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Ambushed: When Flipkart’s Big Billion Sale turned into a nightmare

Snapdeal and Amazon used the event to turn it into a classic marketing ambush. To make matters worse for Flipkart, it ran into massive social media bashing as customers felt badly let down technical glitches, server crashes and lack of product availability

Sarmistha Neogy | Mumbai | October 8, 2014

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Cashing in on the festive season, e-commerce players have started jostling with each other to garner the consumers’ attention and persuade them to buy everything online. It all started with Flipkart screaming across print, television, online and social media about its ‘Big Billion Day Sale’ that happened on October 6, 2014. The teaser ad, titled ‘Big Things’, featuring stand-up comedian Vir Das, went viral and was shared widely on social media platforms.

Reminiscent of the great cola wars of the past, Snapdeal launched its biggest marketing campaign featuring 28 celebrities with 50 commercials. The aim of this unique marketing strategy was to reach out to its varied customer base across metros and Tier 2 &3 cities. Amazon also joined this festive sale bandwagon with its ‘Mr & Mrs Verma’ TVCs.

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Marketing is all about creating the right perception and customer satisfaction. And that is where everything seemed to go wrong for Flipkart’s Billion Day Sale. Within an hour of its commencement, irate customers hit the social media with rants about how the site had spiked up product prices and how products were not available after a while. Technical glitches marred customer experiences to such an extent that they started bad-mouthing the site with hastags like #FlopKart and #FakeKart trending on social media.

It was then that rival websites like Snapdeal and Amazon, with the help of smart ambush marketing, hijacked Flipkart’s sale and gained traction on their sites by offering better deals to customers.

Amazon also adopted another smart marketing technique – when users typed the URL on their browsers, they landed on the homepage of Amazon instead of Flipkart!

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And on October 7, Big Bazaar released a full-page ad which read ‘No Deal Can Win the Trust of a Billion People. You Have to Earn It’. The ad further said: ‘You can’t take a nation for granted even for one day. Since 15 years, we have always offered honest promotions and discounts. We stock enough to let everyone benefit it, only to give you the most genuine offers and sales’. It was a direct dig at Flipkart’s insufficient stock and failure to satiate the demands of online customers.

Snapdeal, meanwhile, revealed its card very cautiously. On the day of the Flipkart Big Billion Sale, Snapdeal came out with a print ad that said: ‘For others, it’s a big day. For us, today is no different’, placed right next to Flipkart’s ad that screamed ‘Today, don’t look anywhere else. India’s greatest sale ever is here.’

Snapdeal’s unique marketing campaign with 28 celebrities, such as Ali Asgar (Dadi from ‘Comedy Nights with Kapil’), Alok Nath (popular as Babuji), Harsha Bhogle, Mandira Bedi and a host of other TV actors created quite a buzz.

Sandeep Komaravelly Sandeep Komaravelly

Speaking about the Snapdeal campaign, Sandeep Komaravelly, Senior Vice-president,, said, “This is one of the most innovative and unique marketing campaigns that has been attempted so far by any brand. We have strategically chosen the most popular characters from the best-loved TV shows across India to connect with our wide consumer base.  The idea was to talk about the Diwali Bumper Sale, using characters that everyone relates to. It’s a very novel approach for a marketing campaign.”

Sachin Das Burma Sachin Das Burma

Commenting on the TVC made by FCB Ulka, Sachin Das Burma, Group Creative Director, FCB Ulka, said, “The challenge this time was to break the clutter of the festival rush on television, where all brands will be fighting for the mind space of the consumer. We were very sure of our product deliveries, in terms of genuine products, great deals and range, so it was essential to do something quirky and simple to drive home the point. We had all the popular faces of the small screen to endorse our brand, and it was imperative to use them keeping their characters in mind and that too in an entertaining manner. Kudos to the team led by Anurag Bhalla, who did a fantastic job by turning around 40 scripts and executing them."

Such was the frenzied bashing that Flipkart faced on social media that by the end of the next day, October 7, Sachin and Binny Bansal, Founders of Flipkart, were forced to issue a public apology as part of damage control. They said: “Yesterday was a big day for us. And we really wanted it to be a great day for you. But at the end of the day, we know that your experience was less than pleasant. We did not live up to the promises we made and for that we are really and truly sorry.” Thereafter, outlining the reasons why things went horribly wrong, they ended saying: “We failed to live up to this promise yesterday and would like to apologise once again to every single customer for our failure.”

Ambush Marketing: Who gains?

