McDonalds brand free ad

With extensive publicity and online buzz beginning to build around the US launch of McDonalds' new "brand free" ad, which highlights the great taste of Coke "post mix" in McDonalds outlets across the US but no mention of the brand itself, you could wonder whether this new approach might herald in a new era for other brands and their marketing activity.

The new "brand free" ad features an actress dressed in yellow against a red backdrop – the familiar McDonalds brand colours. She then tells the viewers that if they did "a Google search for 'That place where Coke tastes so good'" they would know where to go, the implication obviously being that this would be to McDonalds. But most importantly, in all of this onscreen dialogue, she omits any mention of the actual "M" word itself.

According to Deborah Wahl, the chief marketing officer for McDonalds in the US, they felt that this approach for their ad would work particularly well with their target millennial consumers, with their well known suspicion of overtly branded messages. As Wahl said, "They are very influenced by word of mouth and what their peers say."

All of this highlights the changing dynamics of the marketing communications landscape in 2017, where established brands and marketing disciplines are now having to compete in a much more fluid, multi channel online environment, and one in which consumers no longer feel that they want to be dictated to by obviously branded sales messages.

As customers, people now want to make up their own minds about which brands and products to follow and purchase. In a world where bloggers and vloggers now wield just as much power and influence as traditional media, any marketing that is seen as too salesy, too branded, or which makes little or no attempt to engage directly with their target consumers, will just not generate much commercial traction.

What is clever about the McDonalds ad, and why it has attracted so much publicity, is that this major global brand is positioning itself as being "in on the joke". It knows that everyone is well aware of its brand identity and its values as an organisation. McDonalds has realised that in the new digital world it doesn't need to reiterate all of this but can use the background of this consumer awareness to promote and sell one key product offering.

Of course not all brands enjoy the same instant connection with consumers – but this ability to leave the brand landscape to one side to engage in a direct dialogue with the target consumer, focusing on one central message and one which will still ultimately meet the sales objectives, should not be discounted.

This is also where the importance of other less direct marketing disciplines such as creative content generation and targeted PR and media relations come into their own. These marketing disciplines are powerful, and will remain so in this new digital world, because they position both brands and organisations in front of their target audiences, but with the additional power of the third party endorsement of being published by the social media platform or media outlet in question.

Ironically, the question that this new "brand free" ad actually poses is perhaps not what the ad team at McDonalds had anticipated. What the ad really demonstrates are actually the limitations of traditional branded advertising, posing the question about how much longer advertising as a marketing discipline will retain its power. Will this traditional marketing activity retain its resonance for brands trying to connect with consumers in a multi channel digital world when really it could just be reduced to just another stream of information and content?

We will have to wait and see, but whatever the outcome, there is no doubt that what we know as traditional advertising will probably look, and operate very differently, in a few years time.

The Press

Recently we have seen a number of media outlets issuing high profile "media retractions", statements outlining how they have inaccurately reported a story and have now reached a settlement with the individuals or organisations concerned.

Is a knee jerk reaction the answer?
But these statements, particularly when they are in response to a well-known personality, can sometimes generate even more publicity about the incident in question. This is why I would question whether a "knee jerk" response to get the media to publicly take back what they have already reported is always the right response if you want to build a positive reputation. Sometimes this will only make the story stay even longer in the public consciousness – after weeks of negotiations some media retractions appear when the story has all but faded from public interest. Then, the statement is published and brings the story right back into full technicolour for everyone to read about all over again.

But are these media retractions really effective as reputation management tools? It is true that in the short term they will give the claimants the satisfaction of shutting down a media pipeline of potentially more damaging stories, however, are readers ever convinced and how effective are they in the longer term? Are readers ever really convinced anyway by the alternative version of events as presented in a retraction statement?

In my view most readers will probably think "well they're only saying that because they have been forced to" which will probably not change their view of the reported truth so far anyway.

