Will Consumers See Through Invisible Branding?

by Winthrop & Weinstine, P.A.
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Last week, Jack Ellis of World Trademark Review, did a very interesting piece on something called “invisible branding”: “Trademark-free marketing: should other companies follow Ford?”

In it, Ellis explores Ford Motor Company’s recent decision to utilize no trademark or brand references in Ford’s “Go Further” advertising campaign.

It is interesting timing for Ford to go stealth without its brand name and logo, since it was reported just days ago that Ford has gotten its blue oval trademark back (it had been posted as collateral and security for loans to avoid bankruptcy back in 2006), but that’s another story, apparently an emotional one for the Ford family.

In any event, truth be told, and assuming no non-traditional product configuration trademarks are present, there is actually one visible brand reference (Ecoboost) in the “Go Further” ad, but apparently, no one appreciates that it is linked to Ford. I suspect they will now (perhaps this a significant secondary benefit of the campaign in favor of the Ecoboost sub-brand).

But, back to Ellis, he captured my off-the-cuff perspective on the moving topic last week:

“Steve Baird shareholder attorney at Winthrop & Weinstine and an author at the Duets Blog, believes that such a method is not necessarily a bad idea: ‘It creates some mystery and intrigue about who put out the ad, possibly generating more interest than a branded spot might enjoy. This is especially so for those who might normally ignore a Ford spot for whatever reason.’ By using an anonymous approach, Ford may well be able to gain the attention of a potential new consumer base that would otherwise be inaccessible.”

And, now I see, William Lozito over at Name Wire confirms that the “Go Further” campaign is designed to “overcome negative perceptions” about the Ford brand. He goes on to say: “The idea is that Ford is so well known — but so misrepresented — that the brand can now quietly reposition itself. Will this happen without constant reminders to consumers about who they are? Time will tell.”

I suspect time will also tell whether, on balance, consumers will appreciate the unconventional marketing effort as an innocent attempt to reintroduce Ford or more like unwelcome manipulation of skeptics to generate coveted click-through hits at www.gofurther.com (3 Million the first week), and if the latter, will the brand suffer the consequences of further hardening the critics and skeptics?

This isn’t Ford’s first marketing effort to win over skeptics of the Ford brand, as Mike Rowe and Ford’s “Swap Your Ride” campaign has been going on for some time now, and it apparently is expected to continue alongside the “Go Further” campaign.

Some have likened the “invisible branding” approach to the well-established trend of a few well-known and famous brands to focus their visual identity on non-verbal logos that stand alone, for example the Nike swoosh or McDonald’s golden arches.

I see them as quite different. Brands that are able to shed their name in favor of a wordless symbol do so from a position of power (as these examples demonstrate). These brands shed their names because they want to and they can communicate through a stand-alone visual icon, not because they are trying to avoid being ignored by critics, and not because they are trying to displace existing negative associations with the brand.

In contrast, the Ford plan could be viewed by some as an invitation to a masquerade party where at least one possible outcome is an angry guest who goes home frustrated after his or her date removes the mask (and then blogs or tweets about it).

It certainly is an interesting approach — to mask or obscure a brand — in order to buy a second chance with a consumer, especially when the buzz word among social media evangelists is the importance of brand “transparency” — so, as I think about this issue more, Ford’s decision to embrace “invisible branding” in the “Go Further” campaign could be considered in conflict with the necessary transparency that successful social media demands.

It seems to me, the real question could boil down to whether Ford wins over more skeptics than it alienates by temporarily wearing a mask and obscuring its identity in the initial “Go Further” ads. I assume Ford has done this calculation, and it’s comfortable with the risk, so it will be interesting to see how this decision may impact the Ford brand going forward.

What do you think? Is invisible branding a good idea? And, if so, when might it make the most sense?

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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