From Left: Coca-Cola's Pio Schunker, Katie Bayne, Peter Schelstraete and Marc Mathieu
Squinting through the glare of awards from spots like "Happiness Factory" and "Videogame," it's almost hard to see that Coca-Cola had almost lost its way. Prior to this, the Coke brand around the world had suffered from serious case of "Who am I?" and was close to becoming just one of a zillion other cans in the refrigerated section of the local grocer. But, then, something happened. Coke came back with a strong contemporary voice that retained and reclaimed the nostalgic fizz of the past, welcoming a new generation to the "Coke Side of Life."
How did the prodigal soda find its way back home? Clearly it must have been a long, hard path given the Atlanta-based organization's reputation in the last decade as an innovation repellant. This is the company that gave the boot to Steven Heyer, former President/COO, a high profile "change agent" who was responsible for steering Coke into industry-changing entertainment territory with CAA and the solo sponsorship of American Idol. But not before he helped to lay the groundwork for a creative revolution. In 2002 he brought in agency vet Esther Lee, co-founder of DiNoto/Lee, to steer a newly established in-house creative department for North America, and later, for worldwide. Around the same time, Heyer also brought to the U.S. Coke global marketing vet Marc Mathieu to manage the Coke trademark.
From then on, "it was a bit like living in the start of a movement," recalls Shelstraete. "We made the manifesto and Marc presented it [at a marketers meeting] in Barcelona and I think the most important thing was that when we stood up there, there was immediate, enormous enthusiasm from people around the world. If there was one thing that was really important for us, it was to be able to set a vision and a growth strategy for the brand that everyone around the world could buy into. I think that was the tipping point."
Peter Blake's Coke Illustration
Mathieu and team, along with Esther Lee on the advertising side and Mary Minnick, Coke's former EVP/president of marketing strategy and innovation, then took those brand insights and embarked on a creative tour that, at times, might have made the corporation look like a controlling, cherry-picking marketer. U.S. agency Berlin Cameron was in, then out. In the quest for a global brand voice, Coke's marketers enlisted top tier creative shops from around the globe to create new spots for the brand, only to have them killed. Ultimately, however, the search landed Coke at the doorstep of Wieden and Kennedy's Portland and Amsterdam offices in 2005. From the outside, Wieden's wins of both the North American and global account might have appeared a concerted effort between both its offices—the announcements in the press of Wieden's North American and global assignments were just days apart—but the awards were actually separate. Both agencies, however showed that they had understood the core brand truths the Manifesto sought to reclaim. "I'll never forget when [Wieden/Portland] walked in to pitch the U.S. business," recalls North American CMO Katie Bayne. "Whereas everyone else who walked in to pitch the U.S. business was very clear about the capabilities of their agencies and the amount of creative resources the kind of insights they had, Dan walked in and said, 'I don't need this business. But I love Coca Cola and I can't stand to see what you're doing with this brand.' It was such a different point of view and it was absolutely truthful and credible and full of integrity once he showed the work. It was a defining moment." Wieden "demonstrated such a great understanding of the essence of the brand, which he described as this notion of joy and optimism," recalls Pio Schunker, North American head of creative excellence. "There was an inherent simplicity and goodness that we had to return to." The pitch work also "gave the brand a central presence without which the work could never have existed." From small spots like 'Sip Stealing," to global efforts like "Video Game," the work shows that the brand now "has a point of view, versus just appropriating culture and sponsoring that point of view," says Schunker. Meanwhile, on the global side, Amsterdam, which had been invited to pitch on the merits of earlier Coke Olympic work, "understood the brand strategically and how to execute it creatively," explains Mathieu. "When we came in to pitch, they had work coming out of all four corners of the Earth and it wasn't adding up to anything," recalls John Norman, CD at Coke's global agency Wieden/Amsterdam. "The net sum was really a splintered Coke brand message. We did a test and walked around the shopping district in Amsterdam and saw within a few blocks 67 pieces of branding for Coca-Cola that meant nothing. They were all completely different. It was like Kleenex."
Although Mathieu says "we had many journeys, going back and circling again" with Wieden, the partnership ultimately produced "The Coke Side of Life," a singular global message that embraced the positive elements of Coke's past but wasn't drenched in a naďve and saccharine optimism. The idea, of course, led to Portland's Gold Lion-winning "Video Game" and the entertainment property in the making known as "Happiness Factory." It also put the brand's shapely bottle at the heart of an art-driven outdoor and print push, resulting in an effort heartily embraced by marketers around the world. "I was in Morocco over the summer and saw carpets made with the [design of] the contour bottle," says Shelstraete. In London, artist Peter Blake, known for his illustration for The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album, recently applied his own touches to the bottle in a London outdoor installation. The "Happiness Factory" spot, which has been tailored to fit different markets, even inspired Coke marketers in Turkey to create a giant vending machine where onlookers could enter and meet some of the spot's characters.
Going forward, the looming question is whether some of the organization's recent high profile executive shifts will trip up Coke's winning stride. Former worldwide CCO Esther Lee recently returned to the agency world to become Euro/RSCG's president/global brands and first North American CEO, her Coke post now manned by former Mother strategy director Jonathan Mildenhall. Minnick, who insiders say was instrumental to Coke's new global brand initiative, left the company earlier this year, allegedly because she was passed over for the president/COO role, which went to Muhtar Kent. Meanwhile, her former position was recently taken over by newly appointed chief marketing and commercial officer Joseph Tripodi, previously a VP/CMO at Allstate Insurance, whose style has been cited in the press to favor sales drivers over image campaigns.
"With every change, people get nervous that someone's going to come in and change things for the worse, but every time I've experienced a change like this at Coke, it's always got better," observes Wieden/Amsterdam CD Al Moseley. "When Mary [Minnick] first started, everybody called her 'Scary Mary,' and we were all really worried. But she came in and she was amazing. She supported the work and was a visionary. It's very difficult to second guess what it will be like."
Mathieu too, only sees possibilities. "Joe [Tripodi] came in with a very clear mission to bring together the marketing and commercials departments, all the integration of what we do, from TV to the point of sales," he says. "The creative space that has been established so far, to unlock it even further and bring it to life through a presence that's relevant, but not annoying, in every single consumption moment—that to me is where this integration of marketing and commercial under one roof can be very powerful." Adds Moseley,"Coke was ailing before, it was sick. But the brand's fit again and ready for action. Now, instead of seeing the doctor, we're going to take it to the personal trainer."
New Coke aluminum bottle designs
Read about the next Creative Marketer, Howies.
To discuss this article, visit the Creativity Forums.