The Big Brand Era
1. Brands Holding Hands
An image widely circulated in the advertising community shows a Burger King character holding hands with a Ronald McDonald character.
The piece announced that Burger King wasn’t selling whoppers for a day—instead, suggesting that customers patronize McDonald’s that day, which was donating a portion of that day’s sales to Children With Cancer.
The reason we didn’t hear about this until after the fact was because it occurred in Argentina.
But Burger King made sure we heard about it with an English-language version of A Day Without Whopper. In the video, the King himself purchases a Big Mac at McDonald’s.
The promotion originally ran in 2017 and was repeated in 2019. Results from one year show that McDonald’s sold more than 73,000 Big Macs that day than the year before.
Critics say that Burger King could have just donated money to Children With Cancer, along with the money used to operate the promotion, and that the stunt was better received by marketers than by customers.
Still, to see these traditional enemies work hand-in-hand to help children was pretty heartwarming.
While the promotion probably violates at least 10 marketing principles, what I see is that both brands are strong enough to mingle without losing any brand equity. It’s a move that only leading brands can make—and more power to them.
Other Friendly Brands
While the only beneficiaries are the two brands, the execution is brilliant. Tide has some history with making laundry detergent…palatable (not in the Tide Pods sense) and making ads creative.
As a marketer, I wonder which brand paid for the spots. As part of the viewing audience, I’m not just entertained. I also like the idea that big brands can play well together. It feels like generosity of spirit, which is weird because it’s completely self-serving.
Football tie-in, brand switch-up, humor, celebrities—this campaign has everything. Except donations to children’s charities.
But again, it’s proof that big brands can break the rules and come out even stronger. It looks—almost—like they can do anything they want.
2. No-Brand Land
Toward the end of August, Doritos broke its Anti-Ad campaign during the MTV Video Music Awards, clearly targeting Gen Z.
This market grew up being bombarded by brands, and they’re cynical with good reason. The Doritos spot specifically avoids mentioning the brand name, but uses the iconic triangle shape and cheese residue.
Adweek’s summary of the campaign shows an outdoor tactic featuring the dreaded “logo goes here” message. The article reports that the name was removed from social feeds as well.
The point is that the brand is so well-known that the name isn’t necessary. It’s cool for a minute but then feels self-absorbed and self-congratulatory. There isn’t really an opening for the consumer.
And it’s not as groundbreaking as it sounds. In 2011 Starbucks dropped its name from its logo, which had already evolved considerably, in a good way.
Even if we don’t understand why Starbucks uses the mermaid, or siren, we recognize the mark instantly (interestingly, part of its appeal is its imperfection).
We all know the master of this game, though. Pretty much every time a client asks for a logo, they explain that they want a recognizable mark—one that works with or without the name—like Nike’s.
The response is always the same, as well. If you put the kind of money behind your logo that Nike does, you can leave your name off, too. No-brand land belongs solely (pun intended) to the most dominant players.
3. Brand Catastrophe
This branding situation is a marketer’s worst nightmare, but it’s instructive.
Fresno State University is synonymous with the Fresno State Bulldogs, which are enormously popular and greatly beloved throughout central California. The mascot is an oversized, red-T-shirt-clad bulldog that looks vicious and vaguely human.
The problem is that the Fresno State Bulldogs are also beloved by one of California’s most deadly street gangs.
In fact, the gang has actually appropriated the Bulldog name, color and mascot. An excellent 2013 New York Times article about this brand hijacking notes that the university team was scrappy and tough—qualities that gang members identified with and respected.
The Bulldogs began in California prisons sometime around 1985, according to the article. The gang grew exponentially, along with the violence it caused.
Since one out of every eight people in the U.S. lives in California, we’re talking about thousands of gang members. Innocent people have been injured or killed simply because they sported Fresno State University spirit wear.
Apparently, it’s not too uncommon for street gangs to use sports teams’ merchandise that match their colors, but nothing else even comes close to the Fresno situation. The article also quotes several people who believe gang member purchases account for a large volume of Fresno State University merchandise sales.
According to the article, university officials met with law enforcement in 2007 about changing the mascot. The police chief’s advice was to leave the logo alone—because changing it meant the street gang would win. And the university took that advice.
The gang still exists and engages in drug dealing, robbery, human trafficking and more. Bulldogs are known for being particularly vicious and violent.
What can the university do? If they change the mascot, the gang wins, which is wrong. If they keep the mascot, the brand essentially supports the gang, and vice versa, which is wrong. If they get publicity from the situation on a meta level, through articles like this one (or let’s be real, the New York Time article), it’s wrong.
It’s absolutely a no-win situation.
Market leaders seem untouchable. They can play loose with their brands and even remove their names from their logos.
But despite their popularity—or maybe because of their popularity—they’re actually more likely to lose control of their brands.