Behind Coca-Cola's Biggest Social-Media Push Yet

How Expedition 206's Global Search for Happiness Came Together

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ATLANTA (AdAge.com) -- Coca-Cola is gearing up for its largest social-media project ever, one that will test its own internal flexibility and force a number of its global markets into the digital and social-media space.

Expedition 206
Expedition 206
Expedition 206 will send three 20-somethings to 206 countries and territories where Coca-Cola is sold in 2010. The trio sets off on their 275,000-mile tour from Madrid on Jan. 1, stocked with laptops, video cameras, smartphones and plenty of other gadgetry, in order to document for the masses their search for happiness.

Their journey will be tracked at www.Expedition206.com, as well as through Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and on Twitter @x206. Fans following the expedition will also be able to weigh in on what the trio should do and who they should see at each destination.

Triggering internal collaboration
The company will track media impressions, Facebook and Twitter followers, as well as page views, said Clyde Tuggle, senior VP-global public affairs and communications, to determine how the program is resonating externally. But, already, the program has had its internal successes, namely triggering new collaboration between the communications, public relations and marketing teams. The idea for the program was born in the communications and public relations department, though the marketing team quickly got involved.

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"The challenge that we put to the communications team was to think about the social and digital media space as a new venue for driving good public relations for the company," Mr. Tuggle said. "[The team], which has typically worked in the space of print media and broadcast media was suddenly challenged to go into this new media space and come up with an idea to expand our brand."

Mr. Tuggle said a number of global markets are being forced to develop their social and digital media strategies as a result of the program. While the communications team will be handling logistical details in each market and spearheading the communication across the social and digital media space, the marketing team will be using the "happiness ambassadors" to help promote events taking place next year; ambassadors will attend the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, World Expo 2010 in Shanghai and even customer-focused events, like the 20th anniversary of McDonald's in Russia.

Logistical, regional challenges
At a lunch in Atlanta this week, Coca-Cola explained some of the logistical challenges involved in the program. The trio will have contacts in each market to aid with technology and language issues. Adam Brown, communications director-digital, admitted there will be certain countries where digital communication will be more difficult, because of a lack of infrastructure. In India, for example, where wireless internet signals are harder to come by, the ambassadors may just send Twitter updates from their phones, as opposed to posting videos.

A number of contingency plans have also been created. For example, if a member of the team were to get sick or require some down time, they have the option of jumping ahead of the group by a week to recoup. A number of people both within Coca-Cola and Ignition, which has handled the Olympic torch relays for Coca-Cola, are assigned to help solve any unforeseen issues that may arise.

Dealing with the unknown
Still there are unknowns. It's not clear whether the ambassadors are registered as journalists in countries sensitive to reporting within their borders, like China. And by posting videos, photos and first-hand accounts during their travels, the ambassadors could certainly be considered reporters, in some ways.

The ambassadors will be given a per diem and will need to budget throughout their travels. But it hasn't been determined whether the ambassadors will be allowed to accept freebies from tourism boards, chambers of commerce or other brands. So far, the company has been keeping other brands out of the mix, choosing not to partner with an airline or hotel chain. Mr. Tuggle compared the involvement of additional brands as akin to a Christmas tree with too many ornaments. Executives declined to comment on exactly how much money the ambassadors will have to spend per day.

Not having all the answers is just fine by Mr. Tuggle, however. "It's a muscle to be flexed and toned at Coca-Cola," he said. "[Traditionally], we're not prepared to invest unless we know it's going to deliver." In the case of Expedition 206, there's not yet any clear sense of how the program will deliver or what brand awareness it will generate. "There's something seductive about that," Mr. Tuggle added.

Though, clearly, the success of the program isn't being left completely to chance. One of the biggest challenges of any social media program is actually getting consumers to care, which is why Coke chose three ambassadors who are already social media connoisseurs with fan bases. Coca-Cola reached out to the likes of Lonely Planet, as well as its own agencies, including Ignition, an experiential marketing firm, and its digital agency in China, asking for recommendations. From there it received about 60 candidates that it then narrowed down to 18 individuals who were brought to Atlanta for interviews. Nine candidates, three groups of three, were ultimately tasked with promoting themselves to consumers, who determined the winners in an online vote.

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