Q&A: Coke on the importance of sampling

Marketing Week speaks to Coca-Cola’s archives manager Ted Ryan (TR) and head of assets and experiential for Great Britain and Ireland Paul Dwan (PD) about the ongoing importance of sampling, from its first ever campaign in the 1800s to its biggest ever activity for the London 2012 Olympics.

Coca Cola Coupon
Coca-Cola used coupons to encourage people to visit their local soda fountains and try a less-sweet, darker drink.

MW: When did Coca-Cola first begin to sample its products to consumers?

TR: We believe we invented the concept of the coupon. We distributed sample coupons in late 1886 and we think that was the reason Coca-Cola spread from the population of a small southern city to being available in every state in the US by 1900. Between 1886 and 1914 one in 10 Cokes were given away for free.

The type of marketing you see now from other brands giving their products to key leaders and celebrities, we’ve actually been doing since the 1890s. We would send 128 coupons to leading chambers of commerce or churches and ask them to distribute them amongst their leaders. We’d then send a local soda fountain enough syrup for 128 servings.

At that time in the US, soda fountains were popular but the drinks were very, very, very sweet lemon, root beer, chocolate soda and so on and there would be up to 86 different flavours. Coca-Cola was the first drink opposed to vivid, bright colours and we went in saying that once you try it, you will like and go back and drink more.

MW: How did this kind of activity evolve over the years?

Coca Cola first celebrity campaign
Coca-Cola’s first celebrity-fronted campaign in 1905

TR: By 1905 sampling and couponing were ingrained in what we were doing. That year we launched our first celebrity campaign: opera singer Lillian Nordica was in our ad on the back cover of a magazine next to a coupon for 5 cents off a Coke.

In 1927 more Coke was being sold in bottles than a fountain, which meant the coupons changed to offer people six packs of bottles.

MW: What does couponing look like today for Coca-Cola?
TR: Typically we still run coupons in Sunday newspapers, particularly in the US. Also, baseball is huge in the States so we sometimes run a peel off coupon at the bottom of the scorecard, or if you buy a helmet in the store you can also redeem a free Coke. Coupons get the product out there and provide value back to customers.

MW: Has your internal mantra or targets changed when you do sampling now compared to decades ago?
TR: It’s still important we do it the right way: offering ice cold bottles, cold, fresh, that you drink on the spot. The idea of the perfect serve, which is 34 to 38 degrees fahrenheit, has been around for a while as there’s something different about when you drink Coke straight from the bottle and cold – that’s when Coke becomes an experience.


Coca Cola first coupon
One of Coca-Cola’s first coupons from the 1800s

MW: Is there still a need to sample when you’re such a well-known market leader like the Coca-Cola master brand? Does it still drive sales and preference?

PD: It’s more important than ever to keep our brands top of mind amongst consumers. Our sampling executions are proven drivers of success for the business.

TR: In 1907 our chief marketer looked back out our annual report in 1906 when we had cut back on sampling. It said that sales had plummeted after they cut back. If you give away a free sample or coupon you encourage people not only to try once but come back for a second or third time. It has a material impact on sales. The power of the free sample is still just as important now.

MW: Can you describe what your experiential (and ultimately sampling) activity will look like during Games time?
PD: At London 2012, Coca-Cola will revolutionise what it means to showcase a brand. Throughout Games time, stunning architecture, engaging theatrics and innovative technology will be used to excite and inspire visitors and bring the Games to life in London. Coca-Cola has commissioned two young and emerging architects, Pernilla Ohrstedt and Asif Khan to design its Olympic Park pavilion – called the Coca-Cola Beatbox. The pavilion takes inspiration from Coca-Cola’s global campaign for London 2012 – Move to the Beat – a campaign that aims to bring teens closer to the Olympics by fusing sport with their enduring passion for music.

The architects have designed a stunning pavilion that will give visitors a truly unique visual and sensory experience. People will be able to make their way around the outside of the circular structure, ‘playing’ interactive sound cushions that have been embedded with beats from a track created for Coca-Cola by producer, Mark Ronson. Expected to play host to over 200,000 visitors during Games time – the Beatbox experience will culminate with people being able to enjoy an ice cold Coca-Cola.

MW: What happens to sampling after big events like the Olympics?
PD: Sampling is integral to our campaign execution and key milestones for the brand during the year. Global assets such as the Olympic and Paralympic Games of course offer a fantastic opportunity for us to showcase our brands, build momentum and reach people but our sampling moments live and breathe beyond this and are embedded in our campaign activations.



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