Why Coke Is Sticking With These Giggling Characters For Chinese New Year

They Brought a Big Sales Boost Last Year in China Despite Tough Economic Conditions

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For Christmas, Coca-Cola tends to stand by Santa Claus or polar bears. Ahead of the Lunar New Year last year, it wanted to find a symbol that would have that same long-term appeal in China, so it went back to the archives.

It brought out some characters it had successfully used in the past, starting in 2001, in campaigns by McCann – two dolls inspired by traditional clay folk art figurines. The characters, A Fu and A Jiao, were freshened up and put into TV commercials by McCann Shanghai. They went on packaging; people could share them as emojis on mobile app WeChat. The animated mobile stickers showed the dolls flying a kite, watching fireworks and playing with traditional Lunar New Year symbols. Those emoticons were downloaded 12.2 million times.

And the campaign brought real sales impact: Muhtar Kent, chairman and CEO of the company, credited it for sparking a sales jump of 9% by volume for brand Coke despite tough economic times.

Obviously, the characters are back this year.

The TV spot shows the dolls giggling and jumping off the label and rolling the bottle to the table to help a family get ready for dinner. They appear on packaging, and a mobile component is still to come.

Coke's characters evolved from two dolls often represented in Chinese folk art -- the dolls emerged out of popular folklore and were "originally human characters that warded off evil monsters from the forest," said Cia Hatzi, regional business director at McCann Worldgroup for Coca-Cola. "Over time they came to symbolize good luck and blessing during the Chinese New Year and other festive moments."

Finding the right Lunar New Year's campaign is challenging, said Richard Cotton, Coke's content and creative excellence director. The message "cannot veer too far from traditional Chinese New Year values, or consumers will reject it," he said. "There's a very small parameter you can play with in terms of creative ideas, but at the same time because it's so cluttered, you've got to stand out more."

The answer is "playing with traditional values, but really playing with them in a way that's interesting and engaging," he said.

There are updates from last year -- the characters have more defined personalities, for example. But they're mostly familiar.

"As marketers we're so obsessed with 'new and innovative,' and this is an example of where consistency is the way forward," Mr. Cotton said. "You don't have to always reinvent the wheel, you can develop something and think long-term, but you need to make it surprising and delightful every time you do it."