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Brand battle or marketing war?

Are we looking at a detergent “war”? I am referring to a very recent television advertising skirmish between two of the most respected FMCG companies in India.

business Updated: Mar 14, 2010 22:07 IST

Are we looking at a detergent “war”? I am referring to a very recent television advertising skirmish between two of the most respected FMCG companies in India. First, one of them took the other to court on the ground that a lower-priced variant of one of the latter’s prominent detergent brands made claims of ingredients that weren’t actually there, so the consumer was being misled. Now it is true that no detergents actually have such added ingredients – they’re just aromas added in.

Even as the court gave a decision in favour of the complainant, asking for appropriate modifications to the ad, the complainant went ahead and released one of its own detergent brand’s ads which blatantly ran down the competitor’s product’s performance as compared to its own. Another court asked for the second ad to be withdrawn immediately. But all this was not before the Indian public had a chance to see both ads on TV.

The military always derive their battle tactics from their war strategy in a particular theatre. These have to be strictly followed. Corporate strategy, too, must drive marketing strategy, which in turn must drive brand strategy with tactical ploys. Keeping this in mind, I spoke to some people in industry and also visited retail outlets after the war between the two FMCG opponents got taken up in media reports.

No one seemed to be clear whether the companies were heading for a full-fledged detergent war or a mere brand battle perhaps structured by a wounded product head who had lost some market share. If the latter was true, then that company could be playing into the tactics of the competitor, who maybe had a bigger war game planned ahead with well-crafted strategy.

Unlike military wars that are fought on land, air and sea, marketing wars happen in the minds of the consumer. This is a very complex space with several factors that are dynamic, rational and emotional coming into play. Brand battles are mostly tactical and must ultimately lead into the consumer deriving a real benefit. Let’s look at our present “detergent” case:

Coverage of the ad skirmish by media must not have been read by most detergent consumers.
The court verdicts would hardly influence consumers’ decision to buy either brand or something else.
The advertising campaign would be seen as a manufacturer’s statement — the takeaway could well be “look at them fighting like kids.”
The real question: was the campaign actually derived from a long term strategy to occupy consumers’ minds?
Did each brand offer better value to the consumer in real terms?

These are some of the real issues that need to be addressed to successfully launch a detergent “war”. I doubt if the brand leaders are prepared for such a war yet. They still need to guard their flanks first, which seem heavily exposed. The fact, however, is that marketing wars would continue to remain an integral part of the marketing world. Hence the fundamentals of war and battle, strategy and tactics, will increasingly become critical.

Now Tide Naturals, the lower-priced brand extension of Tide detergent, has increased its pack sizes by 25 per cent at no additional cost. A Procter & Gamble spokesperson has also talked about the company’s strategic intent. Benefits such as these are real for the consumer, arising out of the first battle.

Are we ‘now’ actually hearing the rumblings of a strategic war rather than just a battle-cry?

Nabankur Gupta is the founder of Nobby Brand Architects and co-founding chairman of Blue Ocean Capital & Advisory Services