As Jason Alexander so eloquently explained in Season 7 of Curb Your Enthusiasm, “Acting Without Acting” is a technique in which the performer hides his or her own efforts so that the audience can become lost in the performance.

Many advertising professionals would say the same for our realm – the holy grail of our industry is to create “Marketing Without Marketing.”

Indeed, the shift towards social media and influencer marketing is representative of this trend, as advertisers seek a more casual and less intrusive method of creating awareness and driving conversions. Research backs this up, as a study from Sideqik notes that 7 out of 10 consumers trust influencers’ recommendations as much as their real-world friends.

Having said that… the idea of “Marketing Without Marketing” is not so easy to achieve. Not only are audiences extremely discerning, but we all know the internet can be ruthless to those who provoke their ire (Kendall Jenner and Pepsi, anyone?).

The solution? By staying vigilant, acting quickly, knowing their audience and being willing to take a chance, many brands have managed to catch lightning in a bottle — or at least win a news cycle or two.

The most recent pop-culture darling was Stanley cups (not the hockey trophy, the seemingly omnipresent insulated drinkware) whose President, Terence Reilly, made headlines nationwide when he replied to a TikTokker whose Stanley cup had literally survived a car fire. Reilly’s authentic and timely response, not to mention his generous offer to replace the woman’s car, generated a boatload of positive brand sentiment and revenue — the company reported a 275% YoY increase in sales of its Quencher product.

So what other brands managed to transcend advertising and have us chuckling, re-posting and chatting with our friends this year? Without further ado, we give you…

Crumbl Cookie’s Enticing Offer

In the heat of the NBA’s offseason trade rumors (not to mention the actual heat of a scorching summer) Philadelphia 76ers Forward Tobias Harris created a stir with his comment that many Sixers fans were so eager to see him off the team, they would “trade me for a Crumbl Cookie.” 

The internet quickly picked up on the hilarious reference and began debating the merits of said hypothetical yet delicious trade.

Crumbl Cookies, the fast-growing baked goods company quickly caught Harris’ alley and threw down their own oop, making an offer that if Harris was to stay in Philadelphia, everyone in the city would receive a free Crumbl cookie. 

Crumbl’s savvy response engendered not only awareness and goodwill from basketball fans and non-fans alike, it also led to the creation of follow-up content such as a visit to a Crumbl location by the 76ers General Manager

Netflix’s “Wednesday” Season 2 Announcement

The Netflix hit show and its renewal for a second season is perhaps the year’s most “meta” viral brand marketing example – showing how a brand’s inclusion and cultivation of “superfans” can help drive even further engagement and dedication.

The show’s first season proved to be a massive hit for the streaming platform, generating not only billions of hours of views, but inspiring countless social media posts of fans recreating the main character’s signature dance moves and goth style. 

In a nod to fan devotion, the show’s announcement of Season 2 was set to the iconic Lady Gaga track “Bloody Mary” that had helped set off the viral dance trend in the first place. Star Jenna Ortega wryly addresses the audience while alternating clips from the show and resulting worldwide fan devotion are played.

Wednesday’s Season 2 announcement achieves “Marketing Without Marketing” status not with a clever reply or well-timed stunt, but by bringing the audience into the fold. By acknowledging the fans’ role in securing the renewal of the show — including Ortega as Addams noting that she’s been “mimicked millions of times across the internet” — Netflix was simultaneously thanking them and priming them to become even stronger evangelists, making them feel that the show’s success was in fact their own success.

McDonald’s “Grimmace’s Birthday” Wink and Nod

What began as a fun and nostalgic (and very purple) campaign celebrating the return of the beloved Grimmace, turned into a TikTok-driven video trend and eventually a clever response from the brand that earned the campaign a fresh round of attention.

A common theme amongst our “Marketing Without Marketing” standouts is that there’s no telling when the internet will take a fancy to something in pop-culture and decide to put a unique spin on it. It then falls on the brands involved (either directly or indirectly) to respond. In this case, a viral trend emerged from McDonald’s purple Grimmace-themed milkshake in which participants pretended the drink had the same effects as “purple drank”, an illicit drug infused cocktail.

The family-friendly eatery could hardly endorse this adult-themed online phenomenon, but found a way to acknowledge and tacitly encourage it, without ruffling too many feathers.

AdAge noted that “The willingness of McDonald’s to engage, however subtly, fits the social media approach it has used in recent years… to be less corporate, and a bit more freewheeling, as the brand seeks to cement its place in pop culture.” Six million views on the social post proved to be a great proof point for this strategy.

Merriam Webster’s X (Twitter) Account

Troll (verb)
Trolled; trolling; trolls
1a: to fish for by trolling
1b: to search in or at
2a: to antagonize (others) online by deliberately posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content

The language connoisseurs at Merriam Webster continued their fine work in 2023 proving that highly intelligent and grammatically correct burns sting just as badly and are likely even funnier. The brand’s social team found ingenious (or is it just “genius”? Please don’t @ us, Merriam Webster) ways to achieve “Marketing Without Marketing” through some of the most well-timed and deep-cutting comments we’ve seen.

Some highlights include:

Kirk Cousins’ Kohl’s Cash Chain

The Minnesota Vikings quarterback captured America’s attention in 2022 with his stellar on-field play and his unapologetically plain “Dad fit” style that he showcased at each post-game press conference. 

Radio host Dana Wessel hit the nail on the head in noting that Cousins was undoubtedly “rolling in Kohl’s Cash.” No paid promotion, no sponsored content, no brand integration… just good old-fashioned indisputable truth. The internet, as they say, is undefeated. 

Fast forward to 2023 and Cousins’ embrace of his “aw shucks” Midwestern charm — embodied by the classic department store — finally came full circle with a premium example of “Marketing Without Marketing.”  In preparation for his appearance on Peyton and Eli Manning’s “ManningCast” show, Cousins shared a short clip of himself deciding on an outfit to wear – letting viewers know that he “had a bunch of Kohl’s cash burning a hole in his pocket.” Hey, if the shoe fits (or in this case, the cardigan sweater)… wear it!

To cap it off, during the show, Cousins debuted an actual bejeweled Kohl’s Cash chain – the perfect blend of suburban dad meets hip-hop bling.

The Cousins-Kohl’s collaboration served as proof that a key component to “Marketing Without Marketing” is often to be willing to poke a little fun at yourself.