An alternative approach
As a PR professional, I would always recommend a more below the radar approach – developing an alternative pipeline of positive news stories and briefings with trusted media partners, supplying key journalists with the facts so that they can then produce more balanced articles. This strategy will then generate a stream of alternative editorial content to counterbalance any inaccurate stories that are in the public domain. Most importantly this new content will also be published with the third party endorsement of respected editorial outlets, so that readers will feel that the content is inevitably more credible than one that has only been published as the result of legal and financial muscle.

But getting media outlets to issue these "media retractions" seems to becoming increasingly popular at the moment with a number of high profile individuals, as they probably feel that by doing so they regain an element of editorial control. They will brief their PR and legal teams to contact the editorial team in question, demand that the story be taken down and then, if this request is not met, they will issue legal proceedings, along with a claim for financial damages. 

If the legal claim goes through successfully, the media outlet in question will then be forced to publish the statement or media retraction. 

Draft that statement very carefully
You could view this as rather a humiliating scenario for respected journalist teams, having to admit publicly that they got the story wrong in the first place. But that would to vastly underestimate the journalistic skill of those writers that will be drafting and issuing the media retraction.

When you view some media retractions you wonder whether the PR team were even involved in its negotiation and drafting of them – a legal agreement is not designed for the media. Sometime these statements really just tell the story again, summarising very clearly the elements of the story in question, along with a clear message that the statement that "they got it wrong" was only issued after they were forced to reach a legal and financial settlement.

Less is more
If you have to resort to asking a media outlet for a media retraction, and sometimes this can be the only option in really extreme cases where clearly an article contains libellous inaccuracies, the wording of the statement must be very carefully crafted. This really comes down to how they are negotiated by both the PR and the legal teams working together. As I have already said, what you don't want is a lengthy retraction statement, which basically repeats the same story again. The ideal media retraction statements should only consist of one or two sentences, just summing up the agreement and stating in brief why the claim was made in the first place.

It's never really over
The key piece of advice that I would give any clients pushing for a media retraction is that these statement will never really close down a negative story. In our digital world, once it has hit the online highway the story is out there in the public consciousness, even if you get the content taken down or get the media to issue statements to the contrary. The best approach is to recognise this media reality and move on, generating as much positive content to strengthen your reputation, so that that you firmly place a question mark for readers over any future negative stories about you.

Westgate buliding

It’s the first working day of 2017 and the first day of my internship at Westgate Communications. As I’m walking from my car, a sudden rush of questions floods my head: “What’s this going to be like? What work am I going to be asked to do? How much of this sort of thing should I know already? What happens when they realise I make terrible tea, coffee and puns?”

Needless to say, I was winding myself up over nothing. As I come to the end of my internship here at Westgate, I thought I’d share some of my experiences and a few valuable lessons I will take away from here, and may be helpful to anyone looking to join Westgate or start a career in PR.

Westgate intern life

We all know clichés about what an internship can involve: making cups of tea, sorting paper clips and generally doing the jobs the rest of the office doesn’t feel like doing. For me, the first and most important thing to know before interning at Westgate is that you get asked to do actual work that contributes to the company and its clients. Every task I was asked to complete had a purpose and was aimed to directly help Westgate and its clients, and so I really felt a part of the team.

By the end of my first week, I had been given a vast array of responsibilities including detailed research on companies and industries, social media content generation, coverage clipping, and contacting journalists about a competition opportunity and possible article suggestions. I’ve particularly enjoyed the diversity of work at Westgate; on any one day I could be asked to do any combination of these tasks, among others, and perform them across a range of client industries, from brewing to spirituality, and motorhome insurance to controlled environment technology. The fast-paced nature of each day always kept me on my toes and eager to get involved in as many areas as possible.

I found that one of the biggest differences between university life and my time at Westgate has been the team environment, as most of my university work was individual. It’s thanks to the friendly and supportive office Westgate has that I was able to receive the positive feedback I did, and why I was able to enjoy my time as much as I have. Everyone is really keen to help if you have a query, whether their area or not, and you can guarantee daily laughs and smiles.

