redpepper Reacts: McDonald's v. Coca-Cola

Our two cents on social distancing brand messaging strategies

McDonald's and Coca Cola both released social distancing brand messages in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Coca-Cola's ad—featuring a spaced-out logo and a unifying message—appeared in Times Square while McDonald's separated arches picked up traction online. When it comes to who nailed it and who failed it, we had our strategists and creatives weigh in.

At first blush, these might look the same, but they don’t land the same. Primarily because of the brand essence behind each. Coca-Cola is a brand based on togetherness—so theirs makes sense—especially with the support line of copy. McDonald's, on the other hand, has different core values, that don’t lend themselves to this statement in quite the same way.

Jen Williams, Group Account Director


Separating McDonald's golden arches is a nice use of design to show a brand's position on social distancing, but my appreciation for this execution really stops there. McDonald's has come under fire for requiring employees to work in close quarters, serving people through drive-through windows without the coverage they need to stay home if they're sick or have sick family members. A clever bit of design feels like disingenuous awards bait when it isn't backed up by meaningful company policy and care for the humans McDonald's actually employees.

Coca-Cola, on the other hand, I appreciate a bit more. While the look of the ad doesn't work as well for this Art Director's eyeballs (kerning out a Spencerian script is ROUGH for readability), Coca-Cola is backing up this creative with meaningful action. According to AdAge, "Coke through its Coca-Cola Foundation is pledging to donate a total of $13.5 million in grants to five non-profit organizations in U.S. and Canada that are involved in the humanitarian response to the pandemic."

Bri Moran, Senior Art Director


The Coca-Cola tagline and the placement (Times square billboard which is usually super-crowded) is what makes that ad impactful. Without a tagline or additional context of any sort, the McDonald's socially distanced logo doesn't invoke any emotion. In times of uncertainty, people are looking for empathy and hope. As Mr, Roger's mother told him, "Look for the helpers." That's what people are doing in these uncertain times. They're looking for empathetic brands that can offer hope and also show that they're "walking the talk" by doing what they can to take care of their employees and support their communities.

Cat Garnett, Sr. Insights Strategist


When I first saw the McDonalds image I thought “I guess that’s clever.” Honestly, I was just a little disappointed that all it was doing was showing separation and not much beyond that. I saw McDonald’s ad before Coca-Cola's so my opinion may have been a little informed, but I just really like what Coca-Cola did so much better. Separating the Coca-Cola logo may not feel as clever, but I think it hits a more important message successfully; that this is more than just staying separated, it’s separation with the goal of coming back together safely, and we’re all doing this together.

This is a really unprecedented time that we’re living through and it’s changing how we interact with brands. My gut reaction to any COVID-related advertising is to see how those companies are changing. How are they evolving their business model? How are they treating employees? I think the answers to those questions are going to inform how we view a brand for years after we get through this.

Greg Frank, Senior Art Director


Historically, Coca-Cola's messaging has always been about being together. Think of the "Share a coke with ____" campaign. Seeing them still incorporate that sentiment is one of the reasons this worked. They understood the cultural context and put out a message that aligned both with the moment and with their brand identity. Additionally, they sought to back up that messaging with major donations to nonprofits in an effort to make an impact.

While McDonald's did take into account the cultural context, they didn’t execute it very well. Users were commenting asking if the logo was in celebration of Easter as it looked like bunny ears. It felt like they just updated the logo to be a part of the conversation and did not back it up with any action to help the cause. Consumers felt that inauthenticity.

Taylor McFerran, Marketing Strategist


While the overwhelming response was in favor of Coca-Cola's strategy, there was one opposing viewpoint due to execution:

The strategy implicit in each of these executions seems to be the same. "Violate our logo standards to demonstrate our position on social distancing." Subjectively speaking, Coca-Cola's execution seems less powerful to me because there are two versions of their logo appearing in close proximity to one another. One of which does not represent social distancing. Furthermore, by separating the characters in the logotype, the iconic quality of the logo is completely diminished. Meanwhile, the McDonald’s logo is much simpler to begin with and more capable of stating the message without completely "breaking" its iconic presence.

A better visual execution for Coca-Cola might have been to just isolate the iconic C shape and have it appear all by itself.

Nate Fleming, Creative Strategist

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