Since beginning my initial work on product displacement, I’ve noted several instances in which companies utilize unbranding techniques in their advertising campaigns (Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Freshjive). AT&T’s “Rethink Possible” campaign aims to align its brand with innovation and optimism rather than just promoting their latest products or services. AT&T wants to enhance its image and as mentioned in this NYT article, “selling on price is a pathway to commoditization.”
As you can see from the above image, AT&T has ditched its brand name and emphasizes its iconic globe. While the company hasn’t completely unbranded itself because the globe symbol boasts a high 90% recognition rate among consumers, AT&T is demonstrating that less prominent branding can empower a company’s image. The omission of the letters is strategic leadership move and “displaying [the globe] without the “AT&T” echoes the way Nike is recognized by its swoosh and Target by its target.” By taking the focus off its products and communicating arbitrary messages about the future and technology, AT&T has adopted an open-ended campaign in which consumers engage with the brand by aligning it with personal notions of what innovation means to themselves.
Generally, companies do not want their products to be associated with drugs, violence and crime. Mercedes-Benz, for example, demanded any appearance of its logo be removed from Slumdog Millionaire to avoid being associated with Mumbai poverty. Danny Boyle was forced to resort to product displacement and digitally remove the logos from the film. Post-production digital pixelation and physically covering up labels are the most common methods of unbranding a scene to omit any references to trademarked brands.
The “Sweet-N-All” episode of Nurse Jackie provides a fascinating approach to product displacement because it features an establishing shot of sugar packets that instructs viewers to identify Sweet’N All as an artificial sweetener. In this shot, packets of Domino Sugar, Equal, Sweet’N Low and Sweet’N All fall on the floor as Jackie shares an intimate moment with her husband before their daughters arrive for breakfast. It’s important to note that Sweet’N Low and Sweet’N All packets were displayed together because it demonstrates that both brands exist within the Nurse Jackie world. It can even be interpreted that the two pink-packaged sweeteners are rival brands. Sweet’N All is essentially, not a fictionalized version of Sweet’N Low, but rather, it’s a separate, albeit fictional brand that was created to establish the industrious lengths Jackie goes through to fuel her addiction.
A few minutes into the episode, during a voice-over narration, Jackie, with a hint of triggered fondness states, “Sweet’N All. Sounds like Seconal. Remember Seconal?” and then goes on to tell viewers to “watch and learn” as she empties the content of a Sweet’N All packet. She then methodically crushes a mortar full of Percocet, fills three Sweet’N All packets with the drug and seals them to use throughout her workday. Jackie cautions that Percocet should not be chewed, crushed or snorted because, “it’ll hit your system like a bolt of lightning.” With a complete disregard to the forewarned dangers of Percocet, Jackie nonchalantly places the packets in her sweater pocket. Essentially, the Sweet’N All packaging is repurposed by Jackie as drug paraphernalia. The production would have certainly faced legal action if it used Sweet’N Low in such a manner.
What are some products that are so uniquely designed, that the omission of any distinguishable logos has little to no effect on people’s ability to correctly identify the brand? Hummer and Volkswagen Beetles are two products that come to mind. Here are a few others:
Sure, this may be a more archaic model of a Blackberry, but it demonstrates the unique features that make the phone so recognizable. Before the ubiquity of smartphones, this classic Blackberry served as the blueprint of their design. During the 2006 season of Survivor, a contestant found a piece of wood shaped like the mobile device and pretended to send and read emails by using an imaginary scroll wheel.
In the first picture, Pringles canisters are lined on shelves in a manner that the brand name and logo are not visible. Pringles promotes the fact that it comes in a canister as opposed to a bag. This innovative packaging helps give Pringles a pop culture uniqueness that prevents the brand from being just another salty snack indulgence.
When it comes to maple syrup, Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Buttersworth are staples at the breakfast table, but the distinctive bottles help make the brand all the more memorable and fun.
The oft-imitated and parodied VitaminWater bottle solidifies the importance of package design in establishing a brand’s identity. When Glacéau sought to patent the VitaminWater bottle and go after rival companies imitating its design, the company pointed out how consumers may get confused and purchase the wrong product. In a roundabout way, the lawsuit pursuits demonstrate the effectiveness of fictionalized product displacement.
The above image shows the TicTac brand name, but the transparent plastic case that houses the 1 1/2 calorie mints is part of its branding.
Little Trees is notoriously protective over its trademarked tree-shaped air freshener. Even though the product may be well-known to car owners, Little Trees is not exactly a household brand.
Brown uniforms and brown delivery trucks are synonymous with UPS.
Although its design has been modified several times, the iPod, along with the accompanied white earbuds, remains a highly identifiable product.
Like many other Apple products, the iPhone has garnered iconic design status and is capable of promoting the Apple brand without any hint of a logo.
OREO COOKIES & POST-IT NOTES
Even though both Oreo and Post-It are visually identifiable, they are proprietary eponyms and often equated with their cheaper, generic imitators. The above examples, with possibly Little Trees being the only exception, maintain their brand identities and meanings.
In July, Starbucks opened three new coffee shops in Seattle which noticeably lacked its iconic branding. One of the unbranded, remodeled stores will simply be known as 15th Ave Coffee and Tea—a strategy executives are using to capture a more community-oriented feel. Essentially, Starbucks is trying to present itself as a neighborhood coffee shop instead of a corporate conglomerate that ruins small businesses. Critics have referred to the shops as “Stealth Starbucks” and while this sort of marketing is rather subversive, we really shouldn’t be surprised that it has emerged. In an environment in which consumers are bombarded with brand messages and have developed a hyper-awareness and distain for perpetually invasive marketing, companies need to soften their approach. Displacing the familiar slogans, and visual cues that are synonymous with a brand may be a risky move, but several marketers are going this innovative route.
Recently, Coca-Cola launched its “Open Happiness” campaign which consists of a song and music video that do not mention/show the company or any of its products. The campaign seems to be a hit with consumers (mostly outside the U.S.) and according to Umut Ozaydinli, Coca-Cola’s global music marketing manager, “the lack of an in-your-face Coke message is “one of the key reasons” consumers have shown interest in the song” (via: NYT) While not entirely an example of a self-displacement and unbranding, Pepsi began a campaign in Argentina encouraging Argentineans to refer to the brand as “Pecsi.” Pepsi is essentially promoting the “bastardizing [of its] brand name” (via: Naked). The soft drink company is not taking its branding too seriously and welcomes consumer interpretations of its brand. It’s not to say that companies engaging in self-unbranding and displacement are relinquishing control of their corporate identity to consumers—I think it’s quite the opposite.
Starbucks, Coca-Cola and Pepsi are all taking proactive measures to remain relevant and competitive. These companies are catering to an audience whose persuasion knowledge is developing and is perhaps no longer easily susceptible to traditional marketing. Persuasion knowledge involves the interpretation of how people respond, interpret and react to persuasion and influence attempts (Friestad and Wright 1994). Ad messages, whether they occur as billboards, commercials, product placements or banner ads, are losing their effectiveness because of over-saturation. Marketing in general has become rather ubiquitous and invasive, which has resulted in the formation of a hyper-aware audience that sees through and ignores most campaign strategies. As audiences grow jaded and savvy, perhaps the next way for brands to successfully engage them, is by creating ads that do not look like ads. Marketing plans will need to emulate the covertness of Starbucks and Coca-Cola, but also entertain audiences on a personal level.
Friestad, Marian and Peter Wright. “The Persuasion Knowledge Model: How People Cope with Persuasion Attempts.” Journal of Consumer Research. Vol. 21, No. 1. (June 1994).