by Geordie McClelland “I see Coca-Cola everywhere,” a teen from Stamford, Connecticut told me back in 2001, “Instead of telling me what Coke is, I’d just like to be a part of some of the things that it is a part of. It is always associated with good things.. When you are drinking it, you are generally somewhere you want to be.” As a member of The Coca-Cola Company’s internal Think Tank, we had access to the greatest minds in marketing, non-profits, and government – nearly anyone would pick up the phone when we called. We were representatives of one of the most valuable brands in the world and many people I’m sure, were just curious as to what the hell a Think Tank would do at Coke. But despite access to some of the leading thinkers at that time, it was a 16 year-old who lived 40 minutes away from our offices in New York, that planted the seed for what would become the largest loyalty program in the world and who reshaped my understanding of what a brand is and could be. “We’ve lost a generation of American teens” – Doug Daft, CEO The Coca-Cola Company (2000-2004) Or so it seemed at the time.
In the summer of 2001, The Coca-Cola Company rolled out “Life Tastes Good,” the latest campaign for brand Coca-Cola. Soon after the campaign launched though, terror struck the US and the events of September 11th made such an optimistic and celebratory statement feel completely out of touch with a country and a world that was in mourning. At Coca-Cola, the reality of a post-September 11th America gave the company a reason to abandon a campaign that was under-performing and seemed unable to connect with young people for whom Coke, and cola beverages in general, had less and less meaning. As the marketing organization worked on a new brand plan for Coca-Cola, Doug Daft came to New York and asked our group to work on a parallel plan, one that he hoped would help supplement the work going on in Atlanta. `So our group was given 6 weeks, a $40,000 budget and a task to “help us reconnect the brand with U.S. teens.” What we lacked in budget and time was made up for with an incredible subsection of the Think Tank team, including Anthony Johndrow, Christine Lukasik, Rocky Rief, and our project leader, a former Brand Director for PowerAde, Kathy Skinner. Since we had such limited time and resources, we approached the project in very different way than we might have otherwise. There was only so much we could do with so little, so we focused our efforts on getting perspectives on the brand and on the target audience that we thought the brand team might have missed. In doing so, we discovered that while brand preference for Coca-Cola was declining, there were still many positive things that teens attributed to the brand. Teens identified the heritage, authenticity and a sense that “Coke is in places that I want to be” as traits that they recognized within the brand. They spoke to the inherent, emotional value of the brand, a legacy left by generation after generation enjoying Coca-Cola during memorable, good times in their lives. As one teen said, “You don’t get in a fight with your parents and then have a Coke.”
We came to understand that the real opportunity was to allow people to make their own meaning for the brand through their own unique experiences with it.
It was this research that brought us to a new understanding of what the brand was – and could be. We found that in this time of upheaval, these kids were looking for more enduring and real connections in their lives. Instead of finding a new way to tell this generation why Coca-Cola was the right brand for them, we came to understand that the real opportunity was to allow people to make their own meaning for the brand through their own unique experiences with it. The more that we “opened” the brand up and allowed consumers to interact with it as they desired, the closer that Coca-Cola got to becoming a brand that was about them. The product: the drink, the bottle, the can – had to be more than that, it was an experience, access to be “somewhere you want to be.” How can a product on a bodega shelf lead to an experience? To answer this question, we were inspired by a campaign that Coca-Cola had launched the previous year in Spain, essentially a social calendar where Coke was associated with national and local events across the country. From local movie theaters to international sporting events, the campaign was a reminder of the fact that, as the 16 year old from Stamford told us, Coke was where you wanted to be. What that campaign was missing though, was a direct tie to purchase (the business was based of course, on selling drinks), so we conceived of a digital loyalty platform where each bottle cap was an entry into a sweepstakes. The “Experience Coke” platform we designed with our remaining budget, allowed consumers to create an online personal account with the company (not an insignificant thing, three years before Facebook was founded) and discover products, events and experiences, both local and international, that they could win any time they entered a unique code from a Coca-Cola product. A consumer might enter to win a 1 in 50 chance for tickets to the local movie theater or a 1 in 1,000,000 chance to win a trip to the World Series, all from a single digital hub that was their entry point to the world of Coke. From a small beginning in our offices in New York, the idea of access and the “Experience Coke” platform grew and evolved through the organization, and in 2006 the company launched “My Coke Rewards,” a platform that would ultimately become the largest loyalty program in the world. Years later, the importance of “brand experience” is a given. Great brands like Warby Parker, Pillpack, and Lyft were able to revolutionize industries by insisting that how customers experience a brand is central to a brand’s meaning and value. But back in 2001, marketing was primarily concerned with the messages and images that would help to convey a feeling to people, instead of creating and delivering experiences that would help people feel something new. “Instead of telling me what Coke is, I’d just like to be a part of some of the things that it is a part of.” Back in 2001, that kid in Stamford knew it. Now we all do.