What is common between SanjeetAhluwalia and Sarabjot Singh?
Well, these are two car users who feature in Ford’s ‘Swap your drive’ campaign. The headline boldly proclaims ‘we switched their cars for a week and changed their minds forever’. In the ad these two men from the masses stand smiling next to their Fords. But what is critical in this piece of communication is the mention of their currently owned cars which happen to be from the stable of Maruti and Tata Motors.
Comparative advertising is nothing new in brand communication, but it may vary in intent, execution and sting. Brand often bank upon ruthless comparisons to position the rival in poor light or rely on subtle form. Pepsi assaulted Coke with its direct hit on the face taste challenge campaign. Direct fact based comparisons are common is cars (for instance Alto is compared with Santro, Mahindra’s Scorpio is strategically compared with sedans), air conditioners, LCDs and other technical products.
However subtler form of comparison one finds in ‘chip chip’ (sticky cream) campaign of Boro Soft or many detergent ads where poorly portrayed brand is not mentioned rather it is left for the viewer to decipher (Rin versus Tide – which gives better whiteness, Heinz Ketchup versus others- the slow moving ketchup means more tomato, Olay- seven effects versus Ponds, Fair & Lovely versus Fairever with milk and saffron, water purifiers like Kent versus Acquaguard, Congress versus BJP on governance. Tata Indica Vista advertisement showed some Japanese looking people have a test drive and bow in respect to the car. In the recent ads of IndicaManza again a team of people from Japanese or Korean origin is shown to test drive the car and the boss asks his subordinates a series of questions mentioning car features whether their own car has these and the answer to all that is ‘No, Tanukasaan’. The brand communication leads the viewer to conclude him or herself.
Car buying is a cross between the ‘objective’ and the ‘subjective’. Specifications are important but experiential elements cannot be ignored. Great brands achieve their status from moving gently up from specification led objective superiority to subjectively held impression. Consider two most visible icons of the car industry: Mercedes and BMW (it has a long running campaign ‘the ultimate driving machine’, Toyota drilled ‘relentless pursuit of perfection’ to establish Lexus). The focus here has been on the brand to establish as highly evolved and finely engineered objects. The exclusion based on technological excellence has made these cars objects of desire.
The latest coup by Ford, ‘Swap your drive’ has taken the competition by the horns. The attack is very direct and scathing. It is not uncommon for cars brands to compare based on specifications. It is done all the time. But Ford’s comparison is based on customer experience. The object of comparison is not the car but the ‘subject’ of the car. Specifications derive the worth form their instrumentality in reaching the end customer aims to reach to. And the communication here shows the representative of the typical user class (slice of life) who share their swapping experience. This is precisely what ‘test drives’ help companies achieve. The testimonial from an ordinary person (commonality based identification) is often more effective than a celebrity. This is word of mouth in print. Car is not an FMCG. The infrequency of buy forces buyers to visit buying with full deliberation. It is here word of mouth and learning through the experience of others (vicarious learning) assumes importance.
How is it likely to be viewed by the customers? Certainly first issue would be that of source credibility. It is rare to criticize what one has or owns for it results in a dissonant state (positive behavior- owner ship and negative attitude of what is owned). Are these people paid? Secondly the claims made by the endorsers are ‘abstract’ (powerful AC, awesome mileage) which precisely potential people want to quantify in an expensive and long term buy. The ‘self-inferential mode’ has been substituted by ‘vicarious mode’ which intends people to jump over the mathematics of evaluation.
Naming the competition in communication is likely to pull the customer into more clinical mode. The brand so targeted is pulled into center form the periphery. Direct brand comparison also equally promotes the competition depending upon what customer lens customer uses to interpret information.
The essence of comparison is perceived proximity of advertised brand with that of competition. Comparison aimed to ‘differentiate’ also promotes ‘similarity’ by ‘affiliation’ and ‘contrast’. It makes more sense for a brand with smaller presence to affiliate with the leader in order to gain entry into consumer’s consideration by the process of ‘categorization’. Technically the brand intends to be categorized similar to the leader by focusing consumer attention on points of similarity and then points of distinction to prove its superiority. What happens when Ford Figo is compared with Swift and Ford Classic with Tata Indigo? The intention is to position these brands alternative to brands with higher sales by first by affiliation and then build perception of superiority by contrast.
However it is not a good idea for a leader to use direct comparisons. Customer majority trusts and buys the brand. It is better then to focus on brand’s strengths and move up the benefit ladder singularly. A direct comparison by a leader brand is an exercise in elevation of the follower and descent ion of the self.