Making Coke iconic again

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Coca-Cola Co., determined to retake the mountaintop, is scouring the world from South Africa to Singapore for an agency to bring it there.

The soft-drink giant is yearning to return to the halcyon days when its brand-and its advertising-was iconic with history-making creative such as its classic "Hilltop" spot that taught the world to sing.

Like McDonald's before it, which sought pitches from throughout its worldwide network before settling on "I'm lovin' it," Coca-Cola is casting its net wide.

Agencies said to be competing for the icon work include Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann, South Africa, Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich. and Springer & Jacoby, Hamburg; WPP Group's Berlin Cameron/Red Cell, New York; Publicis Groupe's Publicis, Paris and Publicis-backed Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Singapore; and independent Mother, London. Two other names have also been circulating: MDC-backed Crispin Porter & Boguksy, Miami, and independent Taxi, Toronto.

That far-flung group is charged with restoring Coke's waning brand image among younger consumers, which is one unspoken catalyst for the effort, according to executives close to the process. Coke "needs a competitive, relevant message for consumers 12 to 24," said one, noting that the company has instead put its financial focus behind shareholders and bottlers, resulting in fragmented messages and shrinking budgets. "If they lose those kids, they'll lose them for life."

While still the most valuable brand ahead of Microsoft, IBM, General Electric and Intel, according to Interbrand's annual ranking, Coca-Cola lost 4% of its brand value in 2003, dropping to $67.39 billion.

`business as usual'

"Our goal is to get the best possible work for our brands regardless of where that comes from," said a Coca-Cola spokesman, adding that "in some cases that might mean bringing on new agencies for specific projects to work alongside or in addition to existing Coke agencies." He declined to confirm the players involved in the effort.

"It about efficiency, collaboration and sharing and we are set up to get that in a system at all levels. It's as simple as that," said the spokesman. Different agencies could be commissioned in different parts of the world or at different times for the same platform and work would be distributed through Coke's existing advertising hub system.

He said that this is not "a model shift," for the company. "It's business as usual. Historically we have both imported and exported creative at various times."

Indeed, some executives called it a "back-to-the-future" plan, comparing the model to what former marketing chief Sergio Zyman had created using multiple agencies. "They are running their own agency using agencies as competitive freelancers," said the first executive. "That's how Sergio did it."

Iconic advertising has been a pet cause for influential board member Don Keough-the onetime president-chief operating officer is said to have personally requested the "I Wish" campaign via Mother, London, that echoes the Hilltop effort and was put into heavy rotation during significant media events such as the Olympics. (Ironically, Billy Davis, the McCann executive who wrote the music for the spot, "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," died this month at 72). The strategy is being set by VP-Coca-Cola Franchise Mark Mathieu, according to executives close to the company. A spokesman said Mr. Mathieu is working in tandem with VP-Chief Creative Officer Esther Lee and Senior VP-Chief Marketing Officer Chuck Fruit.

an innovative thinker

Mr. Mathieu, described as an innovative thinker, in October began overseeing marketing for the Coca-Cola trademark brands, a new position, moving from president of the France and Benelux division, responsible for France, Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands. Prior to joining Coke in 1996, he was a 13-year Danone Group veteran, leading premium water brands Evian and Volvic.

In addition to the icon project, Coca-Cola is circulating a brief for a holiday and a football (soccer) project to roster and non-roster shops, a Coca-Cola spokesman confirmed. Berlin Cameron and Mother are laboring over the holiday work, as is Interpublic's McCann-Erickson, Madrid. The soccer work is being kicked around by independent Wieden & Kennedy, Amsterdam; 180 Amsterdam, and WPP's Red Cell, Buenos Aires.

A second executive with knowledge of Coke's marketing strategy said the brand has succeeded every time it reminded consumers of its latent equity and ubiquity. "Every time the brand has been reawakened something big has happened," said the executive, with efforts from "Hilltop" to "Always." Even the storied New Coke disaster reinforced the icon status of its Classic brand. "It sounds simple-but it has to be a huge infusion of waking up what the brand is."

The move reminds Christie Nordheilm, associate clinical professor-marketing at the University of Michigan business school, of the agency shakeup that led to Coke's polar bears work via now defunct Edge Creative.

no `back and forth'

"For such a huge company with such incredible budgets to throw around, to be able to get your agency to stand up to you [over time] is almost impossible, so the agency over time shrinks to this service thing," she said. "There's no longer this healthy back and forth between the agency and client and the agency thinks more about what the client wants instead of what the client needs. This really serves to open up creative options for the company again."

That's not to say it will be an easy climb back up the hill. "It's not something you can just set as a goal. Icons are built one ad at a time," said Ms. Nordheilm.

Kevin Keller, professor of marketing at Dartmouth's Amos Tuck School of business, said Coca-Cola is one of a handful of marketers that have the opportunity to do the kind of advertising that celebrates brand values and specialness. "That's what a lot [marketers] would die for." He added, "when you introduce a lot of new products and are trying to build awareness and create trial, that makes it harder to reinforce brand values. That's been partly what's going on with [Coke.]"

If nothing else, the agency exercise will yield Coke "a slew of brilliant ideas at a very cheap price," said the second executive. "Eighty percent will be junk, but some will be magic and not just 30 second spots."

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