Coke is old enough to play with its brand

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It’s hard work being the world’s most famous brand. Just ask executives at Coca-Cola. Yes, the title might come with enormous unaided brand awareness and a billion-dollar brand equity, but it also means that every strategic move you make goes under the media spotlight.

  • Find out what happened when Marketing Week visited Coca-Cola in Atlanta in our feature, click here

Take the latest saga to afflict Coke in its home US market. The company had planned a winter-long campaign to support the World Wildlife Fund’s polar bear conservation programme. Launched in late October, the strategy included turning the iconic red can to arctic white, with polar bears embossed on it to celebrate the ‘Arctic Home’ message.

According to Scott Williamson, a spokesman for Coke, the company’s marketing executives wanted a “disruptive” campaign to get consumers’ attention. “The white can resonated with us because it was bold, attention-grabbing and reinforced the campaign theme”.

But mid-way through November it was clear that Coke had a problem: the Arctic cans looked too much like the traditionally white Diet Coke cans. Consumers began to report either buying the regular Coke instead of their preferred Diet version, or being unable to locate the regular flavour in store after assuming that the white cans meant that only Diet Coke was available.

But this is Coke we are talking about. So what began as a few innocent stories of error and frustration soon morphed into viral messages hinting at dark deeds and subterfuge from the cola giant. Coke was variously accused by its own consumers of “trickery”, “blasphemy” and even changing the formula. In a now infamous YouTube clip, a husband filmed his wife in a blind taste test with the apparent conclusion that the Coke in the new can tasted different from the original.

While denying that any change had been made to the drink, Coke was listening. Despite an original strategy to distribute more than a billion white cans between October and February 2012, the company began withdrawing the cans this week and replacing them with the more familiar red version embossed with the polar bear motif.

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Meanwhile marketing experts from across the US were quick to draw parallels between this new “marketing mistake” and the New Coke saga from the Eighties, when Coke was forced to backtrack on a flavour reformulation. The media added Coke to a long and recent list of big brands, from Tropicana to Gap, which had attempted to rebrand and come a cropper. Sam Craig, a marketing professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, claimed the message was clear: “Don’t mess with the brand. The fundamental thing is that people don’t like change”.

Except, I am not sure any of this is fair to Coca-Cola.

Yes, the practicality of the white can promotion was a little lacking. But to put Coke in the same league as PepsiCo and its notorious Tropicana rebrand of 2009 or the madness that took place at Gap earlier this year is, I think, incorrect. There is a reason why the brand is currently growing share in its home market.

Coke wasn’t actually rebranding, it was being much smarter than that. In fact, you can make a very coherent argument that Coke was actually doing the very opposite to redesigning its visual identity: reinforcing it.

At 125 years of age, Coke is much older than any of the consumers it targets. And that causes some very specific brand challenges that most FMCG brands simply do not face. Most consumer goods brands are relatively new and therefore desperately engaged in trying to break through the clutter of the aisle to become familiar and recognised by their target consumers. For Coke, the problem is not one of familiarity – everybody knows the red can and the white stripe – it’s one of exhaustion. So in order to breathe new life into the brand, Coke is playing with its identity in a manner that refreshes the visual signs and symbols of the brand, reinforces them in the mind of the consumer, and revitalises the brand as a result.

In the US this year, the brand played with its logo during the summer to show a starry July 4th theme and a series of images associated with the sun and the outdoors. In Australia, the brand is in the middle of an innovative campaign in which Coke’s iconic name is replaced with the first name of consumers in an attempt to personalise the brand and its relationship with consumers.

Unlike the bog-standard marketers who spend their lives enforcing identity fascism on their organisations by insisting on the same font and the same logo in each and every situation, Coke has worked out that by playing with its codes, it can reinforce and refresh them at the same time. It’s actually a strategy that originated with luxury brands, which continually play with their codes in an attempt to remain true to an ancient heritage while creating fresh new fashions for each season. Kudos to Coke for importing the approach into consumer marketing.

Yes the white cans were a step too far, but they were a step in the right direction.

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