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A couple Netherlands pranksters chop and serve McDonald’s to demonstrate the power of branding.

My guess is that their actual intent was pretty far away from making a valid marketing point.

I think they were out to tweak foodies and in the process throw a little shade on McDonald’s by casting them as the ultimate non-foodie hors d’oeuvre. But there’s a chilling undercurrent to this prank, isn’t there?

Removed from all traces of the brand, food is just product.

Who among us might not fall victim to a toothpicked bit of Mickey D, served on a platter at a foodie trade show?

Grocery stores sell food; restaurants sell eating. (I think there’s a book somewhere that talks about the difference.) The brand and the context that surrounds the actual pieces of food restaurants serve affects what we believe about the food.

So: keep that product quality high, no doubt. No doubt. People will hold a bad product against you for years.

But remember: the experience itself of going in to buy the food—how people feel announcing they’re going there, being seen purchasing food at your place, driving around with a wrapper bearing your logo in their car where their friends can see it—the experience is the brand. The brand is the relationship. And the relationship is relatively fragile.

As McDonald’s tries to fight its way back globally, this Dutch prank won’t really hurt them. But it does show what they have to overcome: as the biggest in a category famous for dubious health and quality, they’ve become the symbolically least-desirable.

And other than convenience, a generally happy attitude and an occasional direct appeal to people on a budget, what does McDonald’s really stand for? Happy Meals? Golden-lit Americana? Jamie Oliver’s favorite villain? A “transparent” company that finds itself under attack from the normally anodyne Time magazine site? It’s complicated.

That’s why it’s important to be clear, single-minded, and simple. Chipotle is ethical. Domino’s is earnestly trying to improve. Dunkin Donuts is the plucky underdog, Taco Bell is youthful and Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr. is hedonistic. By making every one of their communications reinforce that fact, they keep the brand powerful. They speak to their core audiences, and they understand how to talk when they do. They have brands.

And a solid brand keeps the Dutch pranksters at bay.

Olive Garden releases its brand into the hands of a man named Vino. Could be worse.

Well, when you come up with a concept like issuing a thousand passes to eat as much food as you want during the “Never Ending Pasta” promotion, you’ve got to be prepared for whatever publicity the internet produces.

Here you go, Olive Garden: the man you invited into your brand. He’s going to eat everything on your menu within the 49 days allotted, he says.

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Seems like an all-right guy. He’s one-and-one for puns: the name of his little site there, “All of Garden,” is pretty respectable. But unfortunately he goes for “im-pasta-able” toward the end of this video and even if he’s going for a groaner, well, it’s a mark against his character, I’m afraid.

So, he’s two weeks into it. Good news so far: no ill health effects.

Stay tuned—will Olive Garden live to regret this? You do have to admire a major brand showing this much freewheelin’ chutzpah. Wait, that’s not an Italian word, is it?

Denny’s chases Millennials, but can’t tell yet if the feeling is mutual.

Somebody at Denny’s has been paying attention to what Millennials apparently like: Adult Swim on Cartoon Network, comedians being random, goofy-ass references to pop culture, and spontaneous Twitter conversations between brands and other brands (in this case a TV show).

Denny’s vs. Parks n Rec

They also know that Millennials don’t like you to attack Obamacare, mostly.

So they get a big A+ for trying to engage a younger target where and how and when that target likes to engage. Here’s their latest effort to engage Millennials, from the creators of Cartoon Network’s Robot Chicken:

Two things. One, of course, is measurement. How does Denny’s know that any of this works?

“We are working toward measuring the impact of our approach on sales, evaluating different methods of incorporating social into attribution modeling,” said the Senior VP of Digital Strategy at the agency that leads Denny’s social team. “We try to understand how it is affecting the brand: does our social audience have a higher favorability, willingness to recommend, etc.?”

So way to proceed boldly without knowing exactly what your results are going to be, Denny’s. They’re one of the restaurants that appears most confident that this is the way to convert new fans.

