NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- More than 275,000 miles, 186 countries and 365 days after embarking on Expedition 206 -- Coca-Cola's largest social-media project ever -- the company's three "happiness ambassadors" have completed their journey.
On Jan. 1, 2010, armed with laptops, video cameras, smartphones and plenty of other gadgetry, the three 20-somethings set off to visit 206 countries and territories where Coca-Cola is sold in order to document for the masses their search for happiness. They arrived back in Atlanta at the World of Coca-Cola Dec. 29, 2010, just before the dawn of the New Year. Their journey, tracked at Expedition206.com, as well as through Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, has racked up 650 million media impressions around the globe and engaged billions of people.
In China, for example, instant-messaging service QQ received a billion visits related to Expedition 206, said Anne Carelli, senior communications manager-digital communications at Coca-Cola. Ten billion virtual stamps, created by the ambassadors in each country using Haibao, the mascot for the 2010 World Expo, were also traded through QQ.
"We have been extremely pleased with the success it's had in the different markets," Ms. Carelli said, noting that the program created more visibility for the brand in key markets like China. "It's really provided a platform for the different markets to activate as they see fit."
The program -- conceptualized as a global effort that would be coordinated by a team in Atlanta but actively managed by individual markets -- forced many local markets into the digital and social-media space for the first time. It also required increased collaboration among the communications, public relations and marketing teams, something Ms. Carelli says will be instructive for future programs. And it furthered Coca-Cola's goal of creating global programs that are locally relevant.
"It was intriguing how each market went about it in their own special way," said Tony Martin, one of the ambassadors. "We never knew what to expect. In some places we'd go eat with a family. Then, in the next place we'd hang out with a local, legendary surfer. Or we'd show up at an airport and there would be these local traditions."
The group also made appearances at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Canada, the FIFA World Cup in South Africa and the Shanghai 2010 World Expo in China.
The campaign bolstered Coke's Facebook presences in markets like New Zealand, and in other countries -- such as Argentina, Ukraine and Uruguay -- local teams connected with influential bloggers as a means of promoting the program. Still, there were areas where the program didn't take off. On Twitter, the main handle boasts only about 1,800 followers. Coca-Cola execs stressed that the measure of success was based more on local-level engagement, pointing out that the Dominican Republic and other countries started their own Twitter handles specifically to document the visit.
"We made the conscious decision at the beginning that this was a local activation," Ms. Carelli said. "Equally as important were the relationships formed with influential bloggers and communities. We tapped into [areas] where we might not have had as strong of a presence previously. ... It pushed a lot of markets to start [new] relationships."
The ambassadors also arrived with built in fan bases, having competed for the opportunity to be part of the program. Coca-Cola reached out to the likes of Lonely Planet, as well as its own agencies, including Ignition, an experiential marketing firm, and WWWINS, its digital agency in China, asking for recommendations. It received about 60 candidates that it then narrowed down to 18 individuals who were brought to Atlanta for interviews. From here, nine candidates, three groups of three, were ultimately tasked with promoting themselves to consumers, who determined the winners in an online vote.
Ms. Carelli said the program has exceeded expectations. Just the fact that the year-long trip was completed with the same three ambassadors, Mr. Martin, Kelly Ferris and Antonio Santiago, is an accomplishment, she joked. But that doesn't mean there weren't snafus along the way.
The trio made it to just 186 countries, not the 206 the company had planned on. Part of that was due to security concerns in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. And part was due to logistics. Each ambassador required about 85 Visas and numerous passports, which caused the group to miss some countries. Mother Nature was also a challenge. An August trip to Bermuda was rescheduled for December, thanks to a hurricane. And Christmas was spent in Ireland when snow stranded the ambassadors last week.