Dyson and its rivals, which have been stunned by the British company's meteoric rise to the top of a category long dominated by Hoover, are locked in a war that revolves around Dyson's ad mantra: "Doesn't lose suction, ever."
Oreck was the first to make a legal challenge to the tagline. It filed a lawsuit in February, in a Louisiana district court, claiming that it is "literally false" that the Dyson never loses suction. The U.K. company countersued, taking issue with the claim that Oreck's XL "maintains suction power."
Then last month Dyson filed a suit in Delaware against Hoover owner Maytag, charging that its new Fusion, introduced to combat Dyson and touted in ads with a familiar "No loss of suction," tagline, infringes on Dyson's patent. And it's not over yet. "We are basically just getting started," said Frederick Bradley, Oreck's lead attorney.
What's at stake here: Dyson skyrocketed to a leading 20.3% share of the category for the 12 months ended in May, according to NPD Group. As it knocked aside other brands, it upturned conventional wisdom about what consumers really wanted and were willing to pay for, setting off a filthy fight. "It's kind of like Coke vs. Pepsi, but in vacuums," said Peter Giannetti, editor of HomeWorld Business.
And like the cola wars, it's being waged on the advertising battlefield. Hoover, which declined to comment, is running TV spots via Element 79, Chicago, for Wind Tunnel poking fun at Dyson ("My vacuum was in a fashion magazine") and claiming its product "picks up 56% more dirt than Dyson." A recent spot by Oreck uses a black light to highlight the dust spewed by unnamed bagless vacuums which look suspiciously like the type marketed by-you guessed it-Dyson.
David Oreck, the 81-year-old founder and star of the New Orleans-based vacuum maker's advertising, concedes a few points to Dyson. "I will give them credit for having come out and spending money in places where many vacuum cleaners have not, on the features and benefits of our products, when most ads on vacuum cleaners were mostly ads on price. That's been constructive."
But he's uses fighting words on the Dyson technology. "It has been superior advertising of an inferior machine," he said. Regarding the lawsuit, Mr. Oreck called Dyson's claims "unqualified," going so far as to mock founder James Dyson's British accent as he repeated the Dyson tagline.
The U.K. company doled out the category's largest advertising budget last year, $49 million compared to Hoover's $47 million, and though its in review after parting with Fallon, Minneapolis, it's expected to continue to spend big.
Dyson had no comment other than to say it has "defended the no-loss-of-suction claim successfully across the globe." Indeed, the company does have a history of aggressively defending its market position, patents and advertising claims. "They are an extremely litigious company," said David Schiever, VP-marketing at Dirt Devil.
While not engaged in any legal suits, No. 5 Dirt Devil has high hopes for its own version of British cool, the $250 Vax, which hits Best Buy in an exclusive 2005 distribution agreement next month. With its Dirt Devil products all selling below $150, the Vax gives the company a shot at higher price-points. "We aren't going to put out a $300 Dirt Devil next year just because Dyson is doing so well," said Mr. Schiever.
Even so, he took issue with high-priced Dyson's No. 1 status. "Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon of, `Oh my gosh, they are No. 1.' Yes, they are No. 1 from a dollar standpoint, but their share in units is nominal."
After years with little spending on TV, Dirt Devil is planning a multimillion-dollar campaign, via Wyse Advertising, Cleveland, backing a slew of new and relaunched Dirt Devil products.
Maytag's next move remains to be seen as it weighs buyout offers from suitors.
But depending on how the legal wrangling ends, the litigation saga may eventually become creative fodder for ad copywriters. After all, Dyson vacuums are all sold with a tiny booklet titled "The story of Dyson." On the booklet's "The patent nightmare" page, the story of Dyson's battle in the U.K. against Hoover is recounted.
"Hoover wouldn't give it the time of day. They said: `Bags are best. Bags will always be best.' Then they copied it,"' reads a quote from James Dyson in a newspaper clip in the book. The 18-month patent infringement case ended in Dyson's favor.