It's called a brandnomer: a brand that is so dominant, its name has become synonymous with the product itself. Think of Band-Aid, Kleenex, iPod, or Photoshop. It can be hard for a company to win market share when its competitor is embedded in our daily vocabulary.
Arguably no company is fighting harder against a brandnomer right now than Microsoft Corp., as it tries to market its search engine, Bing. In a weird and socially awkward attempt to be contrarian, some people might use Bing as a verb. But really, for the vast majority of users, doing an online search is known as Googling.
This week, Microsoft launched its latest advertising campaign in the U.S., attacking Google for not giving "honest" search listings. The ad attacks Google Shopping, a service people can use to compare prices on a single product across different retailers. (Google has not yet announced when the service will expand with a version tailored to Canadian users.) It criticizes Google for going against its own "don't be evil" doctrine, by only listing results of advertisers who pay to appear there – a fair point, though as Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of the blog Search Engine Land has observed, it's something that Bing does as well.
But the holiday ad, encouraging seekers of Internet information not to be "Scroogled," is also part of a larger strategy by Bing to market itself as a more intelligent search engine – and to chip away at Google's dominance, attracting more search traffic and therefore more advertising dollars.
"Our expectation is that as people compare the quality of web search results head-to-head, they'll learn that they often prefer results from Bing over Google," Bing's senior director, Stefan Weitz, said in an e-mail. "We expect this, and our other unique features, will help us earn more use."
Google did not respond directly to queries about the campaign, but a spokesperson e-mailed a statement calling Google Shopping "a great resource."
Sometimes, being an underdog brand can be an asset – with the right campaign. In 1962, the ailing Avis rental car company hired now legendary ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB). It took a risk by handing Bill Bernbach the kind of control over the message that most agencies can only dream of (he demanded that Avis "run every ad we write where we tell you to run it ... just as we write them") and in return it was handed one of the most famous campaigns in advertising history. Built around the slogan "We Try Harder," and emphasizing – not hiding – their number two position lagging way behind Hertz, the advertising stopped the bleeding at Avis. After 13 consecutive years of losses, it turned a profit for the first time. Its market share expanded to 35 per cent from 11 per cent in four years. Avis only scrapped the "We Try Harder" slogan this year, after 50 years in use.
This emphasis on customer service, insinuating that dominance has made the competitor lazy because they can afford not to try as hard, is one way to challenge a highly dominant competitor.
Another way is to chip away at a niche segment the competitor may not be looking at. The sweetener product Stevia is currently attempting this. It is facing a very crowded market for sugar alternatives: Globally, roughly 50,000 tonnes of high-intensity sweeteners will have been consumed by the end of 2012. Aspartame accounts for about half of the market in terms of volume, according to Euromonitor International. Saccharine and sucralose, the ingredient in Splenda, also each have a healthy share.
The marketing for Stevia, like other sweeteners, revolves around a reduced calorie option for consumers attempting to keep a healthy lifestyle; with one difference. While other sweeteners are associated with being highly processed, chemical products, Stevia markets itself as natural.
"There's such a demand for reduced calorie products, and because Stevia has that added natural benefit, it's doing fairly well and competing for space," said Lauren Bandy, an ingredients analyst with Euromonitor. That is despite the healthy debate around just how natural the product really is.
That niche demand has helped it land deals to be included in some high-profile company's products, such as PepsiCo's reduced-sugar juice Trop50, in Coca-Cola's Sprite on a test basis in France and Australia, and in some Danone yogurt products. Stevia still only has about 2 per cent of the global market in sweeteners by volume, but that's doubled since last year. Euromonitor expects its growth to continue at a compound annual rate of 23 per cent from 2011 to 2016.
But that strategy can also be used against underdog brands. One of the most powerful ways for a company to protect its dominance is to fragment the market pre-emptively, giving challenger brands no niche to use as a foot in the door, said Niraj Dawar, a marketing professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario. Tylenol launched a rainbow of individual products for cold, flu, congestion, arthritis, nighttime, daytime. Nike has done this by producing shoes for nearly every sport, type of training, and support level as well as apparel, electronic accessories and apps to assist in every facet of a user's physical activity.
"You go to a store, you look at the wall of shoes, there's trail shoes, indoor, outdoor, court shoes; all sorts of fragments of the marketplace. Those subsegments have been defined by Nike. A competitor coming into the marketplace has to convince the retailer that either they offer a superior experience in one of those segments, or they have to become a full-line supplier," Prof. Dawar said. "That raises the barrier of entry for new players."
But the biggest barrier, especially in Bing's case, is the power of habit, especially for low-involvement decisions. People don't want to ruminate over tissues or bandages, so they default to Kleenex and Band-Aids. Competitors can break in on pure pricing terms, which is the marketing strength of store brands in both of those cases. As a search engine that is free to use, Bing has no such option for growing traffic.
"The incumbent, Google, has the advantage of consumers' automatic scripts kicking in," Prof. Dawar said. "For the challenger ... they're trying to break a habit."
It is telling that Microsoft is trying to break consumer habits by portraying Google as the evil monopoly. This same strategy was used against Microsoft, when Apple presented itself as a friendly alternative in the personal computing space and won share away from Bill Gates and his tyrannical army of condescending paper clips asking if users were capable of writing a letter.
In fact, professors Kyle Murray and Gerald Haubl of the School of Business at the University of Alberta have found that consumers are psychologically resistant to a monopoly. In a study published one year ago, they asked participants to use websites they had created to search for news stories online. When participants were taught to use just one website, 51 per cent switched as soon as a new one became available. Among those who were given a choice of which website they would learn to use, only 23 per cent switched to a competitor even when it provided a better experience.
"It's hard to form deep loyalty in the absence of having the perception of free choice," said Prof. Haubl, a Canada Research Chair in Behavioural Science. Google could be big enough now that it is facing that challenge, he said. However, Microsoft is still itself associated with dominance for consumers, and even if it weren't, it faces an uphill battle against the Google brandnomer.
"Google is a verb. It is search," he said. "Few of us think about what engine we're going to use. That's the power of habit."