The most resilient, contagious parasite

A famous dialog in an early scene in Christopher Nolan’s Inception goes, “What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient… highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate.”

That mind/brain is unique like that. If you put a physical object or a liquid inside a container, you can empty it. But when I tell you, ‘Do not think of an elephant!’, your mind will picture an elephant almost instinctively – you cannot remove something from your conscious thought. At best, you can forget it, or move on to thinking about other things 🙂

Most advertising is built on the premise of seeding a thought in your mind.

Feeling groggy in the morning? Think of our coffee.
Thirsty? Think about our cola.
Hungry? Think about our food ordering app.
Need to travel? Think of our ride-hailing app.

You get the idea.

But these are the basics of advertising. The idea is to simply associate a brand with a contextual need.

How about we aim higher?

How about we make your brand seem everywhere? That is, when we see something around us (that is usually available commonly and in abundance), we think of a particular brand! And if such an idea can help us target the advertising of our rivals, even better, right?

Cadbury’s 5 Star’s November 2022 campaign by Ogilvy is only the most recent example of this basic idea.

The idea was to consider what people think when they think of or see ‘5 Star’. Since the brand of chocolate is available only in shops, chances are people are not going to think of it all that often. Or, they’d consider it only when they are looking for chocolates.

That’s where Ogilvy considers the other areas in our daily life when we stumble on 5 Star… not 5 Star, the chocolate, but five stars. We see it for any and every kind of product or service rating on every single e-commerce site.

Zomato delivery? The delivery person asks you, ‘Please give five star rating, Sir’!
Uber ride ended? The driver asks you, ‘Give five stars please’.
Looking for some product on Amazon? You sort the results using the star rating which has… yes, five stars!

Cadbury’s idea was to make you think of 5 Star, the chocolate whenever and wherever you see five stars in the context of reviews and ratings.

The idea fits within 5 Star’s ‘Do nothing’ (the chocolate’s texture is so rich and gooey that you’d simply chew hypnotically, and do nothing at that time… is the s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d imagination/implication) campaign theme. Why? Because, without advertising, 5 Star is making you think of 5 Star. That ‘without advertising’ is where they assumed it fits within ‘do nothing’.

But that’s also where they stumble into a quandary: How does Cadbury seed the thought into the heads of a LOT of people so that their intended effect of ‘do-nothing’ advertising works?

For that Cadbury needs to advertise a LOT more often, to a LOT more people. That is doing a LOT, the opposite of nothing 🙂

If they had hoped that after seeing their only (do only one thing, not nothing) ad, people would do the talking (share this brilliant idea among themselves), that’s still doing something by a lot of people. If they did nothing (that is, not share this idea with others), then Cadbury’s idea stays only inside the few people’s heads who have seen the ad 🙂

But enough of stars and nothing. Which other brand has used a similar premise of seeding a thought in our heads so that we think of the brand on a commonly available/visible cue? Here are some examples:

1. Volvo, 2015

For the 2015 Super Bowl, Volvo did something that helped them hijack every other rival car brand ad! It was called ‘Volvo Interception’.

Volvo did not advertise during the Super Bowl in 2015. All they (agency: Grey, New York) did was a tweet (backed by a landing page) and promos on their own social channels.

The rules are simple.
a. When you see a/any car ad during the Super Bowl, nominate a loved one who deserves a brand-new Volvo XC60 Luxury Crossover and also mention why you think they deserve it
b. You have to do this only during the duration of a rival brand ad playing in a Super Bowl break!

Consider the cost of a Super Bowl ad and then imagine what Volvo has done here! While other brands are spending millions of dollars making ads and airing them during the Super Bowl (what Lord Murugan did, in search of the divine fruit), Volvo does a Ganesha 🙂

To take the Cadbury 5 Star example (when you see five stars, think of 5 Star), Volvo’s pitch was, ‘When you see any other car ad, think of Volvo’!

Very low cost, super brand recall during the hottest advertising avenue of the year!

2. UBREW – Responsibly, 2017

UBREW is a small craft brewery in London that started as an open brewery where more than 500 members brew their own beer. In 2017, UBREW wanted to establish itself as a traditional brewery.

Along with McCann, the agency, they launched a new brand of low-alcohol beer named ‘Responsibly’.

Why this name?

Because every other (larger) alcohol brand was extensively asking people to ‘Drink Responsibly’ in their ad campaigns!! ‘Drink responsibly’ is simply the safe drinking messaging inserted in most alcohol advertising, either out of legal necessity or social responsibility.

But McCann took ‘Drink responsibly’ literally, as ‘Drink ‘R’esponsibly’ in what seems like a casual joke between friends taken way too seriously 🙂

The operating idea is ‘when you see ‘Drink responsibly’ in any alcohol advertising, think of UBREW’s Responsibly.

