Brain Chatter: Who Will Follow in McDonald's Unbranded Footsteps?

June 9, 2017 Shane Schick
Who Will Follow In McDonald’s Unbranded Footsteps? It’s Impossible To Say

I wonder if, when she was filming that McDonalds commercial recently, Mindy Kaling found herself thinking about Kit Kat.

In an episode of “The Office” -- the sitcom where Kaling was initially introduced to TV audiences -- a character called Andy takes a moment to reflect on greatness in marketing.

“Best ad ever?” he says. “Gimme a break! Gimme a break! Break me of a piece of that . . .um, what was it again?”

The line works because we know it’s Kit Kat, of course. Just like Kaling’s McDonald’s spot, where she talks about Coke tastes great in this very particular place, we know she’s referring to the Golden Arches. The brand is never mentioned directly. 

Reaction to the commercial was predictably mixed. A Boston Globe columnist thought it worked (“I couldn’t stop thinking about it”), while AdAge recently noted that subsequent ads do, in fact, mention McDonald’s by name, suggesting the unbranded approach was a short-lived stunt.

There’s actually a long history of unbranded ads, and it’s well-organized in database format on a site called TVTropes. There was an E-trade Super Bowl spot, for instance, “featuring two two guys clapping their hands in time while a monkey danced on top of a bucket. They closed with the line ‘Well, we just wasted two million bucks. What are you doing with your money?’” Beer and cologne ads, meanwhile, rarely put their actual products front and centre.

Where the logo usually appears at the end of 30 seconds, McDonalds took this a step further by deliberately forcing consumers to fill in the blank. In that sense, it provides an ultimate litmus test of the brand’s familiarity by using the colours and other elements we associate with it.

In a New York Times interview, McDonald’s CMO Deborah Wahl said the spot was recognizing the fact that many viewers, in particular Millennials, are now watching TV with a second screen in their hands. I doubt many of them really turned to Google to verify the search results referenced in the ad, but the point is clear: some brands are so powerful that they’re really the sum of the questions people ask about them.

Marketers may wonder if an unbranded approach might work for them too. To some extent it may depend on how well you’ve laid the groundwork with traditional campaigns that created a close connection with consumers based on your brand’s purpose, values and other elements (though as “The Office” pointed out, don’t count on the jingle).

The one person I wish could have commented on the McDonalds spot was Glenn O’Brien, the former editor of Interview magazine and a copywriter for countless ad campaigns. O’Brien, who passed away recently, said he tried to approach all such work as an art project. He actually talks about it in the introduction to his posthumous new title Like Art, a collection of his essays on advertising from Artforum.

What is the difference between art and advertising? Quality? Clearly not. The only difference I could come up with for sure was the logo. I was an adman from that day forward, and somehow it gave me the resources to do what I thought was art—with a logo.

If art can be like an ad without a logo, is an unbranded art like Kaling’s McDonald’s commercial just a traditional short film? No. But it might be worth thinking, the next time a major brand makes a piece of creative, what kind of impact it would have if the logo or the name wasn’t there.

How quickly would the audience recognize it?

What kind of call to action can you make other than “Buy from us?”

If unbranded ads become a trend, they have to become more than a game of “guess who?”

Instead, their overall marketing efforts need to be so powerful you could look at it and say, “Oh, I know who.”

Shane Schick is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine. He tells stories about technology, marketing, innovation, fashion and more. 

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