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.