It is this writer’s sad duty to report on a terrible blunder by one of the world’s great branding companies: Duracell. Duracell is a division of The Procter & Gamble Company, arguably the leading consumer packaged goods producer in the world and legendary for its branding prowess. Proving yet again that no organization is perfect (hey, the legendary ’85 Bears had one loss), Duracell is currently running an ad in Newsweek magazine where they position their batteries as lower-cost, less-powerful alternatives to “Energizer e2 Lithium” cells.
Over the past several years, Duracell has successfully positioned their alkaline batteries as more reliable due to their “copper top” construction (which is really just a color on the cell’s wrapper). Even though Consumer Reports says that essentially all ordinary alkaline batteries are very similar in performance, Duracell has built a commanding market share lead through a series of brilliant television and radio commercials. In these ads, Duracell shows some highly critical situations in which their batteries are used, implying a unique and superior level of reliability. They repeatedly use the phrase, “when it just has to work,” and then illustrate an ordinary battery application along with the critical one, implying that even in everyday use, your choice of battery matters.
In one ad, for example, a young basketball player collapses on the court as his mother watches from the stands. Paramedics rush out and administer a defibrillator — equipped with Duracell batteries, of course. The spot cuts to a subsequent high school graduation ceremony and shows the young man smiling in his cap and gown (he survived, obviously) and his mother is taking pictures with a digital camera. The voiceover (intoned by Jeff Bridges) implies that it’s best to use Duracell in both the defibrillator and the camera.
They have many similar commercials with Duracell batteries used in heart monitors and handheld video games, by NASCAR pit crews, etc. The consistently implied message (they never come out and say this directly, probably because most alkaline battery brands really do perform similarly) is that Duracell batteries are the most reliable and are unequaled in performance.
Not many companies can take an everyday product like an alkaline battery and position it as a highly critical — even lifesaving — purchase. No wonder P&G does so well at branding!
Now this: In the Nov. 10, 2008 issue of Newsweek, on page 75 in my version, is a full page ad proclaiming, “These are hardly the times to pay for more power than you need.” The ad clearly shows an Energizer e2 Lithium cell on the left and a Duracell battery on the right. There are a few bullets describing the differences between the two batteries and then the statement, “Don’t waste power. Don’t waste money.”
Don’t waste power? What the heck? “Don’t waste power” says the company that has convinced us for many years that we need Duracell batteries because they are the only brand that has ENOUGH power! This is an absolutely horrible advertisement that flies in the face of the brand position that Duracell has built successfully over the course of several years and at the cost of many millions of dollars. The clear message is that the Duracell battery is the lower cost, less powerful battery vs. the Energizer brand.
Okay, so why did Duracell do this?
This type of ad occurs when a brand’s stewards overreact thoughtlessly or incorrectly to a competitor’s actions. What is happening in the battery marketplace is that there is a new type of non-rechargeable consumer battery available and it uses lithium to provide superior performance in some applications vs. an alkaline cell. Energizer — whose “bunny” campaign simply isn’t as smart and powerful as Duracell’s “copper top” campaign — has finally found an area where it can pick up market share, because it has done a nice job positioning its products in the new, lithium sub-category.
This new technology poses a problem both to consumers as well as battery marketers because the lithium batteries are much more expensive and only outperform alkaline cells in some– not all — applications. For consumers, that means the best-cost solution varies: in some applications it’s more economical to buy lithium batteries because of their longer life; sometimes you save money by buying alkaline batteries.
While I have no connection to anyone at Duracell, I suspect what’s happening is that they perceive Energizer’s success with Energizer e2 Lithium as a threat to their standard alkaline batteries. Indeed, lithium cells are in fact a new choice in the marketplace and they are taking share from the alkaline battery market. But the problem is that most consumers don’t really understand the details of current battery technology. So they look at an ad like the one in Newsweek and reasonably get the message that “Duracell doesn’t last as long as Energizer.”
No brand that has positioned itself as a performance leader and has persuaded consumers to pay a premium for its products should ever reposition itself as the lower-cost, lower-quality alternative, and that is precisely what this ad does. In fact, it’s a well-known marketing maxim that the leading brand shouldn’t compare itself to competitors under any circumstances — that’s a “follower” strategy, not a “leader” strategy.
Complicating things further, Duracell has its own “uber-cell,” the Duracell Ultra. I don’t know if this is a lithium or souped-up alkaline battery because the “How batteries work” link was down on the Duracell website when I clicked it. But clearly the Duracell Ultra is the brand that competes with Energizer e2 Lithium.
I sympathize with Duracell’s challenge in the suddenly-changing consumer non-rechargeable battery market. Their hard-earned and carefully-crafted positioning of their standard alkaline batteries is threatened by new technology and they certainly need to come up with a strategy to continue their brand perception and category dominance. But these things happen — technology advances and categories change and Duracell needs to respond. But this ad is absolutely the wrong approach. It’s just too likely that consumers will perceive that the core message of the ad is that Energizer (regardless of additional modifiers like “e2” or “lithium”) is the superior and more expensive brand. Duracell has aggressively, thoughtfully and carefully established and defended its position as the superior alternative for a long time. To use their great brand name, credibility and marketing dollars to switch positions with their number one rival, thus handing Energizer the “best battery” position on a silver platter is simply foolish and counterproductive.
Time for a new strategy, Duracell. Engage those great brand thinkers at parent P&G and come up with something revolutionary — instead of this reactionary, counterproductive white flag. You still have the best equity in the battery category and if you don’t believe that, search blogs under “favorite battery.” Most consumers still believe that Duracell is the superior brand and you need to reinforce rather than undermine that position.