How Coca-Cola has stayed relevant over 128 years

18 Mar,2015


In this age of reduced attention span, how does a 128-year-old brand like Coca-Cola stay relevant for young, restless minds toggling between several screens? Venkatesh Kini, President, India & South West Asia, of the company presents a stock-take of marketing, media and advertising in 2014-15 along with some crystal ball-gazing at an International Advertising Association (India Chapter) programme in Gurgaon. Shruti Pushkarna captures highlights from the review. MxMIndia had carried a short report on the event last week, but this is a more detailed account as stated by Mr Kini.


What’s the secret formula of Coca-Cola? The secret formula is its consumers and the Coca-Cola’s ability to stay relevant to changing consumer trends. The world of media, advertising and marketing is changing, and marketers and advertisers like us need to adapt to this change in order to stay relevant to the consumer.


So how does a 128-year-old brand like Coke stay relevant?


There are fundamental shifts that are occurring today. There is a shift from people watching one screen, to people watching many screens. What we see is not just a fragmentation of media, but also a fragmentation of attention. This fragmentation and shortening of people’s attention span, is the biggest seismic shift that we are seeing in the industry. Today, people watch more YouTube videos every day than they drink cans of Coke — or even all beverages put together. There are more cellphones in the world than there are people. And over 60 per cent of people in leading markets engage with social media on their phones. That means the world of communication is essentially shifting to a 2×4 screen. What does that signify for advertisers or marketers? We are moving away from the world of one-way communication — with television at the centre of it — to a world of conversations that start through social media and also occur on TV and other digital platforms. It all boils down to having conversations.


Another interesting shift happening in the industry is the concept of the ‘target audience’ vanishing. Marketers always thought of the target audience as the destination. But now there’s no longer a single target audience. Earlier, the only way of consumers turning into networks was through word of mouth. Today, every consumer has a global audience.


Marketers and advertisers have got to get into the business of consumer experiences because the rules of engagement are changing. The new rules start, first, with stories. Stories that are share-worthy; stories that people tell or brands tell and stories that will spread, with or without you. Today’s consumers don’t just consume brand messages, they get into conversations with each other. And the pace at which these conversations spread is unbelievable.


The best way to get your message out there is to get people talking about it. And for it to be share-worthy, it needs to be provocative. Provocative sometimes means taking a few chances. A good example of this would be a campaign done by Coke on a sensitive issue like India-Pakistan. Coke put vending machines in Delhi and Lahore, and both vending machines had cameras that could display and communicate all that was happening on the other side. Coke did not spend a rupee to advertise this video. It was put on YouTube and people simply shared it. The reason people shared it was because it was a nice story and it was provocative.


Apart from being provocative, one has to be able to break the status quo. One good example of this would be what Coke has managed to do with Coke Studio. This has created, by itself, a complete genre of music that is neither film nor folk. It has popularised music and musicians that would otherwise never have had an audience. This would be an interesting example of how to build a connect with today’s youth, where you bring them new experiences, and these experiences get them together. It’s not just a television commercial, it’s something more; it’s a consumer experience.


It’s also important to keep your message simple. Today, if you can’t grab consumers’ attention in five seconds, then you’ve lost them. That’s the world we live in today. Just 140 characters is all it takes to get worldwide audience. So be simple, be short, be succinct.


In the past 128 years, Coke has constantly reinvented itself. The one thing it hasn’t reinvented, is its logo, its product and the color of its packaging. So how does a brand like Coca-Cola stay contemporary? To cite another example, Coke took the most successful campaign from 1971 and contemporised it. The original campaign was called the hilltop ad and Coke partnered with Google to create a 21st century version of it. The hilltop ad was produced in 1971 and aired at a time when there was a lot of opposition to the Vietnam war, especially in the US. There was a desire to create peace and harmony, and Coke gave voice to that movement through this ad, where it assembled young people from all over the world on a hilltop in Italy to sing, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke…because it’s the real thing”. To contemporise that message, Coke partnered with Google, where the latter came up with the idea of ‘actually’ buying a bottle of Coke for a stranger across the globe. It was about connecting the world through technology, where technology is just a tool to make the world a little smaller, a little happier and hopefully a little more peaceful.


When brands first started 150 years ago, they stood for a trademark that promised you a better product. Then as brands evolved, they said this brand doesn’t just make a better product, it promises a better you. And for a long time, it was all about creating emotional and personal benefits. But 21st century branding has become about a better world. Since social media has made consumers far more connected and conscious, they want to know if their brands and companies are making the world a better place. And brands that can connect to a higher purpose, find themselves connecting with consumers far more effectively.


Ultimately, the world is becoming more complex and marketers and advertisers have to think of themselves as being part of a network. Through a collaborative model, they can spread a message or sell a service. Change is going to happen and change will be disruptive. So it is important to be adaptable, flexible and contemporary, as well as appeal to a higher purpose.


This story first appeared in ‘dna of brands’ dated March 16, 2015


Big Story imaging by Rafiq Barak


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