By closing down "Open Happiness" and launching a new, product-focused campaign called "Taste the Feeling," Coca-Cola is acknowledging a new reality in food and beverage marketing: If you are going to sell stuff, you better talk about the stuff.
Consumers want to hear more about how products taste, what's in them and how they are made. So marketers would be wise to go back to the basics with ads that put more emphasis on ingredients and quality, and less on high-minded concepts that are seemingly disconnected from brands, say consumer and marketing experts.
"Stop telling me how your product changes the world and start telling me how much I'm going to love your product. It feels more real, relatable and trustworthy, and it's more consumer-centric," said Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and professor at Golden Gate University.
Under the seven-year-old "Open Happiness" campaign, Coke often strayed into heavy topics like rallying against online bullying. One effort, called "Where Will Happiness Strike Next," included a 2011 video showing how the brand reunited Filipino people working overseas with their families back home in the Philippines for the holidays.
Coke is not abandoning optimistic messaging in "Taste the Feeling," which launched globally last week. But ads make a concerted effort to show people enjoying Coke during simple, everyday moments. The campaign gets back to the roots of a brand whose very first tagline in 1886 was "Delicious and Refreshing." Coke had "started to talk in a preachy way to people. And Coca-Cola has always been a simple pleasure," said Global Chief Marketing Officer Marcos de Quinto, who took the CMO job a year ago.
Coke is not giving up entirely on putting "cultural leadership" in its marketing, said Rodolfo Echeverria, the marketer's global VP for creative, connections and digital. "But it's going to be in a proportion of one out of 10 and not nine out of 10," he said.
Coke has long been in the crosshairs of health groups that blame soda consumption for rising obesity rates—and that's not likely to change. But with the new campaign, Coke appears to have decided to "stop selling past the negative" of sugar, and "just focus on why consumers drink the product in the first place: because it tastes good and is refreshing," said Rick Shea, a former packaged-food marketing executive and president of Shea Marketing.
The campaign is likely to resonate with Coke bottlers, a key constituency. Bottlers "care very much about the liquid. That is their life," said Beverage Digest Editor Duane Stanford.
Coke "had to make a change in its creative direction. Recent results have been disappointing and the category is under fire from critics," said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.
For the third quarter of 2015, the company reported 1% global growth in the Coca-Cola trademark, including an 8% drop for Diet Coke.
Coke rival Pepsi has also put more emphasis on its actual cola. The brand launched its "Live for Now" campaign in 2012, aiming to "capture the excitement of now" by linking the brand to entertainment and pop culture. But there are plenty of product close-ups in that campaign too, with fizzing cola poured over ice, for example. And recently, Pepsi resurrected its old "Joy of Pepsi" tagline in an ad that is getting heavy play. Lyrics tout the "joy of Pepsi on your tongue." It seems a far cry from the cause-based, community-grant-giving "Pepsi Refresh Project" campaign that led the brand's marketing from 2010 to 2012 and ended amid criticism that it failed to lift sales.
Of course, plenty of brands are still pushing high-minded ideals in ads. Last week, Oreo launched a global campaign called "Open Up With Oreo" that aims to encourage viewers to "open your heart to people who are different than you." Ads position the simple act of twisting open Oreos as a "catalyst for breaking down barriers," according to the brand. But the addictive cookies still take center stage in a new animated ad, which "follows a young girl inspiring those around her to look inside themselves to let a little bit of wonder out and, in turn, let others in," according to Oreo.