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Transparency Is a Means, Not an End

July 29, 2011

Two restaurants, two campaigns. Both are aimed at “redefining the brand.” Both use transparency as a campaign tactic, showing the real people and the real processes that go into making their food.

So why is Domino’s campaign so engaging and Red Lobster’s so boring?

I think it’s because transparency is not an end in itself. If every business pulled back the curtain to show us what really goes on, we’d be bored silly by almost all of it. Red Lobster proves this with videos like this one:

This guy is a crab fisherman—an occupation so exciting that there’s a TV show around how dangerous it is. But Red Lobster doesn’t want to show the excitement, so instead we get placid seas, clear skies, and calm words about how this guy loves his job and his boat.


And then there’s this video, abouta grillmaster who (surprise!) “loves food.”

The point of the second spot is probably to show that Red Lobster uses real wood-fired grills, but they hide that information behind a bland interview. The main takeaway from these two spots is that Red Lobster gets crab from crab fisherman, and there’s a guy in the kitchen who makes your food. I knew that already.

On the other hand, Domino’s spots are fun and engaging—because the campaign doesn’t use transparency as an end in itself, only as a means. Their spots introduce us to various people in Domino’s corporate kitchen, all of whom have the same basic message: If you don’t like our new recipes, we’ll be fired.

“Here’s the guy the handles customer comments about our new chicken recipe. We hope you like it, because if you don’t, this guy has to deal with it.”

“Here’s the guy that redesigned the crust and the sauce—you’ve hated our crust and sauce for years, so we challenged this guy to fix them.”

The spots are great because they match up with our perceptions of Domino’s pizza (that it has sucked for a long time), and gives us a reason to want to change our perceptions. Transparency isn’t enough to make something interesting, we want drama or surprise or conflict.

McDonald’s used surprise + transparency in its original Brand Journalism campaign back in 2007, when the company invited a group of moms to tour McDonald’s facilities. These moms got a behind-the-scenes look at the farms where the potatoes for French fries are grown, and the kitchens where the cooking happens.

According to a Washington Post story from 2008, a group of moms “crowded into the walk-in refrigerator at the Baltimore restaurant. There were eggs stacked in a corner. Kelle Evans, a single mother from Woodbridge, said, ‘What are these eggs for?’ Answer: McDonald’s makes Egg McMuffins with them. Evans was stunned.”

The element of surprise is what makes the campaign’s transparency interesting. There might be people who are surprised to see a wood-fired grill in a Red Lobster commercial, but that doesn’t play with my perceptions the way McDonald’s did when I found out they use real eggs.

Ford, on the other hand, used transparency + conflict for its Ford Bold Moves campaign back in 2006. The company was undergoing a major transformation, which involved layoffs, struggles, and re-designing their cars from scratch. Ford allowed JWT to document the entire process with video teams and independent journalists, in order to give the public an inside look at what Ford was going through, and what the company was trying to accomplish. They were capturing the conflict in a transparent way.

I get very similar vibes from the Domino’s work. I don’t get any vibes at all from the Red Lobster work.

Still, it could be worse. They could be Olive Garden.

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