Super Bowl

The Strategy Behind Coke's Marvel Super Bowl Ad

Why Coke Is Advertising Mini Cans and How It Fits Into New Campaign

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Coke tonight used the year's biggest marketing stage to advertise its smallest product -- with some help from a couple of Marvel superheros.

The 60-second Super Bowl ad plugged Coke's 7.5 ounce mini can, which has become a key plank in the cola giant's business strategy of focusing on more profitable, smaller pack sizes. In the ad, the tiny can is the subject of a fight between Ant-Man (who is voiced by Paul Rudd) and The Incredible Hulk. The two become friends after Ant-Man gives up the can and helps Hulk open it. Mr. Rudd also made a cameo in Bud Light's Super Bowl ad.

Coke's spot is by Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, representing the shop's first contribution to the marketer's new global campaign called "Taste the Feeling."

The tone of the the ad is a departure from the more serious ads that Coke ran in the previous two Super Bowls. Last year's ad tackled online bullying, while Coke in the 2014 game celebrated ethnic and racial diversity with a spot that showed "America the Beautiful" sung by Americans in seven languages.

This year's more whimsical approach fits the strategy pushed by global Chief Marketing Officer Marcos de Quinto. He took the CMO job roughly a year ago and recently oversaw the launch of the product-focused "Taste the Feeling" campaign that replaced the more high-minded "Open Happiness" effort. The goal of the new campaign is to make Coke, the liquid, the centerpiece of ads that tell stories about simple pleasures. The first round of ads released last month include everyday moments, like an older brother teasing his younger sibling.

There is, of course, nothing everyday about the Hulk crashing through buildings and chasing Ant-Man down a city street. But the big-budget ad proved worthy of the Super Bowl, while sticking to Coke's new strategy -- put Coke cans and bottles front-and-center in ads. The ad "is a story that puts Coke as the hero of the story. If you take out the Coke, the story is not the same," said Emmanuel Seuge, senior VP-content for Coca-Cola North America. "That is simple storytelling but delivered in a very epic way through the partnership with Marvel."

The Super Bowl campaign includes new limited-edition Coke mini cans that are emblazoned with images of Marvel characters, including Hulk, Ant-Man, Black Widow and Captain America. But the cans are not being sold in stores. To get a six-pack, viewers must look for hidden clues in the spot that will direct them on how to order a mini can online. Coke plans to assist consumers with the clues using its social media channels each day through Feb. 14. One clue in the ad, the web address HiddenMini.com, is hidden on a wall tagged with graffiti. That web adress auto-directs viewers to the Twitter handle: @AhhForce.

The gimmick seems to be a ploy to get people to watch the ad over and over again, and also engage with Coke online. Only 30,000 Marvel-designed six-packs are being made available. But if the program goes well, Coke will consider making the cans available in stores. "We are going to look at it to see what the consumer response is and make that call then," said Andy McMillin, senior VP of the Coca-Cola trademark for Coca-Cola North America.

While the ad does not feature Marvel's Captain America, an executive from the Disney-owned Marvel Entertainment hinted that the superhero and Coke might work together soon. "Teaming up with Coca-Cola for such an exciting project on a larger-than-life stage is just the beginning of a broader partnership," Mindy Hamilton, senior VP-global partnerships for Marvel, said in a statement. "As we build up to the release of Marvel's 'Captain America: Civil War,' we look forward to celebrating both brands by creating some truly special moments for fans throughout the year."

The regular mini cans launched in 2007. But the Super Bowl 50 campaign represents the biggest dedicated marketing effort for the tiny packs since they debuted, Coke executives said. The investment comes as Coca-Cola puts smaller package sizes at the forefront of its new strategy of emphasizing dollar sales over volume growth. Or as executives have put it, selling "Cokes" instead of "Coke."

PepsiCo has also hiked investment behind its own Pepsi mini cans, including running a movie-themed ad during the 2014 Academy Awards that carried the tagline "Little Can. Epic Satisfaction."

The smaller packs contain less liquid, but they are more profitable on a per-unit basis. While individual Coke drinkers might drink less, the company wants to broaden its total base of consumers. Also, the strategy potentially shields Coke from at least some of the criticism it regularly faces from health groups that have accused the company of contributing to the obesity epidemic.

"People want choice, they want smaller packs, they want to have control," Mr. McMillin said.

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