EVENTS & PROMOTIONS: COCA-COLA CO. LOOKED TO BETTER INTEGRATE PROMOTIONS WITH OVERALL BRAND STRATEGIES. THUS CAME WELL-EXECUTED PROGRAMS SUCH AS A NATIONWIDE OLYMPICS TORCH RELAY--AND THE NOD AS ADVERTISING AGE'S PROMOTIONAL MARKETER OF THE YEAR.

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The best promotions do more than give consumers extra incentive to buy a product. They reinforce a brand's image.

For packing 1996 with strategic, brand-reinforcing promotions that helped it lead its industry in brand growth, Coca-Cola Co. is Advertising Age's Promotional Marketer of the Year of 1996.

Like its soft drink rivals, Coca-Cola has long been one of the most aggressive promoters, particularly at the store level. But reflecting an industry trend, it tried last year to more fully integrate its promotional activity with overall brand marketing strategies.

"We're doing significantly better at that," says Sergio Zyman, Coca-Cola's chief marketing officer. "If it doesn't fit a brand's architecture, we're not going to do it. We start with what it is we're really trying to accomplish with the brand. Then we theme it on what is relevant to consumers at that point in time."

RANGE OF EFFORTS

Last year's efforts ranged from Coke Classic's multipronged Olympics blitz to a National Football League "Red Zone" promotion to Diet Coke's "Friends" TV show mystery game. Two Coca-Cola promotions-"Friends" and Barq's "Psychic Fish"-won Reggie nominations from the Promotion Marketing Association of America.

More to the point for Mr. Zyman, the year's promotions helped Coca-Cola outpace rivals Pepsi-Cola Co. and Cadbury Schweppes in sales growth. Coca-Cola increased total U.S. volume 5.5% last year, according to Beverage Digest/ Maxwell. Only private-label makers showed bigger gains; Pepsi-Cola grew 4%, helped by its own impressive Pepsi Stuff promotion.

"A number of [advertisers] are looking at how promotions can become more of an integrated discipline than a separate discipline," says Cindy Hennessy, chief idea officer at TLPartnership, Dallas, lead promotion agency for Pepsi.

HOMETOWN OLYMPICS

Coca-Cola's best example of integration came with its sponsorship of the Summer Olympics in its hometown, Atlanta.

With Olympics marketing more cluttered than ever, Coca-Cola made an early decision to break from the mold of linking a sponsoring brand to athletes. It decided to link Coca-Cola Classic to fans instead.

"We decided not to do Olympics advertising during the Oly-mpics," Mr. Zyman says.

Coke began airing ads entitled "For the Fans" four months before the Games started. Shortly thereafter, the 1996

Olympic Torch Relay began winding its way across America, courtesy of Coca-Cola.

The marketer made maximum use of the relay, generating national interest with celebrity torchbearers and local interest with a grass-roots nomination program that enabled thousands of ordinary Americans to carry the flame. In all, more than 5,500 torchbearers participated in the relay.

Along the way, Coca-Cola sponsored "fan celebrations" to encourage people to come out and cheer on the torchbearers.

TORCH BEARERS

"With the torch, we said to our consumers, `We want you to have the chance to be at the Olympics, even if you're not going to Atlanta. We want to create the excitement of the Olympics for 15 minutes or an hour in your town,' " says Mr. Zyman, who carried the torch in New York.

He recalls that a woman there told him, "This is the first time I have seen New York City as a small town."

Meanwhile, in stores Coca-Cola ran a fairly standard under-the-cap consumer sweepstakes, "Red Hot Olympic Summer." And in Atlanta during the Games, it sponsored Coca-Cola Olympic City, an entertainment, shopping and dining complex.

UNDERSCORING BRAND VALUES

The sum of all the parts was an Olympics sponsorship that stood out from most of the others by underscoring, again and again, one of Coke's core brand values.

"The Coca-Cola brand stands for bringing people together," says Steve Graham, VP-marketing communications at AT&T Corp. and a former Coca-Cola manager.

Coca-Cola's other big hit of '96 was Diet Coke's "Friends" promotion. It combined common promotion ideas like a sweepstakes and celebrity endorsers into an attention-getting bonanza.

The company knew what the brand's target consumer liked.

"Of the 65 million people enjoying Diet Coke each week, a majority of them are loyal viewers of `Friends,' " said Frank Bifulco, VP-marketing, Coca-Cola USA, when the promotion was announced.

GOTTA HAVE `FRIENDS'

Having identified that connection, Diet Coke's next challenge was obtaining the rights to the "Friends" cast, all of whom would participate in a promotion. Mr. Bifulco outdueled Pepsi in negotiations with Warner Bros.

Coca-Cola and Warner then teamed to create a promotion that had three key ingredients: timing, aggressive spending and fictional characters. They built the promotion around a special episode of "Friends" that aired after the Super Bowl and spent heavily to promote the contest.

The partners also took the unusual step of using the cast's fictional names and characters. This made sense because Diet Coke drinkers were interested in the show more than the actors, Mr. Bifulco said.

RIGHT FOR POSITIONING

"Everybody has an idea for a promotion, from exhibits of stuff from the Titanic to guys going around the world in a balloon," Mr. Zyman says. "You look at all this stuff and you see that most of it doesn't really fit your brand's positioning."

The "Friends" promotion helped Diet Coke match its biggest volume increase of the previous 12 months in January 1996; however, volume growth for the full year slowed a bit from 1995.

Despite all the activity, Coca-Cola's marketing budget increased only in line with volume growth, Mr. Zyman says. The heavy Olympics effort was funded primarily through reallocation of marketing money. And the emphasis on strategically smart promotions means "we have been managing our dollars a helluva lot better," he says.

THEMES IN THE FUTURE

Looking ahead, Coca-Cola plans no abatement in the use of aggressive, themed promotions.

In January '97, it launched an in-store effort called "Get Caught Red Handed" for Coke Classic. Mr. Zyman declined to reveal upcoming summer promotion plans but says he likes them.

Longer-running promotions are one thing to watch for, he adds. Traditionally, companies have viewed promotions as fixed, short-term events.

"But if a promotion is working and delivering incremental cases, why stop it?" he asks.

Sprite, the fastest-growing major brand in the U.S. and the world, has run an under-the-cap promotion for 12 months in some markets, he says, "because it works."

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