Coke sparkles with the power of innovation

It has been a tradition within marketing to regard the creative teams at major ad agencies as the zenith of innovation.

Mark Ritson

But stand even the most lauded agency creative up against the real innovation auteurs who inhabit the worlds of design, fashion and art and their creative capacity pales into insignificance. 
You want to see real creativity – get out of advertising land and head to the burning crucible of innovation that exists just behind King’s Cross station.

That’s where you will find the wonderful campus of Central St Martin’s. The legendary college has been selecting, inspiring and then graduating legions of super-talented creative people for a generation. I was there last week working with a client that runs an annual innovation workshop at the campus with Nick Rhodes, the school’s lauded leader of its MA in industrial design.

Rhodes kicked off his first session with an overview of the companies he has worked with on innovation projects. On the screen was a veritable who’s who of big brands and, even though we were just two minutes into the first session, I shot up my hand and asked a horrible question: “From your list, who’s the best at innovation?”

Rhodes looked at the smorgasbord of corporate logos and gave me the polite smile of a man who knows the answer but does not really want to say. After a pause, he conceded: “Coke.”

I smiled at the head of marketing from the client company sitting across from me. We had been discussing Coca-Cola in earnest in the preceding weeks. The name keeps cropping up when you mention innovation. Rhodes was merely confirming what we were already thinking: something wonderful is going on at Coke.

I love, for example, the Asian strategy of creating a Coke can that can be twisted into halves and shared with a friend. It’s a simple but entrancing idea and turns the constraint of product packaging on its head.

Similarly, Coke’s creation of huggable vending machines that dispense cans not for money but rather a loving squeeze is a bonkers yet brilliant idea. The impact in Singapore of these machines – communicated experientially and through social media – has been fantastic.

My favourite innovation, however, has to be the ‘Small World Machine’ strategy. Back in March Coca-Cola installed hi-tech vending machines in a pair of shopping malls: one in New Delhi, India and the other in Lahore, Pakistan. These so-called Small World Machines linked strangers from the divided nations in the hope of promoting cultural understanding and connection via a Coke vending machine. It may sound twee and slightly idealistic, but the video of the activity is that rarest of things, a genuinely moving marketing moment.

I could go on. We could talk about what Marc Jacobs is doing for Diet Coke, its remixed Coke sounds in 
Japan, or the new packaging innovations that helped 
win it a Lion at Cannes last year as ‘Creative Marketer of the Year 2013’.

Its innovations are awesome for a number of reasons. First, they are just kick-ass cool. In a world of crap, tired and overly superficial attempts at innovation, Coke is continually hitting the bullseye. Second, these innovations are on-brand. The whole point of the huggable vending machine, for example, is that it directly speaks to the ‘open happiness’ platform Coke is trying to deliver. Best of all, Coke seem to have cracked the challenge of ‘open innovation’. Ask any great innovator and they will tell you that the ideas don’t come from one place – they can come from anywhere, and Coke has apparently empowered its local teams and its agency partners to come up with these bankable ideas.

Whatever Coke has been doing internally to create this innovation culture, it’s working. This isn’t just a couple of fortunate ideas that will quickly fade away. Coke has created a systematic, global innovation machine and the hits, I bet, will keep on coming.

Which leaves only one sticky question: is it going to help it beat Pepsi? Its arch-rival is currently countering Coke’s global phalanx of innovation with Beyoncé in a series of outfits. Don’t get me wrong, Beyoncé in hotpants is an arresting sight, but the quality and consistency of Coke’s innovation machine suggests there will only be one winner in the next round of the cola wars. 

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