Comparative advertising, where one company takes dead aim at another company, can be a remarkably effective way to capture the attention of a target market. For instance, let's assume Product A is the market leader for potato chips to the point where a large percentage of the target market thinks of this brand first when they want to purchase chips. Product B, on the other hand, may be an upstart brand looking to capture some of Product A's market share. Using a strong comparative advertising message, that has Brand B discussing the limitations of Brand A, the upstart brand may eventually get some customers to think of their brand when the need arises for potato chips. This outcome has a higher probability of occurring if the comparison advertisement runs for an extended period and is presented across different media (e.g. TV, Internet, print).

However, comparative advertising is also inherently dangerous, especially when an upstart uses this strategy against a leading brand. Invariably, the market leader will fight back with their own ads that often contain the message "we are the leader and you can trust us, but you cannot trust them." Additionally, if this fight goes on for an exceedingly long time it can lead to serious financial strains on the upstart brand if they want to continue to duke it out.

In order to avoid a protracted battle, an upstart brand may forego direct comparative advertising and instead employ a more subtle, indirect approach. The key to this method is not to directly mention the competitor by name but to allude to them so that most people experiencing the ad can easily recognize the competitor being targeted.

This is the approach being used by Taco Bell as they take on McDonald's. As discussed in this USA Today story, Taco Bell has launched ads that are unmistakably directed to McDonald's, but are doing so without directly mentioning the fast food leader by name. Well, sort of not mentioning them. The ad presents 25 men named Ronald McDonald, who sing the praises of Taco Bell's new breakfast menu.

At this point, it is not clear how McDonald's will respond. A search of the U.S. trademark database shows that McDonald's has trademarked various terms using the Ronald McDonald name, including one from 1967. But whether they will attempt obtain a cease-and-desist order claiming trademark infringement is unlikely as this seems to be more along the lines of being a parody than an intentional infringement.

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For the second time in the last week, we see what may be a new approach to promotion within television shows. Last week it was a special test of placement-and-purchase promotion, where viewers could buy items they saw while watching a television program.

Today we see promotion that is even more direct as it uses a television show's cast members to deliver the message. While advertising featuring cast members is something we discussed last year, as explained in this New York Times story, what makes this a new approach to promotion is that cast members are pitching products in-person during the live telecast of two TV Land sitcoms.

Now we say this is something new, but new in marketing is often a relative term. In fact, while this may be new to a large majority of viewers of these shows, it is certainly not the first time live cast member advertising has been presented. This method of advertising was actually the common form of television advertising back in the 1950s, when television was in its infancy. For example, check out the accompanying YouTube video of a 1950s children's show at about the 2:30 minute mark.

While these live commercials are catching attention, it is somewhat unclear if this will be a trend given that so few shows are presented live. But also discussed in this story is another evolving promotional method in which sponsors pay to be included in the plot line of a show. Compared to the live ads, the relatively simple execution needed to present sponsored plot line ads almost certainly means these will be a common occurrence over the next few years.

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Throughout our Principles of Marketing tutorials, we note that the most challenging part of marketing is creating products customers will actually want. To achieve this goal, most marketers engage in research to help identify benefits customers seek. There are many research methods marketers use to uncover customer needs ranging from simply survey research, such as those delivered by phone or on the Internet, to more advanced techniques, such as focus groups and observational research.

Within observational research, there is an evolving method called ethnographic research, where marketers watch customers in their natural environment as they manage their everyday activities. By entering customers' homes, marketers may come across unmet needs the customer may not recognize and would not be able to convey if asked directly.

For instance, in this Advertising Age story, we see how a research firm hired by Playtex (same name as the lingerie firm but offering different products) benefited from in-the-home research. The research was aimed at identifying shortcomings in children's drinking cups that led Playtex to introduce several new cup designs.

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Here is a fun story to round out the week. Actually, it is less of a story and more of a graphic presenting the evolution logos for a number of major companies. Heck, we like it so much we are presenting the full graphic below!

Logo Evolution

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The importance of social media in marketing has now reached a fever pitch. Companies are scrambling to develop procedure and processes for keeping track of what the world is saying about them. Nearly all of the tracking that takes place requires fairly sophisticated technology, which is often beyond the comprehension of most upper-level marketers. But that does not seem to matter. Today, everyone is saying social media is essential to marketing and you cannot get left behind. Consequently, marketers are spending big time, whether they understand it or not.

And this spending spree has opened many opportunities for software companies to develop tools to collect and analyze what is being said; for social media consultants to offer advice to companies that have been slow to get on board; and for public relations specialist to interact with social communities.

For large organizations, the movement to emphasize social media has led to the creation of specialized departments, whose sole responsibility is to monitor what is being said and then respond when needed. A great example of organizations focusing on social media can be seen in this National Public Radio story. The story shows how major professional U.S. sports organizations, including the NFL and NASCAR, have spent heavily on managing social media. Copying the strategies undertaken by leading consumer products firms, these sports organizations have created social media command centers, which are supported by advanced data analytics software and are outfitted with multiple computer screens that display what is happening in real-time on social media.

From the information presented these organizations can respond quickly to rising issues. For instance, if sports viewers are tweeting something negative about the coverage of a televised NASCAR race, the production team can respond by adjusting their coverage. And as noted in the story, this is not something that only is managed on the day of an event, social media activity is watched all day, every day.

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