get away with it endearingly, there's the undeniable risk of damaging one's own image. There's a third possibility: "When you poke the eye of the competitor, you poke not only the competitor brand, but also all its loyal fans. To that extent, you suffer the risk of alienating brand-besotted folk," Bijoor cautions.

While some experts shrug off 'potshot advertising' in the Indian handset market as a fleeting, entertaining trend, others stop to take note. "What's happening in the mobile phone category is almost unprecedented. Everyone is taking on almost everyone. It's like the last scene of a gangster movie. There is a gun to everyone's head," says Emmanuel Upputuru, founder and chief innovation officer, ITSA. He reminds us that this trend exists in the international market as well, where the Davids and Goliaths are entirely different from ours.

For instance, consider Nokia's 'Don't Fight' ad that takes on Apple and Samsung and its 'Don't Flash' ad designed to mock a specific feature on the iPhone.

"In the current film, Spice takes on both Samsung and Nokia very classily. The only danger is," Upputuru says, "consumers probably won't remember who is taking on who."