Bright Lights Project: Coke

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Coca-Cola North America has just appointed a new head of marketing, Alison Lewis, and she takes the helm at a time when the beverage business and the communication tools available to it are in somewhat integrated flux.

Beverage retailing has always been a distribution business that was supported by marketing. For all of the talk about preference and choice, putting products in purchase situations in which there were few to no other options was the way to make money.

Many billions are still spent annually to generate awareness and attach associative benefits but the consumers who’re willing to forgo a cold soda pop or vodka martini because of the unavailability of their favorite brand has stayed small. Again, the ultimate purpose of that marketing expenditure is to snag more exclusive distribution points so that the question never comes up.

The challenge of today’s mediascape is that social communication (and the transparency of information made possible by Internet search) removes may of the claims that beverage marketers used to rely upon to differentiate their brands. After all the slogans and celebrities, bubbly brown liquid is pretty generic except for differences in taste, and even those qualities are somewhat susceptible to suggestion but not dependably reliant on them. Brands have gone further afield to find new or different things to talk about, but the content gets ever-farther away from any relevance to the products themselves: Pepsi’s Refresh Project is using crowdsourced microgiving to replace saying anything about its products, and Heineken is basing its new global branding strategy on a character it created who resembles a slacker James Bond.

I think now’s the time to reconsider whether consumers ever had “relationships” with Coke (vs. awareness and expectations) and, if so, how much of them were based on availability and other experiential elements of the product vs. associative qualities of branding content. Lewis is an insights person (among other abilities) and it might be really interesting for her to ask a big question: now that “content” is infinitely available and absolutely free, how can marketing support Coke sales?

Can Coke aspire to teach the world to sing again, or would another round of frolicking polar bears or bottle-stealing insects matter anymore? Should it give away money like Pepsi? Is its MyCokeRewards program doing anything for product purchase loyalty (or frequency), or simply a cost of doing business?

Here are three thought-starters:

  People aren’t customers unless they’re drinking Coke — It’s pretty simple, but no amount of virtual “consumption” ROI equals the value of buying a six-pack at the grocery or ordering a Big Gulp. When brands trade the former for the latter, they step into the Bizzaro World of great branding and dubious sales, so a simple question for any brilliant branding idea would be “how does it help sell Coke?” Not the idea of Coke, but the bubbly stuff. The new CMO should take all those studies and rankings that make Coke one of the “top brands” in the world and throw them in the trash, since they measure the fact that Coke spends more than most other brands on branding. That’s not a measure of value but of expenditures.

  Think uses, not attributes — America has changed since the 1950s and there’s no way that Coke will ever be the aspirational brand it once may have been (any more than a vacuum cleaner could be). Though taking a page out of the Dyson playbook would be to recast the brand as a set of utilities — purposes, places, reasons to drink in specific circumstances — so talking less about happiness and magic, and more about quaffing the stuff for breakfast instead of coffee, or teeing it up as a quickie pre/post workout pick-me-up in lieu of a sports drink.

  Experiment by subtraction, not addition — “Half of my advertising budget is wasted, but I just don’t know which half,” or so the old adage goes. Digital marketing promises lots of numbers but still doesn’t add up to anything meaningful when the measures are for awareness, perception, or the other squishy aspirations of old-fashioned branding. Coke should be bold enough to swap out various activities and see if there’s any impact on sales or other purchase variables (i.e. prove their utility instead of assume it exists). Doesn’t it make sense to hold off on adding more digital metrics until the brand knows what really matters to its business?

These must be interesting times at Coke, or at any brand that can legitimately claim to have written portions of the book on branding (P&G, etc.). Now’s the time to stop copying what other businesses are doing and step ahead again. My gut tells me the right answers will come from asking different questions than have been asked up to now, and perhaps Lewis is the leader who’ll ask them.

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