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.