The term ‘ambush marketing’, coined in the early nineties by Jerry Welsh, revolves around the idea of healthy competition in a climate of expensive and often ill-conceived sponsorships. Popular examples of ambush marketing in India are marketing battles between Hindustan Unilever and Procter & Gamble, Jet vs the now defunct Kingfisher in aviation,  Coke vs Pepsi, Rin vs Tide in detergents, and Horlicks against Complan.

Lloyd Mathias Lloyd Mathias

According to Lloyd Mathias, Marketing Head of Hewlett-Packard India, the focus of ambush marketing should always be consumer-centric and not competitor-centric. “If the marketing is done nicely, then it works, if it is done mainly to take a dig at your rival, then it is a total waste of money. Flipkart, for a long time, has been promoting its Big Billion Day Sale, but Snapdeal and Amazon have done reasonably smart marketing to turn all the attention on them. Therefore, if a brand can ride effortlessly on the back of consumer’s interest, it is bound to benefit from ambush marketing,” he said.

Anita Nayyar Anita Nayyar

Anita Nayyar, CEO, Havas Media Group India & South Asia, said, “Flipkart says they made USD 100 million in 10 hours with one billion hits, which are not awful numbers. Besides, it has taken e-commerce and online retail marketing to a space occupied by the legendary cola wars, overnight. Flipkart pioneered it for India online, playing on the sentiment of festive season cum innate cost-consciousness, and everyone just had to jump on the bandwagon.”

Nayyar further said, “Punches would have rolled anyway, but in no way had Flipkart rung its death knell. And the glitches made headlines – on the tech side. Even global online greats have blipped when hits were unparalleled. The offer promised needed a lot more tightening at the planning stage, in terms of inventory, supply chain, execution and consistency, or was a risk in customer experience and servicing to begin with. Sometimes brands fundamentally underestimate the intensity of the very customer touch points they are trying to reach. Customers saying ‘No’ is certainly an issue, but when customers say ‘Yes’ and if you are talking to Indians online in their language, these people will want what you are offering.”

According to her, ambush marketing can be looked at as unethical, immoral and wrong on the one hand, while on the other, it can be viewed as an innovative challenger brand approach.  “The customer gains most as he gets the best of all worlds. Participating brands get publicity and sale; the better campaign/marketing wins in brand sense. Here, e-commerce and online retail won too,” she summed up.
Naresh Gupta Naresh Gupta

Naresh Gupta, CSO, Bang In The Middle, commented, “If you are in the online business, firstly, technology has to work and, secondly, the deals that you offer has to be good because the online medium is such that people can easily compare with the other sites. These are the two main reasons why Flipkart flipped and sites like Snapdeal and Amazon, with the help of clever marketing, gained the maximum. In fact, if you ask me, Amazon was the smartest of the lot and with the help of quiet ambush marketing, it benefited the most.”

Cash back and coupons site CouponDunia which handles e-commerce businesses like Flipkart, Amazon, Snapdeal, Jabong, eBay and others, hugely benefited from the Flipkart Big Billion Sale and the entire ambush marketing revolving around it.

Sameer Parwani Sameer Parwani

Sameer Parwani, CEO and Founder, CouponDunia, said, "I think it was a great day for the e-commerce industry. Yes, there were a few glitches, but any brand doing it on such a large scale is bound to make some unavoidable mistakes. Here, I think the consumers need to understand and be patient. People need to be ready for the fact that they may win; in this case, be able to get some good deals or lose some deals. When customers queue up outside shops or malls during the sale season, they always do not end up getting everything they wish to purchase. It is your luck, if you manage to grab something on first-come-first basis. This is also pretty much the same case, except that it is happening online. I personally got some great deals on both Flipkart and Amazon and made some great purchases for our office. Also, Amazon offered good deals with their gift cards and cash back offers.”

“In terms of brands clashing on the big day, it was a classic case of ambush marketing which we have seen happen across brands in the world. When you are such big industry players, you definitely need to be on top of your game, and I think all of them did pretty well. In fact, our website received maximum traffic yesterday," added Parwani.

Rohan Bhargava Rohan Bhargava

Rohan Bhargava, Co-founder,, explained, “Ambush marketing is becoming increasing popular as an emerging marketing method that gets results. From the point of view of smaller, new age companies, traditional marketing/sponsorships require big budgets that smaller companies cannot afford. Thus, they use creative tactics to get the crowd's attention. Pros are that, it doesn't feel like marketing (in many circumstances). Also, as it’s unexpected and surprising, it catches the consumers’ eyes faster. Cons would be that usually ambush marketing tends to be quite daring – it can lead to legal issues or backfire resulting in negative publicity. In the case of Flipkart’s Billion Dollar initiative, the entire e-commerce sector as a whole gained.”

As they say, marketing is not just about sales figures; perceptions play a bigger, long-term role in the life of a brand.

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