Comparative advertising: Marketing jujitsu, Part 2

Part 2: Naming names and kicking brands.

What do you do if your competitor's brand is much stronger than yours and has a much bigger marketing budget behind it? Simple. Hijack the brand – and,  if you're lucky, the budget – to work for you. A well-planned and executed campaign can do just that. Especially if the stronger competitor can be goaded into counterattacking.

In the mid 1970s Cola marketers ran a lot of double-blind tests to gauge taste preference for Coke or Pepsi.

In these double-blind tests consumers were given three unidentified samples of cola to taste. Two were identical, one different. The consumers were asked to identify which two were the same and which taste they preferred. Consumers could only correctly pair the two identical colas about half the time. Statistically the same as a coin-toss guess. Results from those who did not correctly pair the colas were routinely discarded. Those who could identify the matched pair correctly preferred Pepsi by an appreciable margin. 

Those results were the basis for two massive marketing campaigns. One a tremendous success. The other, a monumental failure.

The success was the Pepsi Challenge. Starting in 1975 Pepsi ran a series of commercials in which consumers compared two unidentified colas, and when they chose a winner it was revealed to be Pepsi. The campaign ran for years, interspersed with non-comparative brand-sell commercials. The Pepsi Challenge took Pepsi past Coke in sales in outlets where both were available, such as convenience stores and supermarkets. (Coke's dominance of single-brand outlets – like McDonald's – helped them hold on to the overall #1 spot.)

The Pepsi Challenge spots infuriated Coke's marketing people. Not least because they knew the results were bogus. The Pepsi Challenge was edited to make it appear that most or all respondents preferred Pepsi. From the double-blind tests they had run, Coke knew that most people can't tell the difference. But they weren't about to refute Pepsi by going public with the fact that the products were indistinguishable to most folks.

By 1983 Coke was finally goaded into responding.

Coke didn't just answer Pepsi's campaign with comparative commercials of their own, which would have been bad enough. Coke actually conceded that Pepsi was right, and that Coke needed to be reformulated. Reformulation, by itself, wouldn't have been a problem. But Coke trumpeted the change to the world.

The disaster of New Coke was one of the most bone-headed marketing moves ever. Coke's marketing director at the time, Sergio Zyman, has subsequently written that New Coke wasn't a failure because they learned from it. (You think maybe a marketing director whose education required the destruction of hundreds of millions of dollars in shareholder value wasn't ready for the job?)

The New Coke disaster was, of course, preventable. Because Coke had access to non-blind taste tests which showed that consumers vastly preferred Coke when they could see the labels. If they simply changed the formula and kept the change a deep, dark secret it could have been a successful, incremental, product improvement. After all, bottlers constantly tweak colas' balances of syrup, sweetener and carbonization to accommodate local tastes. That's why a Coke from New York tastes more like a Pepsi from New York (low syrup, low sweetener, high carbonization) than it does a Coke from Atlanta (high sweetener, high syrup, low carbonization).

Pepsi beat Coke twice with one campaign. First by building share in all dual-brand outlets. They by goading Coke into wasting hundreds of millions of product-development and marketing dollars which then weren't available to use effectively to counter Pepsi.

It's an iron-clad rule of marketing: When a weaker brand attacks a stronger brand, the weaker brand wins. When a stronger brand attacks a weaker brand, the weaker brand wins.

Fast food is a perfect example, Subway used Jared Fogel and his 245-pound weight loss to establish a position as a healthy alternative to fast food burgers. When they established that point they went after McDonald's directly, with a sandwich-to-sandwich comparison of fat content. They have more than doubled sales since the campaign began, and now actually outnumber McDonald's in outlets (though not in sales).

An interesting twist on the "naming names" phenomenon is that Quizno's is now attacking Subway by name.

Quizno's is using marketing jujitsu effectively by attacking Subway's core value, low-calorie healthfulness. Quizno's compares the generous amount of meat and cheese on their sandwiches to the skimpy portions that make Subway low-fat, low calorie.

Naming names worked very effectively for Subway. It remains to be seen if it will also work effectively against them. But that "weaker always wins" rule says it will.

There's probably more naming of names in automotive advertising than any other category these days. Unfortunately, it's all confusing. Because the weaker automotive brands don't seem to be able to limit themselves to naming one name. They name a bunch.

The Ford Fusion ran complex comparisons with the Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima. The Ford's sales didn't meet expectations, but that probably has more to do with the fact that they crammed everything imaginable into the spots and so nothing was communicated. If they had just picked one competitor, and hammered home one key advantage, things would almost certainly have gone better for them.

Miller Lite is confusing in a different way. They've aired a spot that says about a third of Bud Light drinkers prefer Miller Lite. In the spot bottles of Bud Light turn red (to represent drinkers who prefer Bud Lite) or blue (representing Bud Light drinkers who prefer Miller Lite in taste tests), and the blue bottles animate into gumbys and leave. Problem is the commercial communicated that a majority prefer Bud Light.

The complex reasoning goes like this: "These are Bud Light drinkers so they would all be expected to prefer Bud Light but a third of them prefer Miller Lite." doesn't connect.

First, Miller apparently expects people to be paying attention so closely that they understand that the drinkers being polled are Bud Light drinkers. Unfortunately, people don't watch commercials that closely.  So it looks as if Miller Lite is losing the taste test. And even if the viewer is a Bud Light drinker, the probable reaction is "Yep. Most of us Bud Light drinkers prefer Bud Light. That's why we drink it." It's like a Pepsi Challenge where Pepsi loses.

Perhaps the best "naming names" commercials on the air today are the Mac versus PC spots. (PC isn't technically a brand, but the entire PC category is Mac's competition.) Mac has made computer selection a David-versus-Goliath choice. A smart, hip, laid-back Mac versus a rigid, old-fashioned, clunky, not-very-leading-edge PC. They have personified the competing computer types with stereotypical users, and the target audience would much rather be the cool Mac guy than the clunky PC geek.

As the car commercials and the strange Miller Lite spot show, the power of comparative advertising doesn't suspend the other strictures of marketing communications. But if used well, comparative advertising can help weaker brands leverage the strength of their stronger competitors. And, if they goad them into responding, the weaker brands can hijack their bigger competitors' marketing budgets as well.