The same 5 Star conundrum applies here too – how would a LOT of people think of UBREW’s Responsibly when they stumble upon ‘Drink responsibly’ messages from any other alcohol brand?

Only when they are made to see the connection.

How would they see the connection? Because McCann used quite a few guerilla tactics to seed the connection.

Like replying to other beer brand tweets that use ‘Drink responsibly’ or ‘Enjoy responsibly’ in a different context. UBREW responded with, ‘Thank you for advertising our beer’ to hijack the message! 🙂

The brand also took YouTube pre-roll ads that play before other beer brand ads!

Sadly, while all this was great advertising, the product itself doesn’t exist, along with UBREW, today. It all shut down in 2019. Even the ‘ubewcc’ Twitter handle (that replied to many other beer brands as part of the campaign) has turned into ‘nolowuk’.

3. Tide, 2018

Tide and its agency Saatchi & Saatchi NY went bazooka with the idea in the 2018 Super Bowl. It was the complete opposite of what Volvo did with a very low cost, depending only on the strength of their idea and their own social media properties.

Tide’s core idea was this: people/models in all ads are usually immaculately dressed. And because they wear spotless, shiny clothes, those clothes were washed with… Tide! That is, every single ad out there is a Tide ad!

How to bring this alive? That is, how to make people think of Tide when they see shiny, spotless clothing in every other ad during the Super Bowl?

This is where P&G did not use Volvo’s tactics; they instead chose to spend big bucks to push the thought of ‘Every ad is a Tide ad’.

One, they signed up actor David Harbour who was riding high with his presence in Netflix’s hit series Stranger Things (as Jim Hopper) which had completed 2 seasons, in 2016 and 2017.

Two, they made a 45-second ad (called ‘It’s a Tide Ad’) and aired it at the end of the first quarter during the 2018 Super Bowl. This is where they introduce the idea. It’s a parody of assorted product ads, all featuring David, and they all end with seeding the thought that every other ad could be a Tide ad!

Three, they followed it up with a 15-second ad (called ‘It’s Another Tide Ad’) at the end of the 2nd quarter which featured an even more popular advertising character – Old Spice Guy, Isaiah Mustafa. Old Spice belongs to P&G and the company brought it to help Tide and assert the basic thought – every ad is a Tide ad.

Four, they followed it up again with another 15-second ad (called ‘It’s Yet Another Tide Ad’) at the end of the 3rd quarter. This featured a Clydesdales pony, made immensely popular by the Budweiser ads series. The ad doesn’t mention Budweiser, but cleverly uses that ad series’ most recognizable character, the pony, and alludes to the idea that this beer ad too is just a Tide ad. This ad features a fellow P&G product mascot – Mr. Clean!

Five, they followed it yet again with another 15-second ad (aptly called ‘It’s Yet Another Tide Ad, Again’) at the end of the 4th quarter.

Tide is the first brand in this list that went all out to seed the ‘if you see/think of X, think of Y’ template into people’s brains in a big, big way. Given Super Bowl advertising’s sheer reach and visibility, it’s no wonder that Tide’s execution is most remembered within this idea’s construct, more than Volvo which took a low-cost, guerilla approach (and would have probably seen a better return on investment as a result).

4. Heetch, 2022

French ride-sharing app used the same idea during the Football world cup in late 2022. Instead of officially working with either the tournament itself or the French team, they did something similar to Volvo – low-cost, high-on-idea.

They announced that their biggest ad campaign was to premiere during a match between Argentina and Croatia, but no ad actually was launched.

Instead, the idea was to make the French viewers think of ‘Heetch’ when they hear the names of many Croatian players ending with ‘…ic?’ (since it is pronounced ‘heetch’). The very same ‘see five stars, think of 5 Star’, with an auditory framework.

The campaign, by the agency BETC Paris, was cheeky and social media-only (meaning: zero-cost). So even if the agency showcases a lot of tweets in the case video, how many French viewers actually thought of Heetch when they heard the player names during a frenzied football match given that the only cue was a tweet from a limited-reach Twitter handle is a moot point.


Seeding a thought in one person’s brain is one thing. But seeding a thought (or a connection between 2 disparate things) in the minds of many, many people in a way that they have not thought of it yet, is a vastly different level.

The Tide ad template is perhaps the best example of doing it right, in a really big way for maximum reach (maximum brains reached). My personal favorite is the Volvo ad, though, given its guerilla approach in a very pointed way, during the event, and that too during only rival ad exposures.

The core idea is not very different from brands trying to take over other non-brand elements around us – red for Coca-Cola, yellow for McDonald’s, blue for Pepsi, and so on.

In fact, McDonald’s latest ad, by the agency Leo Burnett UK, aims to appropriate the gesture of ‘raising the eyebrow’ as something that should remind one of McDonald’s Golden Arches!

How successful the seeding of ‘think of McDonald’s when someone raises their eyebrows’ depends on how much money and effort McDonald’s puts into the idea.

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