Fair Exchange: Comparative Advertising – Help Or Hindrance?

July 1, 2013

by Erna George

I arrived home on a particularly normal day in Cape Town, grabbed the mail, and set myself up for a lazy evening in front of the box. Given the current state of the economy, my appetite for broadsheets and the bargains they herald has become avaricious, so I was thrilled to find one in the pile.

A cursory glance at the cover told me Woolworths (good news – quality and value on the same page) and I dived in only to feel a few seconds later that the contents were mismatched. Instead of shoes, clothing and delectable food items, it featured a ton of specials on fruit and veggies.

Rewind, back to the cover. Woolworths font and iconography mimicking the stamp emblem with the following copy ‘We don’t pull the WOOL over your eyes: Great Value…; Great quality…; Great Service…’ and Fruit & Veg’s logo.
Now in that very moment I felt like I imagine many other consumers felt – confused and amused by my error, and slightly in awe of Fruit & Veg’s guts. Quick recovery and marketing consultant hat back on, I gave comparative advertising the second thought that I have not truly given it since my varsity days, or when BMW and Audi took each other head on using the cliffs of Chapman’s Peak as their duelling ground.

Comparative advertising, while well used in other parts of the globe, has not typically been used extensively in our country. The Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa code contains two points: ‘6.1 Advertisements should not attack, discredit or disparage other products, services, advertisers or advertisements directly or indirectly.’ and ‘7.1 Advertisements in which factual comparisons are made between products and/or services are permitted provided …’ that a number of provisos have been met, including that claims have been substantiated and no disparagement has taken place etc’. (Source: www.asasa.org.za) Sounds onerous and perhaps why no one has truly taken on the code in many years.

More importantly, are there any merits to using this approach?

Replay the broadsheet. What went through my mind in the first instance was, why take on Woolworths directly? Then, does this message truly fit the Fruit & Veg brand proposition? Does it change my perceptions of the brand to be more favourable? Lastly, and most concerning, do I believe it? Could it really be that Fruit & Veg is better than Woolworths? Does this kind of direct comparative advertising help the brand partner consumers?
Actually, the promises looked really solid with ‘money back guarantees’ or ‘get a free special of the day meal or a Café voucher’ if the service is unsatisfactory. So why not profile the Fruit & Veg great offers proudly to target their selected market versus wasting the space promoting Woolworths?

My view is that Fruit & Veg could build a great relationship with consumers and become a stronger brand by owning a unique space, rather than playing in Woolworth’s backyard and being confined by W’s rules.
If comparative advertising builds the brand and helps the consumer navigate the category, I am open to it. It could be a great way to show consumers how much better you are and to take share from a market leader.
However, if the circumstances and execution are not perfect it could be a little like spending your first date telling the guy or girl about your ex. Risky.
Imagine my surprise when later that evening a dish washing liquid TV ad popped on screen. With the sponge cutting a swath down the centre of a dirty bowl or pot, I was instantly reminded of the green giant, Sunlight. Then it happened, a voice-over saying something along the lines of ‘Maq Dishwashing liquid washes 750 plates more than the leading/other dishwashing brands’.

There you have it, the Sunlight promise and visuals brought to you by Maq. Now Maq has successfully taken on giants in the past, but they did this by providing a different expression, a strong promise that broke through the clutter and won consumers’ interest to drive trial. I wondered if this direct comparative approach would work. (It probably helps that Sunlight now has the power of lemons and that I have not seen this ad since.)
I do believe that competition is what keeps innovation flowing, pricing honest and the consumer getting good value. But will consumers start questioning whose stats are correct, how are comparisons done and whose claims are being honest versus who is being economical with the truth. How exactly does this help the person in the street, or in the supermarket, and what does it do to brand trust?

I know a friend of mine has. She recently returned from the UK eager to share stories of a leading beauty brand that claims in its TV advertising via a voice-over that its cream will ‘make you look younger in just two weeks’ while text appears at the bottom of the screen saying something like ‘76% of 225 women agree’. Or the shampoo will ‘enhance shine and strengthen with just five washes’ and ‘82% of 97 women agree’.
Her words, not mine: ‘Do they think I have the word “stoopid” written on my forehead?’
There is a role for comparative advertising – it is the direct and antagonistic nature of some that bothers me because, when the war or the laughs are over, we hope that the reputation of the world of marketing, advertising and brands will be intact.

Perhaps your brand does need to take on the biggest competitor to break in but I would suggest you consider the following first if you want to build a relationship with your consumer, that is, your transactional partner:
- Are you building your brand or your competitors?
- Does the message help consumers decide or confuse?
- Can you deliver the promise and not disappoint consumers?
If not, perhaps reconsider.

Erna George, Business Director at Added Value South Africa, works with diverse brands and categories from FMCG, alcohol and agriculture to financial services and entertainment in countries across many geographies including South Africa, Mozambique, Nigeria, Kenya, India, Philippines and Brazil.

Fair Exchange is a column on business relationships. To read Erna’s previous post click here.

prevnext