Last month in the Middle East, Coke put out a new version of their product in cans with no logo or labeling whatsoever. Only the iconic red can with the white stripe remained, along with a message that read, “labels are for cans, not people.” The promotion coincided with the Muslim celebration of Ramadan and was aimed at calling attention to prejudice around the world. “In the Middle East, a region with over 200 nationalities and a larger number of labels dividing people, these Coca-Cola cans send a powerful and timeless message that a world without labels is a world without differences,” the ad agency behind the campaign said in a press release.
A brand like Coke can pull off a stunt like this because it is on a level few brands ever attain. It is one of the uber-brands of the world, where the rules of branding can be bent or even broken. Uber-brands revel in the audacious, spend more marketing money than most companies’ total revenues, confound their competition and, generally, keep right on growing. As an uber-brand, Coke can stick its nose into worldwide social issues and have valuable public relations praise heaped upon it. Other brands would be far more likely to crash and burn if they even dared to attempt such a move.
Yes, it’s good to be king.
Uber-brands can make monumental mistakes and get away with it. Of course, the biggest ever is New Coke, where the soft drink giant attempted to change its formula to fend off Pepsi, a hard-charging challenger brand. The backlash was immediate and strong, but also short-lived. (If it happened today, the social media explosion would likely break the Internet all over again.) Coke’s very loyal followers got their Coke back and forgave the transgression in short order. Other uber-brands are able to introduce products that flop and keep on winning. Apple has had many, including the Newton message pad, Macintosh TV (as well as Apple TV, really) and the Power Mac G4 cube.
The media loves uber-brands and follows their every move. While this can have a downside, uber-brands consistently generate priceless amounts of free publicity, just by being themselves. There is constant speculation about the next new product to come from Apple, McDonald’s, or Google. The leaders of the companies can become celebrities in their own right, if they choose to. If an uber-brand holds a press conference or special event, the media is begging for credentials and vying for a scoop or angle that no other outlet can get. When the average brand introduces a new product, it is usually the one begging for the publicity.
Uber-brands even reject free publicity—ever notice how often you’ll see an Apple laptop or desktop computer on a TV show with the apple logo covered up? Most brands would be overjoyed at being featured in a TV show, but Apple has made it clear that they don’t want their brand value being used to boost that of the show, at least not without compensation and oversight of the content. In fact, officially, Apple prohibits anyone from even giving away their products in a promotion, without permission and following a strict set of guidelines.
Of course, uber-brands must contend with being held to the highest standards. Walmart’s success has led to scrutiny of their compensation, buying practices and negative effects on local economies. Apple has been criticized for the labor practices in the plants that make their products, even though they don’t own them. Apple even bumped into another uber-brand, Taylor Swift, when she objected to their initial statement that no artist would be compensated for the free music they were planning to give away to promote Apple Music. Was Apple embarrassed? Maybe. Any brand damage? Nah.
What can a mere mortal brand learn from watching the biggest and brightest? Aspiring to achieve that kind of brand equity and loyalty is fine. But, be careful not to be enamored by the tactics they choose. They can afford hot air balloons, over-the-top glitzy product announcements and packaging with no labels. Remember, though, these tactics are a drop in the bucket of their vast marketing budgets. Do follow the leader when it comes to policing your brand and considering it one of your most valuable assets. You’ll know you’ve made it to the top when you can tell a TV show not to show your logo.
As published in the Central Penn Business Journal and Lehigh Valley Business.