Companies who get scant attention in the marketplace despite strong products can probably relate to Rodney Dangerfield’s signature, if grammatically flawed lament: “I don’t get no respect.”
Unable to attract adequate consumer attention for their branded products, such companies often turn to negative advertising, mocking competitors’ products — or even worse — their customers. That is, they try to level the playing field by smacking down others rather than building themselves up.
Samsung provides a recent example of this approach.
Three months prior to the US launch of Apple’s iPhone 5 (September 21, 2012), Samsung had launched its own top-of-the line smartphone, the Galaxy S3, which included numerous features that the iPhone 5 would lack. Yet most of the press buzz and customer interest remained focused on the breathlessly anticipated iPhone 5 sales launch.
To dramatize this perceived injustice, Samsung ran this television spot in which a mob of faux sophisticate, Apple enthusiasts kill time while waiting for the Apple store opening by babbling platitudes about rumored iPhone 5 features. For example, one customer asks (with a look of bewildered awe): “I heard the connector is all digital! What does that even mean?”
This is mockery in high art form!
It’s hard to gauge the impact of an ad campaign, but Apple went on to an all-time smartphone sales record with the iPhone 5, so obviously Samsung didn’t deter too many Apple enthusiasts from buying the object of their desire. But Samsung Galaxy S3 sales were also reasonably strong and Samsung repeated the same advertising tactic in advance of Apple’s subsequent smartphone launch — the Apple 5s/5c — (preceded five months earlier by the Samsung Galaxy S4). Not to be outdone, Nokia responded to all the fuss with an ad promoting its Lumina smartphone, mocking customers for their fealty to either Apple or Samsung products.
So what are we to make of ads which mock competitors’ customers? Do they work? And even if so, are there downsides?
The short answer is, mockery is no substitute for the need to establish a company’s own brand persona, and mocking the very customers you hope to attract can be viewed as petulant and snarky, further eroding an already weak brand.
It should be crystal clear what types of situations motivate such tactics. Advertising mockery is utilized by companies with weak sales positions and/or brand images, who find themselves way behind market leaders with little perceived prospect of making inroads with traditional and more genteel advertising messages. So the most benign view of such tactics is that they attempt to shake prospective customers out of their comfort zones to think about a challenger company’s products in a new light. Fair enough.
The foundation of strong brands
But how did the targets of such advertising campaigns achieve their strong brand images in the first place?
Successful brands are built on three foundations:
The corollary of course is that in order to maintain a strong brand, companies need to meet or exceed established expectations with each new product release.
In this regard, Apple would be foolhardy to rush a new product to market just to incorporate a new feature or tool, without taking the time to refine the overall design, UI, build quality and performance to expected high standards. Apple has made and kept its brand promise of refined innovation to consumers over multiple generations of new products — the legacy of Steve Jobs.
Strong brands also convey mutual trust. Loyal customers trust their preferred company to consistently deliver appealing products, while the company trusts the that its targeted customers will remain loyal as long as their needs are well met. Are there technophiles or early adopters that may abandon a current product the instant a new feature is offered by a competitor? Sure, but these customers are inherently disloyal to any brand and not worthy of a company’s pursuit, particularly if it means breaking the brand promise to core customers. If assiduously maintained, the mutual trust between a customer and her preferred brand is difficult for competitors to dislodge.
Finally, strong brands provide comfort to consumers in reinforcing their symbolic identity, signaling membership in a desired social grouping. For example, it’s hard to imagine a bunch of hard-drinking, über football fan guys gathering around a big screen TV on a Sunday afternoon pounding down Amstel Light® beers with Kashi® Granola & Flax Seed Bars. Wrong symbolic identity for this gang!
Any advertisement that makes heavy use of lifestyle images– and there are tons — is making a play to reach customers through symbolic identity. Product placement on popular TV shows is another technique towards this end.
Luxury brands have long thrived on symbolic identity to exploit some consumers’ high willingness to pay for premium branded products that showcase their taste and wealth. Would a satisfied Luis Vuitton customer jump ship to a new brand which promised to deliver a stronger handbag zipper design? Unlikely.
Relatedly, strong brands evoke strong emotional associations and imagery. For example, when I asked my MBA students to explain why they preferred their favorite brands, the answers were often grounded in highly emotive reactions. Some students were “inspired” by what Dove or Nike products stood for. Another admired Luis Vuitton for its ability to “deliver a transporting emotional experience.” And yet another relished Dunkin’ Donuts for providing “the same kiddy excitement whenever I grab a cup!”
