Ruth Mortimer: Send Coke back to the future

We all know that the average lifespan of a marketing director is 18 months. In that time, they have to convince the board that theyre as financially savvy as Warren Buffett, as creative as Trevor Beattie and as strategically minded as Barack Obama. No easy job for most mere mortals.

Feature3-Coca-ColaWe all know that the average life­span of a marketing director is 18 months. In that time, they have to convince the board that they’re as financially savvy as Warren Buffett, as creative as Trevor Beattie and as strategically minded as Barack Obama. No easy job for most mere mortals.

It’s this challenge that makes marketing directors needlessly start meddling with brand strategies. The business of ditching past straplines and introducing new ad campaigns is the chance for someone to make their name; nobody wants to be known as the executive who did nothing very much.

So it’s no surprise that Coca-Cola has decided to drop its global “Coke side of life” strapline, which is less than three years old. The brand has adopted a new one called “open happiness” to replace it, which the company’s chief marketing officer describes as having a “stronger call to action” than the previous version.

The company reportedly made the decision to move on from “Coke side of life” because it felt that customers required a “learning curve” to understand it; it says the new strapline is far more immediate. But for me, both statements suffer from the same issue – they don’t mean anything.

After all, what is Coca-Cola? It’s a fizzy, brown, sugar-heavy drink. It tastes sweet but it’s unlikely to win any health awards. I’m unclear how this constitutes a “side of life”. For me, the idea of a Coca-Cola lifestyle has connotations about obesity and additives.

So I won’t be crying any tears now that Coke has realised that it needs to change strategic tack. My issue with “open happiness” is that it’s just two words bundled together that don’t tell me anything about the brand.

After spending some time asking myself how happiness could be open, I finally concluded that Coke was suggesting people open up their bottle or can of fizzy drink to find joy. This in itself is not such a terrible idea. Using the word “open” in your marketing is technically a good move in a world where people feel devoid of trust. As banks are bailed out with taxpayers’ money and jobs are slashed, brands need to make people feel like they are straightforward and reliable.

It is also low-priced treats that can cheer up the gloomy masses while times are tough. A Coke might not be as good for you as boring old water but it can be an occasional indulgent treat. So “open happiness” does at least tap into a couple of important social themes.

But hold on, this sounds familiar! Only a few months ago, Pepsi announced that it was spending $1.2bn (£870m) rolling out new logos across all its products, giving each marque “a smile”. Or to be more exact, Pepsi has a “smile”, Diet Pepsi has a “grin” and Pepsi Max gets a “laugh”. As the market share of carbonated drinks declines along with the global economy, the message is clear: drink our product and feel a little more cheery.

Is there really only one strategy in the whole of the beverages world? Coke’s focus on happiness seems like a very tame move from a brand frequently cited as the biggest in the world. And what’s really ironic is that while it promotes “open happiness”, appearing to follow in the footsteps of a rival, it already has the best brand proposition in the world sitting in its archives.

I’m talking about “the real thing”. Used intermittently in various forms since 1969, this is an unassailable position that sets the brand up as the original and the best. By comparison, every other brand becomes imitative. It’s why people ask for a Coke, rather than a cola, even when they’re talking about a generic fizzy drink.

I think “the real thing” has enough personality to evolve and change over the years so it can be represented in new ways. Many of Coca-Cola’s recent projects in grassroots music and sports rely on this perception of the brand. Even the attributes of trust and honesty that Coke aims to impart in its new campaign are implicit in this 40-year-old strapline.

This is why it’s such a shame that marketers have to keep fiddling with something that should be the purest expression of the brand’s personality. Nike doesn’t mess with its strapline “just do it”; whatever the business does and whatever new media channels emerge, there will always be a way of expressing that philosophy.

Brands need to beware of changing strategy as often as executives. Consumers are rarely as bored of a concept as the corporate marketing department.

Will this new strapline bring financial happiness to Coca-Cola? I don’t think so. Let’s drink to that iconic brand remembering it’s the real thing and going back to the future instead.

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