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A new TV commercial series featuring actress Mindy Kaling has viewers reaching for their devices to Google “That place where Coke tastes SO good.” The seemingly unbranded commercials feature Kaling in a bright yellow dress against a red backdrop (subtle branding hint) cleverly teasing “that place” and calling web-savvy types to follow her clues to find the reward: Any size Coke for $1.

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t figured it out, the ads are for McDonald’s and are part of the chain’s first unbranded marketing campaign. If you’re a fan of the TV series The Mindy Project, you’ve likely noticed the not-so-subtle McDonald’s product placement on the show. And while you likely solved the “that place” mystery without a Google search, chances are you did it anyway just to see what people were saying about the commercials.

If you need further proof, the always-in-character actress recently tweeted about her partnership with McDonald’s and jokingly asked to be paid in fries.

Second screen TV viewing has become second nature for most consumers. In fact, 87 percent of consumers use a second screen while watching TV, and more than 75 percent of millennials use a second screen when viewing video content. Likewise, second screen calls to action in commercials are not new, as brands have been directing viewers to search for a specific keyword string or hashtag at the end of commercials for several years now.

But perhaps the most intriguing part of this campaign is the use of Google search as a call to action for viewers to unravel the mystery of “that place” and the ever-changing results that appear when you enter that non-branded search query. Aside from creating a YouTube channel cleverly named “That place where Coke tastes SO good” that has already garnered nearly 3.8 million video views, the brand is not necessarily directing viewers to owned content that they’ve keyword optimized but rather relying heavily on earned media and word of mouth.

According to McDonald’s chief marketing officer for the United States, Deborah Wahl, the ads are meant to play on how teens and twentysomethings use their phones while watching TV, while also acknowledging “how they’re discovering information” they trust. As a generation that values what their peers say, the ads tap into their avid use of Google search as a resource for news and answers to everyday questions, as well as how they’re influenced by word of mouth.

Just a few days after the commercials began airing and the YouTube videos were published, search results for “That place where Coke tastes SO good” featured page after page (SERPs for all the SEO nerds) of articles, blogs, and social posts about why McDonald’s Coke tastes so good dating back several years. The same search today likely yields several pages of recent articles and press about the McDonald’s “That place” campaign with some previously published articles mixed in. Did McDonald’s just hit the PR jackpot, or did they simply newsjack their own earned media? Either way, it was likely all very carefully plotted out.

Achieving multiple search engine results pages (SERPs) worth of press is a feat for any brand, but a search-focused campaign doesn’t come without risks — especially one that relies on non-branded keywords. McDonald’s ad agency confirmed that it did not pay for any of the Google results, but the company was prepared for people to try to interfere with the results. And while this stunt was relatively easy for McDonald’s to pull off due to its global brand awareness and popularity on the web, other brands should be cautious of relying heavily on non-branded search queries.

Here are a few reasons why non-branded search queries can be risky business:

Natural search and algorithm updates

Securing the No. 1 position in organic rankings is becoming increasingly challenging, and innovations such as real-time search and personalization affect how search results are displayed for users. Additionally, Google’s search algorithm is constantly changing, which means your website and keyword rankings are always at risk for taking a hit. Algorithm updates and penalties can quickly impact your full site, or specific pages on your site, with no warning. Unless your brand has a solid hold on a specific non-branded search term, it’s really not worth the risk.

Press, trolls, and trending topics

Search engine results can quickly shift in a matter of days or even overnight due to press and trending topics. The fact of the matter is that your brand does not own, nor can it control, what appears on SERPs. On the internet, everyone’s a publisher, so brands should be prepared for how the media and masses are going to react to their campaigns. McDonald’s learned early on that even a hashtag campaign could quickly head south when their 2012 #McDStories hashtag turned into a “bashtag.”


News flash: Your competitors are watching you. That’s right, they’re likely listening for mentions of your brand, monitoring your share of voice, and keeping tabs on your keyword rankings. And depending on their strategy, they might even be plotting their next move for how to compete with your brand in SERPs. Using search as a call to action offers competitors a transparent view of your search marketing strategy, making it easy for competitors to hijack your results.

One way to minimize risk is to use your brand name with the search query. This will give you a better chance of dominating one page of the search results and make it easier to maintain search visibility when those pesky algorithm updates pop up. Using branded keywords also enables you to more efficiently bid on keyword traffic and maintain a high quality score when using (pay-per-click) PPC to promote your campaign. And, lastly, it will keep your brand name top of mind with potential customers.

Here are a few other brands that have taken a stab at using search as a call to action (some more successful than others):

  • Mercedes-Benz — At the end of the ad, they tell viewers to search “C-Class Offers”
  • The British Army — At the end of the ad, they tell viewers to search “Army Jobs”
  • Burger King — Taking a somewhat invasive twist on the trend, Burger King recently leveraged voice search in its commercials, with an ad that featured someone in a Burger King uniform leaning into the camera before saying, “OK, Google, what is the Whopper burger?” setting off Google home devices everywhere. Google eventually blocked devices from responding to the ad.

Should brands use search as a call to action?

Your audience is already searching for your brand online. In fact, over 93 percent of online experiences begin with search, so search engine optimization (SEO) should definitely be part of your integrated digital marketing efforts. However, not all brands are ready to take on the risks I’ve identified above. Before you launch a search-focused campaign or include a call to action to “Google (insert keyword)” on your marketing materials, make sure you’ve carefully researched the potential outcomes and have a plan for how to respond to the unexpected.