Thus strong brands impose high emotive switching costs. Challenger brands need to instill their own promise, sense of symbolic identity and mutual trust to dislodge brand leaders. At best, negative ads may be necessary, but they are definitely not sufficient for a weak challenger to build their own strong brand.
Case in point: Subaru’s brand rebirth
Subaru is a company on a roll. US sales in 2013 were well over 400,000 vehicles, setting a fifth straight annual sales record. Consumer Reports recently named Subaru the second best brand in the US (just behind Lexus), and the company confidently promoted its vehicles under the tag lines: “Confidence in Motion” and “Love: It’s What Make’s a Subaru a Subaru!”
But it wasn’t always this way. In 1991 Subaru of America was on the ropes, with an operating income margin of negative 25% on sales of ~$1 billion. Their cars lagged far behind Toyota and Honda in brand strength, sales and price realization. With bankruptcy looming, Subaru’s ad agency, Wieden & Kennedy — best known for its Nike account — recommended that Subaru get snarky in negative ads against its stronger rivals.
Subaru’s early-1990’s ad campaign openly mocked customers of its stronger rivals. One ad opened with the admonition: “A car is a car; it won’t make you handsomer or prettier and if it improves your standing with the neighbors, then you live amongst snobs.”
A second ad, mockingly asserted that “a luxury car says a lot about its owner,” followed by head shots of officious-looking customers intoning what their car means to them, e.g.:
What’s ironic is that Subaru actually did have a highly distinctive product line — or at least half of their cars fit this description. Specifically, Subaru was one of only two companies (Audi was the other) that sold all-wheel drive (AWD) cars at the time. These vehicles delivered superior traction and handling, particularly in adverse weather conditions, and served as a source of highly tangible competitive differentiation from mainstream market offerings. But rather than make its AWD product distinctiveness the centerpiece of its brand “promise,” Subaru heavily promoted its less expensive front-wheel drive models which competed head-to-head with Toyota and Honda at a considerable disadvantage. Subaru’s mocking negative ad campaign only made a bad situation worse.
How did Subaru go from the brink of bankruptcy to becoming the fastest growing car company in the US?
They completely redefined their brand around a highly differentiated, compelling consumer value proposition, and supported the repositioning with a credible, appealing marketing campaign that created a strong symbolic identity for a growing segment of customers. Here how:
Ironically, with their ill-considered mocking ad campaigns long behind them, Subaru returned to negative advertising in a 2011 with their humorous “Mediocrity” spots. In this campaign (thinly disguised as directed against Korean car company competition), ad spokespeople promote the faux benefits of a blandly styled, taupe-colored fictitious sedan called the “Mediocrity.” In one ad, a bland looking mother in a taupe blouse seated in front of her taupe Mediocrity says: “we’ve got two kids and a dog, so the last thing my family needs is more excitement when we drive!” In the same ad, a bland looking spokesman (in a taupe suit of course) pulls a sheet off a new taupe Mediocrity, intoning: “Introducing the 2011 Mediocrity; a car so basic, so understated, you’ll never have to worry about your blood circulating too quickly.”
The difference between Subaru’s negative ads of the early 1990’s and the reprise twenty years later is in tone and intent. The snarky and derisive “A Car is Just A Car” campaign attempted to tear down the legitimacy of stronger competitors at a time when Subaru didn’t think it had much positive to say about itself. In contrast, the “Mediocrity” campaign used light-hearted humor to reinforce Subaru’s brand distinctiveness against less differentiated competitors. The first ad campaign made you wince; the latter induced chuckles.
Even Apple has played the game
It’s interesting to note that one of the most extensive negative ad campaign ever was run by a company with perhaps the strongest brand image in the world. Between 2006 and 2009, Apple ran 66 TV spots under the banner “Get a Mac”. In these ads, a hip-looking young man assumes the role of a McIntosh computer in repartee with a pudgy, nerdy-looking guy symbolizing a Windows PC. With quips, barbs, sight gags, and one-liners, the PC is repeatedly portrayed as inferior to the Mac, but the PC-guy gets most of the joke lines, and viewers are led to feel more sympathy than pity for the PC guy. Apple used jocularity, not derision to make its points.
Throughout this period, Apple’s US personal computer market share remained mired around 7.5%.
So do negative ads which poke fun at competitors’ customers work?
After 40 years in management consulting and venture capital, I joined the faculty of Columbia Business School, teaching courses in business strategy and corporate entrepreneurship
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