Winning the design Grand Prix at Cannes, two D&AD Yellow Pencils for design and advertising, plus the 2009 Emmy for an Outstanding Commercial. More recently, it was recognised, once again, as the top performer in Best Global Brands 2009, the annual report from brand consultancy Interbrand.
As the world’s most valuable brand, Coke comes in at $68,734 million, some three per cent higher than a year ago. This is no mean feat in a year when the global credit crunch and recession hit the brand, leading consumers to cut back on almost every area of spending – including eating and drinking out. Coke has held its pole position for ten years, staying ahead of other famous brands such as Toyota, Disney, McDonalds, Marlboro and Intel.
Quite simply, there is no other brand like it.
The report credits Coke’s success as being due in part to, “its edgy campaigns that continue to push boundaries.” “We’re enormously proud of winning these awards,” says Pio Schunker, senior vice president for Creative Excellence, Coca-Cola, North America. “They are testament to the power of creativity and how it can reiterate Coke’s position as a leadership brand at every touch point with consumer – from advertising and packaging, to cups, vending machines and trucks.”
Keeping a big brand great – especially in creative terms – requires constant vigilance and a determination to change. Over the years, Coke has undergone various metamorphoses with the launch of brand extensions. While Diet Coke and Coke Zero are spectacularly successful others – like New Coke – were not. However, with the turn of the millennium, while Coke’s international sales were doing well it was facing some new challenges – especially in its largest market of North America.
In recent years, the US carbonated soft drink market has gradually shrunk according to data published by Beverage Digest, the US trade magazine. From 2001 to 2006, Coke saw US sales drop. The reasons for this are complex but include consumer concern about the impact to health and weight from drinking sugar-laden drinks.
There was also a feeling that Coke had lost its way. Around 2003, the company conducted a large research project called, ‘The Big Dig,’ which revealed that consumers had a, “deep-down love for the brand, but it wasn’t as top of mind.” Meanwhile, in the creative world, The Coca-Cola Company had a reputation for commissioning great work for its core brand only for the internal approval process to dilute it to the point of being insipid. Alert to these issues, in 2003, Steven Heyer, then president and chief operating officer and Esther Lee, then chief creative officer, established the Creative Excellence team.
In autumn of the same year, Schunker joined the team following a 15-year career in advertising. “Coke had become wallpaper in the US,” he says. “It had a potent, latent equity that we had to release. Our job was to contemporise the brand, reinterpret it to a new generation and make it culturally relevant.” To achieve that, he sought new creative partners. He wanted independent agencies who were passionate about creativity not group profits. He also wanted people who shared his own view about the brand and who understood how to take a business strategy and translate it into creative work.
Advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy was working on brands within The Coca-Cola Company’s extensive portfolio when Schunker approached them. He recalls his first encounter with creative partner Dan Wieden. “He said to me, ‘Look I’m not pitching for the Coke business, I’m just interested in the brand. You’ve got to go back to what it stands for and that’s simple goodness.’’
While many clients would bristle at direct criticism of their brand, Schunker agreed with Wieden’s assessment. He offered the agency the advertising account but Wieden and his team were wary. “We thought Coke’s management would never agree to the kind of creative work we thought they needed,” says Hal Curtis, creative director at Wieden + Kennedy. “And we didn’t want to compromise.”
However, Schunker was persuasive. He explained about the new Creative Excellence team, their sponsorship by senior management and the corporate determination to re-establish the brand’s legendary status.
Wieden + Kennedy signed up and, in conjunction with its Amsterdam office, worked on a new communications platform – that drinking Coke provides a small moment of happiness. This became the tag line, ‘The Coke Side of Life.’ It appeared on, ‘Video Game,’ one of the TV ads’ that re-launched the brand in 2006. The ad was a positive spin on the game Grand Theft Auto. After drinking a Coke, the anti-hero is transformed, doing kind acts and creating happiness. “We wanted the brand to simply be itself to consumers, to bring a little bit of happiness,” explains Curtis.
Following the campaign’s successful launch in the US, it was extended globally. “We gradually learned that, ‘The Coke Side of Life’ did not always translate well in other cultures,” explains Curtis. “So we evolved it to the, ‘Open Happiness’ campaign.” It plays on the universal theme of happiness, now associated with opening a Coke. This campaign – which launched in January 2009 – remains current in the US and elsewhere.
Having established a new, successful platform for Coke, Schunker wanted to review the packaging. He approached Turner Duckworth in San Francisco. David Turner, partner, also expressed strong views about the brand. “The identity had lost its clarity, become cluttered and uninspiring,” recalls Turner. “For example, it included unnecessary details such as bubbles when everyone knows Coke is a carbonated drink.”
But, like Wieden, Turner was reluctant to take on the job. “Coke is the ultimate brand project,” he explains. “But it was such a big job, would require huge resources, could take a long time, demoralise staff and damage our creative reputation”. Schunker started putting the counter arguments, then showed Wieden + Kennedy’s positioning work, plus ‘Video Game’ and the aspirations for the pack. “Everything was exactly right for the brand,” Turner comments. “They were simplifying Coke, taking it back to its core values and then expressing those in highly creative and refreshing ways. I could see we would all be in agreement.”
