Coke shakes up a household name

A social media frenzy has Coke confident its latest marketing campaign may be one of its best ever, but what makes it so successful?

When you’re 125 years old it is hard to come across as fresh and exciting. It is difficult to capture the imagination in the way you once might have. And it is challenging to compete with younger, more nimble competitors. But when you’re as revered as Coca-Cola, you certainly have a better chance than most.

Coke’s most recent local campaign sought to give flagging sales – hurt by the squeeze from retailers and lower competitor prices – a lift with the limited release of cans with popular first names on them. From Aarav to Zoe and 148 names in between, fans of the iconic beverage could get a Coke with their name on it (the names chosen through the use of publicly available data to determine the most popular, while also ensuring there was a cross-section to represent our multicultural nation).

The multi-million dollar ‘Share a Coke’ campaign, limited to Australia, has now been extended due to its success, one that has been largely attributed to the flood of positivity flowing through social media sites. There was a time, not long ago, when sales were the be-all and end-all for companies assessing a campaign’s traction, but now social media is a crucial yardstick.

Coca-Cola South Pacific, responsible for the local marketing of the brand, told Business Spectator that early indications suggest it "will be one of our most successful campaigns”, but the company won’t know until sales data comes in at the conclusion of the campaign. The social media stats include a 926 per cent increase in Facebook posts on the company's fan page, 28,731 Facebook posts about the campaign and 65,000 views of the campaign on YouTube, not to mention more than 3.5 million press impressions on blogs, print, websites and radio (through November 30).

Coke’s personalisation strategy is based on a simple mantra: get the customer involved in the product and offer them a sense of ownership over the brand. What better way to feel ownership of a brand than to have your name on the label? Hearing or seeing your name elicits a natural response and interest, sparking a priceless instant connection.

The obvious risk is that it could be viewed as exclusive and result in those without popular first names feeling neglected. To mitigate this risk the company offered customers the chance to print any name they wanted (barring anything defamatory or blatant advertisements) on a Coke can at 18 Westfield shopping centres across the country and the move was met with great fanfare – 126,000 were printed in the first five weeks.

The scale of the first stage saw Coke set aside 268 million bottles and cans for personalisation, with the program to run from October through until the end of December. Its extension has seen people vote for another 50 names based on those submitted to the beverage group’s Facebook page – a logical extension of the campaign’s original goals as it further engages with the customer and offers power as well as ownership. The additional 50 names, decided last Thursday, will be seen on cans from early January through February.

While the campaign has been a triumph, the American-based company’s limited, and chequered, history of tampering with its flagship brand suggests the move was one with great risk and one its Atlanta headquarters would have assessed carefully before giving the all clear.

Remember New Coke? Indeed it wasn’t originally called New Coke, it was simply a new recipe that took the place of Coca-Cola and in what can only be described as one of the most disastrous brand refreshes in history, it flopped. In the failure, however, it spurred a response from Coca-Cola devotees that actually strengthened the connection to the brand when the original version was quickly rushed back onto supermarket shelves. As such it is largely seen as an unqualified success.

It is also worth highlighting the 'white can' experiment tried in America this year. Turning cans white in support of polar bear survival, the campaign was not quite the hit that executives envisaged. Consumers claimed it caused confusion with the (silver) Diet Coke product. The move was a surprise given that the company had never strayed from red for its flagship product in its long history. Coca-Cola abandoned it this month, reverting to the red can with the image of a few polar bears.

So why did a white can with the classic ‘Coca-Cola’ label fail while a red can with an unusual label succeeded? Simply put: Coke is red. It always has been and, in the eyes of consumers, always should be. Consumers are drawn to the familiar and for Coke, that’s much more about its colour than its label. The personalisation of white cans would not have worked in a similar manner as it would not appear authentic to the buyer.

The "unprecedented consumer response” will no doubt see the worldwide owner of the brand, The Coca-Cola Company, mull the export of the campaign to overseas markets, although Coca-Cola South Pacific informed Business Spectator that there are no plans for the roll out of the program offshore "at this stage”.

Provided sales results do in fact prove it as one of the company’s most successful campaigns, it would be a major surprise not to see it tested in northern hemisphere markets next summer. If so, it would not be the first time an Australian marketing campaign for the global beverage giant has headed offshore, with the summer 2009 ‘bottle blast’ advertisement eventually rolling out to 12 markets around the world.

There’s no doubting the success of the campaign and the likely triumph of its current extension, but the company must know when to pull the pin. Annabels will only buy ‘Anna’ cans for so long. Or more to the point, there’s a limit to how long Calebs will buy ‘Matt’ cans or bother to wait in line at Westfield. That being said, the broader ‘Mate’, ‘Sis’ and ‘Bro’ cans should have longer-lasting appeal.

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