The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Coca-Cola clings on to contemporary culture

London, Nov. 5 (Reuters): Managing the biggest brand in the world is no easy task, but Steve Jones has a golden rule to guide him as he totes the Coca-Cola identity from Wagga Wagga to Walla Walla.

“The single most important word is relevance,” chief marketing officer Jones said in a telephone interview from the Atlanta, Georgia headquarters of the massive group.

“Coca-Cola is the moment of physical and emotional refreshment. That’s what we've been selling for 116 years. What keeps it alive is contemporary dressing so that it connects to consumers, while keeping a core identity.”

On the surface, this might not seem too challenging a concept, but what is relevant to a streetwise teen in Toronto may not appeal to a Kenyan clubber, and vice versa.

Once ignored in the “one size fits all” marketing that the soft drinks giant and many other global consumer brands adopted from the 1960s onwards, cultural diversity led to a remarkable sea change in Atlanta about 10 years ago.

“For generations, we just talked about the brand, and we invited people to enter the world of the brand,” Jones says.

“Five or 10 years ago it was company practice to produce all of the advertising here in Atlanta, send a reel of ads out to the world and say ‘this is what you're going to run this year’. But we're changing to ‘the world of the consumer”. Our job now is to fit the brand into people’s lives.”

Put simply, this led to a far-reaching process of marketing devolution designed to soften Coke’s unwanted but undeniable image of cultural imperialism best symbolised by the early 1970s TV ad featuring a group of hilltop hippies singing of their desire to achieve world peace through cola consumption.

In Britain, for example, this has led to the creation of “Leggsy”, aka Norbert Leggs, an incompetent three-legged soccer player with a strong resemblance to a potato, who saves the England team in a variety of unlikely ways. The quirky Leggsy television ads have proven a success in Coca-Cola's sponsorship of Premier League soccer, but the idiosyncratic, British nature of the campaign is purely for domestic consumption.

But Coke's involvement with soccer — almost unthinkable in the days when the brand was a symbol of US culture — doesn't end there. The company has won top marketing awards in France and Turkey for its sponsorship of the national teams.

It’s not all soccer. Coke has plugged firmly into the music scene — sponsoring events such as the Aotearoa Hip Hop Summit in New Zealand and the Coca-Cola Popstars competition running on South African television.

Jones has not completely relinquished control of marketing. Valued at almost $ 70 billion by consultants Interbrand, the Coca-Cola brands — including Vanilla Coke, Fanta and Sprite — are worth far too much for that.

All of the national campaigns are submitted to the Atlanta headquarters for approval, and Jones said anything too cynical or close to “the dark side” is vetoed. “One of the ads we pulled was actually one I had a hand in making,” he admits. “And we pulled it even though it resonated with some segments of today's youth.”

The ad in question, which was briefly aired on American television, depicted a family reunion at which four generations are gathered together. Before a group photo is taken, Grandma decides she wants to have a glass of Coke. But she flips her lid when she hears that there's none in the house. “I brought you all up to drink Coke,” she screeches as she proceeds to run the other family members down in her wheelchair.

“Coke has to be above reproach in an optimistic, positive, fun light. You have to cast that light on every single one of the Coke brands, and you have to prevent local managers from making this a dark, cynical brand,” Jones says. And, he says, the brand is evolving all the time in a way that the core product can't — the 1980s disaster of the “New Coke” formula change will live in consumers' minds for years.

But the traditional logo is about to undergo a facelift that, although immediately identifiable as the product everyone has always known, is a minor revolution. “The red is still there, but what we've done is that we'll have different tones of red, much more depth. It's still Coca-Cola but it's sharper.” The famous contoured bottle will also receive a facelift.

Jones is understandably evangelistic about the task ahead, and despite a disappointing set of results for the third quarter this year — blamed on weak economic conditions — Coke's dominance of the brand league tables means someone is doing something right.

It's all a far cry from “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” song from the 1970s.

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