But secondly, I guess, there’s the “But is it really engaging, or is it just clearly an advertising wolf in sheep’s clothing, pretending to be worthwhile opt-in content?” I’ll hold off before I judge this “Meet the Slams” effort—those Robot Chicken people might make it work. But mostly, there’s a smell of sweat from straining to be hip that permeates most of Denny’s social efforts. I’m on record (in my book Selling Eating among other places) against putting googly eyes on food. But these are ironic googly eyes, I get that.

Still, it may be that Denny’s best non-traditional media moment of the last couple years was actually their good luck of co-starring in Breaking Bad.

While you were worrying about Yelp, Twitter potentially turned into your most useful social media tool.

On Twitter, 78% of negative posts come while the tweeter is inside the restaurant.

Admittedly, this news is coming from a Twitter representative.

But it just reinforces one of social media’s big opportunities: people are broadcasting how you can improve your service while there’s still time to do something about it. You just have to notice.

Really, nobody has social media 100% figured out, as came out in last spring’s forum at NRA in Chicago (which I blogged about on the NRA’s “Brainfeed” blog). You just have to pay attention, and choose when to respond and when not to, in real time.

Fortunately, that’s another bit of advice that came out of the Digital Innovation Forum in London last week: stay loose, fun, connected, and spontaneously using Twitter (and Instagram) instead of programmatically scheduling tone-deaf auto-tweets.

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Basically, if you’re using Twitter, and/or Instagram, and/or Facebook, the way they’re best used—to join and participate in an actual community that happens to be online, and to push out the personality of your restaurant, whatever it is—then you’re also more likely to catch the complaints when you can fix them.

Taco Bell thinks chasing serial numbers might be “fun.”

Taco Bell will feed you for life, sort of.Is it fun to hunt for serial numbers, so that you can spend $216 a year for 46 years at Taco Bell (which is what the prize dubbed “Taco Bell Food for Life” works out to)?

Maybe it looks a little bit fun.

It’s certainly easy to mock, starting with the implied 46-year life expectancy. It also might just seem like too much work for a nation full of busy people. That same nation rejected a nationwide hunt when Burger King tried it years ago. Maybe things have changed since then. It’s only worth mentioning because IT IS A TERRIFYING TALE THAT CAUSED BURGER KING PROFITS TO DROP 40% which even if it’s ancient history is worth learning a lesson from, maybe.

Or maybe human nature is still guiding us toward the path of least resistance when it comes to sweepstakes and prizes. McDonald’s Monopoly is still probably the gold standard for slightly-involving-but-mostly-passive games. I expect there are a few lessons this Taco Bell “fun” might end up teaching us:

1. Make sure your prize is relevant—which “Taco Bell for Life” is.

2. Make sure your prize is appealing—which “Taco Bell for Life” is for their die-hard fans, but how many die-hard-and-sooner-than-necessary fans (see? it’s an easy joke; cross-reference the following lesson) really exist, who have time to search for serial numbers on dollar bills?

3. Make sure your prize or set-up doesn’t give people an opportunity to mock you. Or else be ready for it and totally at ease with it. I assume a hip brand like Taco Bell is.

4. Make sure both your window of time and your geographic locations are sufficiently controlled, so it doesn’t drag out. Taco Bell has done pretty well here: 11 days, and focussed on 11 cities. Having it mostly play out on YouTube is a decent choice for the people who have the time and drive to search for these bills, and if it goes all BK-Herb, the damage is somewhat limited (as long as it gets shared enough to get the word out, which only time will tell if that’s happening).

5. Make sure it sounds like fun. In the end, I’m dubious about this—the prize is fun/funny in that easy-to-make-jokes-about way, I suppose, but looking for serial numbers seems awfully tedious. It sounds like investigative journalism.

I’ll bet you a week’s worth of Taco Bell food (a little less than five bucks, according to their calculus) that this whole thing just quietly fades away.