Take Your Brand Out Of The Campaign

Unbranded marketing (not an oxymoron, we promise) refers to a campaign that drives consumer affinity without relying on branding to build awareness. It would, to some, appear to be a charge into the darkness, a risky maneuver that even in a best case scenario could wind up boosting your rivals’ sales as much as your own. In some cases, these fears are reasonable, and as a result the unbranded campaign is a relative rarity in the advertising space. That logic, however, does not apply universally. We are here to state the case for the unbranded campaign, laying out when, why, and how to deploy the underutilized marketing technique.

Let’s start with one of the greatest assets of unbranded advertising: that it doesn’t have to feel like advertising. The modern consumer, living in a media-saturated environment, now comes standard with a finely-tuned marketing radar, not to mention a distaste for advertising in general. The insertion of branding into consumer-facing content often creates a high barrier to entry, distracting from the message by foisting the brand upon a viewer because…why wouldn’t you?

As it turns out, there are good reasons to abstain, along with conditions for when it makes sense to do so. Exhibit A (self-promotion alert) is our campaign for Andy Boy Broccoli Rabe. When we first proposed the approach, the foundation of our reasoning was uncomplicated: Andy Boy has a more-than-considerable share of the broccoli rabe market. With their leadership in the field, they would stand to be the ones seeing sales boosts from any campaign around the vegetable. With this in mind, we set the goal of establishing Broccoli Rabe, not Andy Boy, as a kitchen staple. By excluding obvious branding, we could avoid alienating consumers who had no interest in the latter, as well as those who would quickly abandon ship at the first signs of overt marketing.

An unbranded campaign is as noteworthy for what it doesn’t have to do nearly as much as for what it does do. Liberated from the imperative to place a brand at the forefront of all messaging, unbranded marketing can highlight the product and the product alone. A significant part of our broccoli rabe campaign is run through social media, and we regularly interact with people who grew up eating it. By removing the brand name from the equation, our social presence can speak as a product that people care about, not the company that’s selling it to them. An unbranded campaign also removes the need to make petty distinctions from other brands offering near-identical products or services that may not ring true for discerning consumers.

We employed a similar approach for a website design project for CNS Imports, the largest purveyor of Baijiu (a massively popular spirit in China) in the United States. We designed two websites, one a clearly branded site for CNS, the other an unbranded, product-centric, Baijiu website. Their grip on the market, combined with Baijiu’s status as a near-complete unknown for most Americans, necessitated that our first step would be simply to let consumers know that it existed, and was readily available for purchase. With those goals in mind, the Baijiu website, like the broccoli rabe campaign, met our conditions for unbranded marketing.

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Food and spirits are far from the only industries that have seized upon the unbranded approach as a means of reaching the consumer, nor is the all-out product-focus the only means of utilizing unbranded marketing. L’Oreal’s FAB Beauty is one such example. The online magazine, which does not feature any L’Oreal branding, includes coverage of rival brands in addition to in-house products. L’Oreal’s approach to unbranded marketing demonstrates a sort of ‘pay it forward’ philosophy, providing consumers with content that they care about, and trusting that they will return the favor with a degree of brand loyalty. As Molly DeWolf Swenson writes for AdWeek, “Content is content. Good content is good content. If a story is moving, no one is going to care that it’s brought to you by a brand. Rather, they’re going to be happy the brand brought it to them.”

We would also be remiss if we did not mention one of the leading sectors for unbranded marketing: The pharmaceutical industry. Their reasons for employing unbranded marketing tactics generally relate to the nature of their business. The less that pharma brands have to remind consumers that they are profiting from disease treatment, the better. The Martin Shkreli-provoked rage of recent years has died down to a certain extent, but a general mistrust of the industry as a whole remains. By highlighting the condition, known as a “disease awareness” campaign, rather than the medication, and directing viewers to consult their doctors for treatment options, pharmaceutical companies can position themselves as life-saving service providers, rather than ghoulish profiteers. Certain pharma brands (not naming any names) also carry negative reputations that could turn the consumer against the product on sight. It also bears mentioning that regulations are less restrictive for unbranded pharmaceutical ads, allowing companies to avoid the always-disconcerting side-effects rundown.

Based on the success of our broccoli rabe and baijiu campaigns, we have come to the conclusion that given the proper prerequisites, especially market share, an unbranded campaign can be extremely effective. When it comes to branding, consumers reward restraint. No one wants to feel pressured to make a purchase, and an unbranded campaign plays precisely into that mentality. Ads are at their best when they don’t feel like ads, and that’s exactly the type of content that makes unbranded campaigns so effective.

Erin Lackey