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E-commerce ad wars are the result of marketing myopia: experts

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MUMBAI: Come festival time and brands, backed by their army of creative sleuths, leave no stones unturned to make hay while the sun shines. Using the same peg to sell an item better than the other naturally spells competition, and sometimes this can even lead to ad wars, as was seen recently in the case of e-commerce brands Flipkart, Snapdeal and Amazon’s ad campaigns, where each campaign blatantly took digs at the other to grab eyeballs.

It’s that time of the year again! With Navaratri, Durga Puja, Ayudha Puja and Diwali knocking on doors, e-commerce brands have gone full throttle to promote their festival offerings.

Each e-commerce player is vying to outshine the other by their creative campaign and giving away aggressive discount offers to customers. Needless to say, the campaigns are quite aggressive as well, with the latest chapter of ad war unfurling upon the front pages of leading daily newspapers.

The current buzz in the industry is about the Snapdeal print ad in The Times Of India that reads, “You don't need a billion offers to amaze you. You just need to snap the best ones. For the best offers this Diwali, shop only on Snapdeal.”

Reading the lines in isolation probably doesn’t ring a bell. And that’s where its strategic placement on the jacket advertisement page comes in. Placed between Flipkart and Amazon.com, it is very clear that Snapdeal is taking a dig at its rivals.

While the word ‘billion” reflects on Flipkart’s Big Billion Sale, with the same font and colour, the word ‘amaze’ indicates at Amazon with the same font.

It is clever use of copywriting skills to get one up on rivals, and at the same time entertain consumers with all the drama unfolding. However, one can’t help but wonder if in the mad race to outdo each other, is creativity being compromised?

The Social Street founding partner and chairman Pratap Bose is of the opinion that in this game of tag between the major e-commerce ad campaigns, creativity does take a back seat. 

“There is very little window to react to your competitors if you have to be ahead in this action - reaction war. Unless one is an absolute genius, it is very hard to come up with something new when you are so focused on what your competitors are doing,” he says. 

Explaining further, he adds, “Festive seasons are an occasion to take advantage of, because purse strings are a bit loose and a lot of consumers do open up their wallets during this time. Having said that, it is the agency and the brand’s responsibility to woo the consumers with their products and offers instead of getting into unnecessary campaign wars against each other. I think that just cannibalises everyone in the ecosystem.”

Taproot India co-founder and CEO Santhosh Padhi dismisses the on-going ad war between major e-commerce players as ‘short term thinking’ on part of the brands. “All these players have a short term vision. They lack long term vision to build a brand. I call this catalogue advertising and it can only serve the brands for a limited period. You can’t be going at it season after season,” says Padhi.

The dearth of creativity too is evident from these so called ‘catalogue advertisements,’ he points out. “If you interchange the logos, I bet some can’t even tell which ad campaign belongs to which brand!” he jokes. “It is true that the consumers are interested in the deals, but the deals will stop someday or the brands will run out of them. Then the brand has to connect with its consumers with its USP. I haven't seen these e-commerce players doing a brand campaign in recent times,” he says.

On the other hand, R K Swamy Hansa CEO and IAA president Srinivasan K Swamy has no qualms with some clever copywriting war and feels its doesn’t take away from the creative aspect of ad making. “As long as it’s done tastefully, there is nothing wrong with some healthy competition reflected cleverly in their works,” says Swamy. “I don’t feel it reflects any lack of creativity,” he adds

Swamy, interestingly observes that creators sometimes have fun through these cryptic ads, and it’s all in healthy competition. “Not just the agencies, but even the brands may have fun through these ads and it’s a nice way to grab the consumer’s eyeballs. They are also entertained through these exchanges, and this keeps them glued to the entire drama,” he shares, highlighting that these ad wars engage the consumers who anticipate how a major e-commerce player would respond to their competition. They may even take sides and promote loyalty to the brand through it.

However, Bose begs to differ. “I don’t really think ad wars help these brands gain any loyal consumers for their products. Pepsi and Coke used to do this, and they continue to do so worldwide. If the digs are strategic like that, I have less issues with it, but I am not sure such is the case with these e-commerce brands. Taking digs at each other just for the sake of it, to say ‘I am better than you’ or ‘my offer is better than yours,’ doesn’t really cut too much ice with the end consumers,” he says, adding that if the agencies just want to have fun with each other at the expense of their client’s money, it is certainly not appropriate.

“I think sometimes companies are quick to react to their competition, and miss the strategic outlook and their values. They sometimes fail to ask themselves if they have a USP in the market over their competitors. If you believe in your product and your USP, then I don’t think you need to be worried beyond a certain point,” Bose opines.

Padhi too feels that consumers are much smarter than brands credit them to be. “By playing these pun game they think they have the consumers fooled, but today consumers are much smarter. They know what's happening in the digital space is much more creative and exciting than these verbal backlash on newspaper front pages,” he says.

So how should these brands approach the shopping season? “If they want to connect with the consumers long term, they have to connect at a brand level, and think beyond just the limited festive season. Festive promotions can be part of a larger brand campaign,” Padhi simply states.

He further adds, “There are loyal consumers for brands like Nike and Adidas. They don’t switch brands if there’s a cheaper offer on the other because they have bought the philosophy of the brand. Ask any consumer of these e-commerce brands and they will not hesitate to switch if one site offers them a slightly better sale.”

Citing the example of London based agency Adam & Eve DDB’s ‘Be Selfish’ Christmas campaign that won them the Grand Prix award at Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, Padhi says that festive campaigns can also be creative and trendsetting. “They ran a campaign urging consumers to spend on themselves derailing from the tried and tested, buy gifts for your family angle that most agencies take. It was also a holiday and festive campaign but so different. Why can’t we do something new like that for Diwali, instead of the same old offer formula?” he asks.

Ogilvy and Mather creative director Sumonto Chattopadhyay is also of the opinion that brands tend to overplay the festive peg sometimes, and lose out on innovation. “The entire ‘capturing the favour of the festivity’ does become a bit repetitive at times. I suggest that we sometimes let go of a more overt way of promoting festive offers, and instead of pegging the campaign around festivities, focus on other things. Approaching campaigns as standalones and not part of the festive propaganda could be another way to stir clear of competition and cut above noise,” he suggests.

Padhi also points out that a lack of funds sometimes compels a brand to think out of the box. “I feel that because these brands have a lot of money, they have the luxury of taking a dig at each other instead of building their brand value. I am sure if they have a limited funding they would be putting more thought into what's working, what's not, and what they should come to the market with,” he says.

Whether or not these ad wars will lead to brand following by consumers or succumb to today’s ADHD (attention deficit- hyperactivity disorder) generation who are quick to forget and jump to the next bandwagon, only time will tell. But as Ogilvy and Mather chairman and creative director Piyush Pandey puts it, “If you and I sell something for five rupees, which one of us sells it better is decided by our unique ideas.”

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