In days of yore, when the principal function of advertising was to
lodge the brand name (and a USP) in consumers’ consciousness, the very
notion of unbranded advertising would have seemed ludicrous.
Not so nowadays, when we have a few campaigns running without any
branding whatsoever and an increasing number that eschew conventional
But what exactly do we mean by ’non-branding’? There is clearly a
spectrum, ranging from visual exposure of the brand name, often
reinforced in the voiceover, to those campaigns that use neither brand
name nor signifier (one thinks of the Independent launch campaign, or
HHCL’s First Direct fish ads).
Elsewhere on the continuum are campaigns which do not feature the brand
name but do use other visual identifiers such as a logotype or another
device (Nike’s tick, the Famous Grouse), a colour or livery which they
have come to own (Boddingtons’ orange and black, the purple of Silk Cut,
Marlboro’s drop of red), a musical theme or strapline.
Indeed, it is arguably a wonder that so few agencies succeed in
persuading clients to run with ’unbranded’ campaigns. Why? Because it
works. More interesting is why it works, in which categories it might
work, among which audiences and in which media.
It works, as Barry Delaney remarked recently, only on the back of
significant spend, but can otherwise cut across categories (cigarettes,
beer, clothes, even financial services). It can work in different media
and can succeed against different audiences, although most effectively
with younger consumers.
This is because ’unbranded’ advertising is just one example of the
numerous games agencies play with consumers.
At the root of the ever-expanding toolbox of offbeat techniques for
engaging audiences in a cluttered environment is differentiation, and
intrigue is one of the most effective devices to hand.
The imperative is to recognise the audience’s intelligence, to be alert
to the largely peripheral role advertising plays in our lives and to
seek to earn brownie points via the use of exclusive meanings (’not
everyone will get this, but we know ...’), or apparently bizarre and
thus attention-grabbing devices.
Of course, at the less wacky end of the spectrum, understated branding
works by including the consumer, incorporating him/her into a group by
virtue of his/her participation in the simple decoding exercise.
It demonstrates confidence on the part of the advertiser, it can create
an effect not unlike deja-vu, whereby the act of recognition underscores
brand presence and value. It’s a little like ’Mars bars must be good
because they’ve always been here and I can’t conceive of a Mars bar-free
It also has a playfulness that is appreciated by the audience.
The UK consumer is as ad-literate as any consumer in the world. The ad
community is thus able to let loose the full force of its ingenuity in
probing the bounds of acceptability, giving rise to such devices as Gold
Blend’s soap opera, the Miller Time ad-programmes, the bold and
successful Marmite ’I hate’ campaign, the Salon Selectives spoof on
category conventions and the madcap Pot Noodle video diary, among
But beware pale imitation and be sure you know why you are ploughing
this non-conventional furrow. The brands which have succeeded usually
have something to say, and are actively engaged in using ’unbranded’ or
convention-breaking advertising as part of a relationship-building
exercise, marking out their brand as something different.