In fact, Wieden + Kennedy’s work laid the foundation for Turner Duckworth’s development of the graphic identity. The design consultancy stripped out every superfluous element such as the over-worked ribbon and bubbles. By simplifying the design, they emphasised the importance of each element – the ribbon, the newly refined Coca-Cola script, and the famous red, now reformulated to make it brighter and bolder.
“We’ve emphasised the positive and authentic qualities that make Coke a great brand,” notes Turner, “and, by doing so, we’ve kept the brand packaging true to its heritage while also making it very modern.”
Turner Duckworth’s designs – for which it won a D&AD Yellow Pencil – have been applied to everything from bottles and cans, to cups and trucks. Although the designs were intended for the US, David Butler, global vice president for design, saw their potential. As a result, global brand guidelines were created as part of an ongoing process to improve the packaging elsewhere.
In the US, one of Wieden + Kennedy’s most outstanding ads and for which it too won a D&AD Yellow Pencil, is, ‘It’s Mine.’ This was commissioned as a Super Bowl spot for 2008 that would also air first on TV and then in cinemas. Around 90 million viewers in the US watch the game on CBS, a far bigger audience than for any other television programme. More than half the audience who watch the Super Bowl do so as much for the commercials – many of which are specially commissioned – as for the game itself, according to a survey by Harris Interactive Inc.
The aim was to create a spot of monumental proportions that would match the importance of the Super Bowl game. ‘It’s Mine’, is set against the backdrop of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. Huge balloons of Underdog and Stewie (from the TV show ‘Family Guy’) tussle over a giant Coke bottle balloon only to have the balloon of Charlie Brown pop up and claim the bottle. It is a heart-warming, witty tale shown in epic scale, comprising some of America’s best-loved fictional characters as well as its most famous.
Wieden + Kennedy and Turner Duckworth continue to work on Coke and, encouraged by Schunker, have developed a close relationship. “There have been times over the last few years when their work has inspired us and vice versa,” explains Curtis. “Generally, we agree on how to move forward. It’s a good partnership.”
The agencies also have good relationships with Schunker. “He values design. He gives you the authority to challenge him,” explains Turner. “At the same time, he nurtures you as an agency not just a service.” Curtis agrees. “Pio believes wholeheartedly in the power of creativity,” he says. “He’s passionate about it.”
So, given all this praise, what has been the most difficult aspect of working on Coke? All the major players found the client approval process painfully lengthy. Turner thought his worst fears were being realised when, after eighteen months, none of his work had made it to market. Just as he was wondering whether to quit the account, a Turner Duckworth designed aluminium bottle launched. “It created a real buzz in the market,” he says, “and people started blogging about it. That was a turning point for us and the people at Coke.”
The risk for everyone involved in the approval process was that the new creative platform would fail – hence they required more time to sign off work. “I imagine we weren’t the first to recommend simplifying Coke’s message,” explains Curtis, “and we were quite aware it would be a difficult task to make it stick.”
So why did it work this time? “We had brilliant agency partners,” states Schunker. “We had the Creative Excellence team championing design, and senior management supporting everything.”
Interestingly, after ‘The Coke Side of Life’ campaign and the first new packaging were launched, the approval process became faster. This was because the work was cumulative, building on an established and, clearly successful, platform.
If Schunker were to do it all again, he would run the whole project faster – in theory. “Yet I know that’s not possible,” he states. “You just can’t with a big corporation. In retrospect, I realise I had to earn people’s trust to get them to accept our proposals. I was asking them to sign up to multi-million dollar changes that would have an impact for years. Who was I to do that?”
Arguably, one of the Creative Excellence team’s greatest achievements has been internally. “We’ve helped people understand that, unlike a brand such as Apple, we’re not changing the product,” Schunker explains. “It’s the communication that must alter and stay on its proverbial toes so that we continually refresh the brand and consumers continually reassess it.”
But has Coke’s creative renaissance had an impact on the bottom line? “It’s difficult to claim a cause and effect relationship between communications and turnover,” says Schunker, “when there are so many other factors at play such as distribution, price and promotions.”
Nevertheless, in July 2009, the Financial Times reported The Coca-Cola Company’s chief executive officer Muhtar Kent, as being encouraged by the company’s performance in North America. A representative for Coca-Cola has also said that when business goes well for Coke there is a halo effect on the whole Coca-Cola portfolio of products including Diet Coke, Coca-Cola Light and Coca-Cola Zero.
Changing the direction of a big brand, enthusing consumers and increasing sales are all enormously difficult. Can it really be achieved through a new communications platform and resulting creative work? Ex-Wall Street analyst Emanuel Goldman, now a beverage-industry consultant believes clever advertising and more marketing dollars can halt a decline in sales, even as consumers are trying to cut back on sugary drinks. “You get ads in front of people over and over again and it sticks,” notes Goldman. “They start wanting a Coke.”
Schunker is tight lipped about the details of Coke’s future creative direction but he does promise, “pleasant surprises and some pretty good stuff.” If the scale of the change thus far is anything to go by, it should be worth watching.
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