Ambush Marketing

After years of taking potshots at rival brands, marketers are now bringing out the big guns. From openly disparaging competitors to claiming superior products, it’s a punch-up out there. Will this trend of no holds barred marketing last?

It is one of the most venerable Indian brands and has a vice like grip on the market that it operates in. For years Horlicks has beaten back the numerous assaults mounted on its citadel. But little did it realise that what began as a sneak attack by Complan with an ‘H’ on a mug would turn into a full blown assualt on it by 2008. In Complan’s latest commercial, it openly claims product superiority to Horlicks and shows a pack of Horlicks as the claims are being enumerated.

There is no mistaking the fact that this is a full frontal attack to knock the incumbent off its perch. Complan is not alone. Paras Pharma, a company that has put many a multinational to sword with a string of innovative products has decided to walk down a similar path. It’s latest commercial for Set Wet Zatak deodrants ends with a rather scrawny man frantically waving two real axes and the pretty women, walk right past him and in to the arms of a very very sexy Set Wet Zatak man.

This is an obvious innuendo which lets consumers know what the brand thinks of its main rival Axe deodrants. Then there is Chocoliebe which openly suggests that ‘unlike eclairs it does not stick to your teeth’ a fairly hardhitting dig towards the dominant brand in this category Cadbury eclairs, which most consumers refer to as eclair at the point of purchase.

And the most recent is Sun Digital TV which took a break from the mundane and decided to be provocative with its marketing. Its cheeky commercial takes slingshots at all in the digital TV space; the list of casualties reads Tata Sky, Dish TV and Airtel Digital TV.

Given that in the past there would barely have been one brand which took on its rival so openly and all of a sudden we have four in the space of a few months, there does seem to be a shift taking place. Challenger brands are launching vicious left-hooks against their larger, much richer, and more powerful rival.

The end game obviously is to gain market share and to try and knock the big brand of its perch. But marketers seem to be divided on how effective such a strategy is in the long run. Incumbents as is to be expected dismiss it as something that only smaller rivals indulge in. An executive director, Hindustan Unilever tells that Levers for one does not obsess merely about competition. They obsess about consumers.

In fact, more players in a category mean more excitement and growth. At the end of the day, communication should work with consumers. One cannot be sure how much growth comes out of ambush marketing. It is good press but is it good for growth?” Notwithstanding take of speaking about being focused on consumers, HUL too has walked down this path, albeit a little more subtlely, when the Surf-Nirma war was at its peak. And back then it was Surf which was the dominant brand and Nirma the challenger.

This is something that challenger brands are often known to do. However marketers have no reason to lose sleep over such rivals and would do better to focus on strengthening their own brand proposition. The main reason for such external-focused marketing is often a sense of desperation to grow in stagnating markets.

The company that owns Horlicks, believes that as markets and categories get saturated the probability and temptation to use hard line comparative communication grows. Five years ago the toothpaste market was driven purely by this proposition. One can not base long term strategy on negative tactics.