Friday, 15 October 2010

Ad Wars: Should companies focus on their assets or aim to outsmart their competitors?

If you were a passenger on the London Underground in the latter months of 2009, you may have noticed a fairly immodest advertising campaign run by low-price high-street electricals retailer, Dixons. One ad boldly encourages shoppers to ‘Step into middle England’s best loved department store, stroll though haberdashery to the audiovisual department where an awfully well brought up man will bend over backwards to find the right TV for you’. Then the font changes into Dixon’s red and white lettering and adds: ‘Then go to and buy it’. If Dixons weren’t struggling against the onrushing tide of even cheaper and exclusively online stores such as Amazon, then the campaign probably wouldn’t be so tragic. The discerning buyer inevitably realizes Dixons catch-22 predicament whereby they cannot supersede John Lewis’s quality but in the same breath cannot afford to undercut low-overhead online brands. As it desperately tries its best to do tongue-in-cheek, DSGi-owned Dixons becomes the victim of a similar strain to Woolworths.

So was this attacking strategy ill-advised? The 2009-2010 Sales results indicate that the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Whilst DSGi International Sales were up 3%, the John Lewis Partnership Sales rose 6.5%, boosted by the opening of their second-largest store in Cardiff and a new chain of John Lewis Home stores, the first of which opened in Poole. Taking the upper moral ground, John Lewis reacted to Dixons blunt campaign with a series of exquisitely photographed images of their products, placing emphasis on quality and service. It would appear that the smirk has been wiped clean from Dixons face.

Dixons’s M & C Saatchi adverts assume that price is king, which to some extent it is, but of all the side-effects of the recession-ridden past two years, one has risen to the surface quite surprisingly. Shoppers are looking for quality too. We’d rather spend a little more on something which is built to last, which is sold to us by someone we can trust and who knows their stuff, which we can return with ease in the unlikely event that it is faulty. By belittling the John Lewis brand and its associated stereotypes, Dixons opened the eyes of many a shopper who had previously rejected John Lewis for being too ‘middle England’. The ad campaign became famous, neglecting John Lewis couldn’t be cool any more if it was the obvious thing to do. People thought, hang on, maybe there’s a reason for John Lewis’s status as a ‘best loved department store’? And ‘I’d quite like someone knowledgeable to ‘bend over backwards’ for me? And finally, if I drive off with ‘the right TV for you’ then surely all is well?

Seemingly, Dixons learned the hard way that the best advertising sells your product and doesn’t rely on disparaging competitors to make a fast buck on the back of a derisive laugh. Parody is a dangerous tool.

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