Most valuable lessons

There’s so much I’ve learnt at Westgate, even after only three months. I’ve tried to condense it down into some little pointers that can be of help before embarking on a career in PR and marketing at Westgate:

First of all, never be afraid to chase and persevere. The old saying really does work here: “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, and try again”. Not getting a reply to an email doesn’t mean no. Journalists, in particular, will often receive a huge number of emails each day and it’s easy for one to slip by without them even knowing it’s there, so don’t get disheartened. I personally found that journalists could in fact be interested in what I had to say once I got a hold of them. If you do get a ‘no’, this is the opinion of one specific publication; so don’t let it cloud what you think of what you’ve written. It may just not be suitable for them specifically.

Secondly, don’t be afraid to communicate. If you have a question, like whether your draft for a pitch is suitable, whether a publication is the right target for the article, or where is best to find a report with a similar layout to the research you are carrying out, someone on the team will have an answer and will be happy to help. They would rather you took 20 seconds to ask a question than wasted an hour trying to do it yourself.

Thirdly, always try to see if you can do more. My first successful article pitch came from my own research outside of the media list I was given, and it was such a rewarding experience. Also, it’s a great way to get to know everyone on the team better and learn more about the interesting clients Westgate works with.

As a final tip, and this may turn out to be the most valuable tip of all, remember that a company is singular not plural! Remember this and you’ll save yourself unbelievable amounts of time in second drafts taking the letter “s” off words and changing “they” and “their” to “it” and “its”.

So, around 600 emails later, there lies a short snippet of what it’s like working at Westgate and I have learnt so much from it. If you’re interested in working with a range of industries with diverse clients in a fast-paced and fun office, then I would really recommend interning in PR at Westgate as a great place for you to gain experience.

At Westgate Communications we’re always on the look out for enthusiastic graduates who want to kick-start their PR career. If you’re looking for an internship or work experience, then get in touch on 01732 779087 or email

Ed Sheeran

Nine singles in the top ten; 14 singles in the top 15; every single in the top 20; Ed Sheeran’s latest album has proven phenomenally successful. Having burst onto the music scene in 2011 with “The A Team”, his popularity has remained high, yet no one could have predicted this level of success from his third album. So, how does an artist achieve such chart domination?

Understanding AIDA
It all started with a risk. It would have been easy for Ed to fall into obscurity after the year-long hiatus he took, removing himself from all social media and the music industry’s limelight. However, his use of the AIDA theory (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) has brought him back to the forefront of the music industry, and proven to be the backbone of his latest album’s astonishing success.

Ed has consistently employed marketing practices in his music, such as utilising bright colours to make his albums stand out and using symbols as short album titles to make them easier to remember. His latest album was no different. It started with a picture and colour scheme change on social media; both being solely the colour blue. As it was his first social media interaction for exactly a year, it certainly drew ‘attention’.

Then on 1st January 2017, Ed released a short video of him holding a piece of card with the words “New music coming Friday”. The next day, he released another short video of a colon fading over a hyphen, momentarily forming a division symbol. After his two previous albums, ‘+’ and ‘×’, people recognised this symbolism as meaning a new album was soon to be released, piquing their ‘interest’.

Ed then continued to tease fans over the next few days, releasing four further videos, with two containing lyrics but no music, and two containing music with no lyrics. Each video was around ten seconds long but created fan anticipation and ‘desire’ to hear the new songs in full.

On 6th January 2017, this desire evolved into ‘action’. Upon release, the singles “Shape of You” and “Castle on the Hill” were streamed 13 million times in their first 24 hours, a Spotify record, and both went on to enter the UK Singles Chart at number one and two respectively.

