Listerine had a dominant market share in mouthwash for decades. That position was built in part on the strength of their mouthwash. They actually used the harshness of its taste as a selling point, with the slogan “The taste people hate, twice a day.”
In hindsight, this set Listerine up for a very obvious repositioning campaign. After all, it doesn’t take much to move a forcefully unpleasant taste from a strength to a weakness. It was Scope that took advantage of it. If Listerine left a medicinal taste in your mouth then it probably left that smell too, Scopes ads usually implied, and well, is that smell really much better than how it was before? One particularly creative ad showed how much more pleasant an alternate scent could be. This ad is from the 70’s and incorporated scratch and sniff technology to give consumers a visceral sense of the difference:
Just like in other classic competition repositioning examples, Scope isn’t the immediate focus of this ad. Remember, they have to shift how consumers think of the other brand before they can fill the void. So, the ad waits until the negatives of Listerine (not mentioned by name) are fully explored. Note, the focus isn’t on making Listerine seem less effective. Most people using mouthwash used Listerine. They already thought it was effective and changing their mind would be difficult. What they didn’t think was that Listerine was unduly medicinal, or perhaps that the medicinal smell was necessarily a bad thing – now Scope showed that your clean breath could be just as unpleasant.
Scope chose to attack it’s effectiveness at actually making your breath smell better rather than its effectiveness in killing germs. That’s the great thing about repositioning campaigns. The strategy is readily apparent.
Judging by sales the campaign was effective. The formerly unassailable Listerine lost market share and was forced to change its products’ formula to achieve a more friendly taste (and then of course spend a lot of money broadcasting that).
Of course, there’s a reason Coors avoids talking about it. The product doesn’t taste very good. The beer snob in me loves to rip on Coors’ advertising, but the advertising analyst in me appreciates their strategy. While Coors’ doesn’t talk much about their taste they still try to convey the idea indirectly. For instance, their ads bring up Coors’ long history to imply expertise and give credence to their beers’ quality. In other ads they’ll mention that they use pure Rocky Mountain water, another mark meant to confer quality.
In fact, it’s only when you begin to place all the ads together that you see the tremendous gap in their advertising. But leaving that gap is an intelligent choice. Few people are going to be convinced that Coors is delicious (or, you know, even good). But, taste isn’t the only important aspect of beer to consumers. Beer is also viewed as something that refreshes and relaxes us, and Coors’ advertising targets those areas. What could be more refreshing than an ice cold beer? Well a Coors of course – it’s brewed with ice cold water from mountain snow and the bottles tell you when it’s ready! The can’s designed to get you refreshed quicker than the competition!
More or less, Coors strategy is understandable. But, I also want to look at it with respect to rest of the market and build off the topic of repositioning discussed previously. Why hasn’t another huge brand like Budweiser attacked them? The big producers are being squeezed by craft breweries, so taking market share from each other may be the key to maintaining or growing revenue. Just from a game theory perspective you’d think it would make sense. When you think about it Budweiser, has a history just as rich as Coors’ and operates in a pretty similar fashion. It also has the same losing proposition against craft beers (even though for some reason that’s who they attacked in their super bowl ad). So why don’t they seize this opportunity to reposition Coors as a beer that needs gimmicks?
Well, Budweiser also may have qualms about focusing too much on taste, but at this point I see it almost as a binary choice for consumers between those brands – they aren’t competing against craft beers anymore. That battle was lost. Instead, they’re competing against each other. It would be pretty easy for Budweiser to run that kind of campaign.
Here’s a simple tagline:
“When you make good beer you don’t need to talk about the bottle it comes in.”
Edit: an astute user pointed out that Schlafly had an ad that made fun of bottle technology a few years ago. It’s not exactly what I’d advocate for, but it’s still worth a look.
As anyone in marketing can tell you, unseating category leaders is difficult. That’s why Pepsi has trailed Coca-Cola for decades and why Tide has remained the leading detergent since the 1940s. It’s not impossible though, and one of the best ways to advertise against a category leader is to use their brand presence in your own favor. The best way to do that is to run a repositioning campaign.
In essence, repositioning the competition requires comparative advertising, but it is not simply comparative advertising. Comparative ads evaluate products side-by-side. Repositioning ads try to take an attribute of the competitors product and shift it into a weakness. Then they show how their own product fills that gap. Most of a repositioning advertisement should be devoted to your competitor’s product, and not even the product as it exists in reality, but as it exists in the mind of consumers. Only once the ad has succeeded in framing their competitors’ products attributes as weaknesses do they introduce their own product. One of the most famous repositioning campaigns was done by Tylenol. In this advertisement Tylenol isn’t even mentioned until the third paragraph!
Let’s take a closer look at the ad. “For the millions who should not take aspirin” is a very interesting line. Many people today are still unaware of the differences between over the counter analgesics, before this ad even fewer were. It’s interesting because it’s alarming enough to draw in the uninformed. Notice, too, that the ad doesn’t say Tylenol is better than aspirin. It doesn’t even directly say that Tylenol is better for the stomach. Right now, it’s only saying some people shouldn’t use aspirin. It’s avoiding those comparative statements because comparative statements can conflict with consumers pre-held notions, and if they do they are likely to get dismissed.¹ Instead, the ad tries to convey new information – the instances in which taking aspirin is detrimental and, as it builds that case, it lets the consumers decide for themselves that Tylenol is better. That’s the essence of repositioning.
Remember, Tylenol was doing more than just creating niches for itself to occupy, which can also be an effective way to gain market share. Instead, it went beyond that strategy, put those holes together, and used them to reposition aspirin as a brand that was harmful to the stomach. In fact, Tylenol was so successful in conveying this information that it gained considerable market share and eventually the product actually displaced the aspirin-based medicines and became the best selling analgesic. Footnotes
1. This is the result of confirmation bias which causes people to seek information that confirms their opinions and to dismiss information which contradicts them.