Not everyone will get this ... and that’s the whole point - ’Non-branding’ works because it taps into consumers’ ad literacy Dave Phillips says. The question is why so few agencies are able to persuade clients to run with i

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.

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

branding methods.

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.


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