Why Big Brands Are Getting Into the Ring

As More Products Hit Market, Diet Coke, Other Titans Embrace Tactic Traditionally Employed by Upstarts

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- The gloves also have come off for advertisers, and it's not just the upstarts taking swings.

The challengers in this round of comparative ads are far from the usual small-time players in esoteric categories. Increasingly, the jabs are coming from industry giants such as Pizza Hut, Diet Pepsi, Apple and Subway. You can take your pick of causes: product clutter, category maturity, executive turnover or activist investors. But one reason beats all.
Diet Pepsi vs. Diet Coke

To unveil the makeover of its 43-year-old Diet Pepsi brand, PepsiCo revived its famed "Pepsi Challenge." It uses pop-culture references to tout that 56% of consumers said Diet Pepsi has more cola taste than its archrival.

"Because it's effective," said Z. S. "Andrew" Demirdjian, professor-marketing at California State University at Long Beach, Calif. "It would [result in] at least a 20% increase in sales if properly done," he said.

'Category shorthand'
In a world where the explosion of brands has made the majority of products look like me-toos, comparative ads give consumers a logical decision factor. Despite declarations that consumers are in control, "most consumers don't want to make decisions," said Tony Pace, chief marketing officer for Subway's Franchisee Advertising Fund Trust. He said using "buy our sandwich instead of their hamburger" messages provides "category shorthand" for consumers.

And as brands become more adept at making tit-for-tat product tweaks, what once were points of difference have become commoditized. So, like bored cocktail-partiers turning to the local forecast to break the silence, marketers are taking otherwise small differences and blowing them up to stay in the conversation. You want clean tables? Eat here! Calls that don't drop? Sign up for our service!

For years, fighter brands outspent by goliaths have aimed their marketing slingshots at the big guys. But the internet and the burst of public offerings have leveled the playing field for newcomers. So whereas once share leaders rarely stooped to acknowledge follower brands, today some are taking on multiple rivals -- even those in adjacent segments such as Miller Lite vs. Bud Light and margaritas and wine. Coca-Cola Co. has even taken on itself, pitting its Coke Zero against its flagship Coke Classic.

Big guys step up
Since consumers overwhelmed by brand choice search for information, it's tempting for marketers to help the process along. For all the talk of brand loyalty, only 8% to 10% of people are stubbornly brand loyal, said Arjun Sen, president of Restaurant Marketing Group, who has helped several brands develop comparative claims, including Papa John's. "There is a huge group of people who can be swayed. Now that the market is saturated, it's a new move for big guys to say 'I'm going to take you out today.'"

His research has showed that comparative ads, properly executed, can boost sales 15%.

There is, of course, another side effect: More complaints are expected to swamp the ad industry's self-regulatory body, the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, though the NAD said its caseload of competitive challenges has held steady so far.

"It's the nature of public discourse now," said John Villafranco, a partner at law firm Kelley Drye. "We're likely to see more battles in court and the NAD and other places about truthfulness of the claims."

Other Categories Where Battles Are Brewing

Diet Coke vs. Diet Pepsi
To unveil the makeover of its 43-year-old Diet Pepsi brand, PepsiCo revived its famed "Pepsi Challenge." It uses pop-culture references to tout that 56% of consumers said Diet Pepsi has more cola taste than its archrival. The spots use fuzzy math and silly verbal qualifiers to dramatize the point; one claims three of five "90210" characters would choose Diet Pepsi, generously rounding up to 60%. Another mischievously stretches the truth, saying 56% means "everybody. OK, almost everybody. Mostly everybody. Fine, a little more than half of everybody."

Think Local
Challengers have been pig-piling on Pizza Hut with deep discounts and quality claims for years, but the Yum Brands segment leader fought back with a New Year's Day campaign saying consumers preferred its hand-tossed pies 2 to 1 over both No. 2 Domino's and No. 3 Papa John's. The "America's Favorite Pizza" spot showed rival delivery drivers eating pizza at the home of the Pizza Hut driver. Papa John's earlier this month added a new PR claim: Its dough is made fresh, while Pizza Hut's is frozen. Yet the battle isn't doing much to draw new consumers. In 2006, Papa John's share grew 7.8%, more than making up for the combined 6.1% share lost between Pizza Hut and Domino's. But growth among the top chains was half that of the growth of independents.

Think Local
Eager to regain the sales boom Miller Lite enjoyed before the Man Laws misstep, Miller Brewing Co. is going back to challenger-brand mode -- this time with Anheuser-Busch's Bud Light, Heineken Premium Light, and even margaritas and white wine. Homemade spots that look like they were pulled from a marketing presentation will compare calories and carbohydrate levels. Our advice: Look out for a sales sucker punch from the spirits and high-sugar, energy-drink-based cocktails hot with 20-somethings.

Think Local
Subway has faced comparisons by No. 2 sandwich chain Quiznos, but the Doctor's Associates-owned chain is zeroing in on a bigger target: McDonald's. The sandwich leader's spots boast that its foot-long Subway Club has less fat and more meat than the Golden Arches' Big Mac. Despite the growing penchant for big burgers, it's lucky for McDonald's that Subway doesn't have many drive-thrus, as sandwich-category growth was double that of the hamburger chains in 2006.

Think Local
By tapping the emotional badges of hipsters vs. geeks to dramatize features and functions, Apple's spots comparing Macs and PCs have elevated the comparative ad to a whole new level. It seems to be working, as domestic Mac share growth outpaced that of its three larger rivals in 2006 and during the first quarter with a 30% pop, according to IDC and Gartner. But Mac still controls only about 5% of the market, and PC users have gotten some revenge spoofing the iconic ads on YouTube.

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Contributing: Alice Z. Cuneo
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