It’s a war zone out there. High-street brands are falling every week. Profits are either down or up in smoke. Christmas discounting was at its deepest level on record. Insurgent brands continue to tear down established ones twice their size. For most UK advertisers, the future is at best uncertain, and at worst bleak.
Yet, turn on your TV screens and the ad breaks remain filled with soft toys and soft-focus rockers pulling the heartstrings with an emotional soft sell. In a time when brands should be developing sharp elbows, advertising remains decidedly warm and fuzzy.
It feels like one marketer too many has misunderstood that "emotions build brands" means all brand ideas must be soft and subtle. The result is that brands have lost their edge and most communications lack competitiveness.
As a marketer, 2019 is not the time to be pulling your punches. Now is not the time to be indirect with your message. Advertising needs to wake up to the climate we are in. The debate is tough. The politics are nasty. To compete, you need a clear and compelling argument, a bold voice and a willingness to get down and dirty.
Over the years, plenty of brands in the US have demonstrated that competitive, hard-sell campaigns can be incredibly effective – even more so if you directly call out the competition. And now, finally, the trend is starting to cross the pond. Upstart brands such as BrewDog has taken the fight directly to the big beer brands. Lidl is sabotaging competitor ads. Heinz is taking on Hellman's. Pepsi is back to calling out Coke. In one recent print ad, Hyundai even called out the Volkswagen emissions testing scandal. Brands in Britain are starting to find their fight.
And now the brand wars are going beyond punchy out-of-home posters and moving into moving image. Never afraid of a scrap, the team at Iris has just launched a brand platform for Pizza Hut that includes some less-than-subtle references to Pizza Hut’s leading competitor – and former Iris client – Domino’s.
For us, this strategic decision was a simple question of maths. After seven years of rapid growth, Domino’s sells a pizza every 12 seconds. It commands more than half of the pizza category and has more website visits than its primary pizza rivals put together.
The biggest volume opportunity in the category lies in this mass of people who default to Domino’s. For a challenger like Pizza Hut Delivery to grow, the best place to start is convincing Domino’s massive loyal fan base to try something different every once in a while.
Like Avis, Pepsi or Burger King before them, if Pizza Hut wants to get a foothold, it needs to stand on the shoulder of a giant… and then punch that giant in the face. And the way to do that is by providing a clear, compelling and competitive reason to switch.
Aside from the sales impact, what has been most interesting about the campaign is the incredibly positive response from pizza buyers. It turns out people have been crying out for some brand fisticuffs. Why? Because it feels refreshingly… direct.
These days, we feel like constant victims of the secret sell. Every day, we are coerced by more than 5,000 advertising messages. Our telly ads are more subliminal than ever. The Fyre-loving influencers we follow on Instagram are being secretly paid to con us. The digital platforms we use are secretly hijacking both our votes and our brains. We (rightly) feel constantly manipulated by the dark arts of advertising.
In this context, the idea that brands might actually fight for our attention is flattering. The idea of a brand punch-up feels suitably old-fashioned. We would rather hear from a brand that is direct and straightforward – showing its wares and presenting us with a clear and competitive choice. It helps us regain control.
So perhaps it’s time to review the soft, heart-warming advertising that resonated perfectly not long ago. Thanks to our current socioeconomic climate, there’s an edge in the air. It’s time for brands to embrace that edge – to get competitive and not be afraid of the hard sell.
So roll up your sleeves and dust off your gloves, because the brand wars are heating up.
Ben Essen is chief strategy officer at Iris