Sheeran in the media
However, Ed continued to feed the public and media ‘interest’, using more than just the radio airtime his two singles were already receiving. He continued to use Twitter to promote the already released singles, for example by sharing teasers for their music videos, and shared images of paper cuttings containing the other names of the tracks on his forthcoming album. He then went on to renew the ‘desire’ for his music by performing a new version of his single “Shape of You” with the rapper Stormzy at the Brit Awards the week before his album was due for release. However, his media dominance stems from more than just his abilities as a musician, but from a certain down-to-earth charm and genuinely “nice guy” image he possesses.

Ed appears to have a different anecdote for each press interview, revealing new stories, helping to endear him to a wide audience. As a result, he receives daily press coverage for each new tale. Some of the stories might suggest his ability to appear down-to-earth is surprising, like when talking to The Guardian about hitting Justin Bieber in the face with a golf club or Absolute Radio about the sword incident with James Blunt. However, he regards himself as, and is perceived as, a normal Suffolk guy, and much of his media coverage comes back to him performing genuinely nice acts. Whether talking about him taking a year out of the music industry to travel with his girlfriend and properly get to know her, him performing on The One Show for a couple who had chosen one of his songs as their first dance, or sharing personal stories about the relationships that led to the songs “Thinking Out Loud” and “Photograph”, there is a high level of authenticity to him, which endears him to an expansive audience.

Again, after all this media attention, ‘action’ was sure to follow, and led to ÷ becoming the third fastest selling UK album in history, and the fastest by a male solo artist. His use of traditional media and social media to increase his profile after a year out, and reconfirm the genuine view audiences had of him, was the catalyst to this phenomenal success. Here at Westgate Communications, we can’t guarantee you’ll get the fastest selling album of all time, however with a “Photograph” here and some “Thinking Out Loud” there, our “A Team” will be sure to support your commercial aims and can help to raise your personal profile!

Content Marketing

Digital footprints are everywhere, from our Facebook profiles and Twitter comments to the online reputations and customer communities that brands and businesses are now developing.

The transition to online of course has had a huge impact on all things marketing. Traditional practices such as print and TV advertising now compete with all the online messages from brands and businesses that assault us 24/7.

What's fascinating for those of us who work in marketing is not only the changes in the different activities themselves but also in the terminology that describes them. From mysterious sounding acronyms to the importance of the word 'community', the new marketing landscape now looks vastly different compared to five years ago, when TV advertising still ruled the airwaves.

It is also interesting to note how "all things digital" has gone up the marketing communications agenda for most businesses. Whereas before 'social media' was positioned next to the "AOB" part of the discussion, and seen rather suspiciously as "going into the unknown" by many businesses, now an online presence, from the website itself to updates on all the relevant social media platforms, is seen as crucial to any meaningful business success.

The importance of an online presence has been completely embraced by the business community. This has meant that now hundreds of thousands of businesses and organisations have shifted focus and started dedicating resources to generating content.

But the mistake that too many are making is that they are not considering the nature of this content sufficiently. It is not enough just to post anything. The content that will enhance a reputation and attract wide interest must be unique, well written and full of fresh new insights, along with, if possible, new industry research. Content should not consist of a series repurposed articles that have already appeared on multiple sites already and which have nothing to do with the vision and values of the organisation in question.

The digital footprint that most businesses generate is not only important in today's market but for the future too. The content plan of 2017 will inevitably still form part of the brand foot print in 10, 20, even 50 years time.

This is the compelling reason why most businesses should be putting their content strategy at the heart of their marketing planning process. Whether you define content as website copy, a blog or a video, everything within a marketing plan that represents a business or organisation online must consistently adhere to the company's agreed brand guidelines.

Perhaps us marketers will now be increasingly talking to our clients about marketing content strategies, as opposed to just marketing strategy? I hate to be accused of introducing yet another new bit of marketing jargon but, with the arrival of content at the epicentre of all marketing activity in 2017, there is an inevitability to this. content strategy, take a bow!

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.@SevenoaksSchool student awarded Inspiring Digital Enterprise Award, a scheme established by HRH The Duke of York. See @kentlife for more.

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