SHANGHAI (AdAgeChina.com) -- Coca-Cola Co. is harnessing the popularity of online fantasy games among young Chinese to promote Coca-Cola Zero over the next 12 months.
Coke Zero, a sugar-free variation of the company's flagship Coke brand, debuted in China last year, but has not been widely distributed or marketed until now.
Each brand in Coke's roster is marketed to specific passion points. Sprite, for example, is promoted through music in China. To drive Coke Zero sales, particularly in first and second tier cities in China, the company has partnered with Shanda Games, one of the mainland's leading interactive entertainment media companies.
On June 16, the two companies launched a year-long "Creativity Opens Possibility" promotion built around Aion, a fantasy combat game that is part of a genre called massively multiplayer online role-playing game (commonly abbreviated MMORPG).
Aion, developed by Korea's NCsoft but operated in China by Shanda, was launched in China in April 2009, and already has more than a million users, even though it has the highest ever requirements for a MMORPG. Following a strategy Coke is using for other brands like Minute Maid and Sprite, the company is interacting with consumers rather than talking at them.
"The unique angle is that we invite consumers to have a role in the game and participate in the game," Andres Kiger, Coke's Shanghai-based senior integrated marketing communications director for China, told Ad Age shortly before the launch ceremony on the front steps of the Oriental Pearl tower.
One of the top tourist attractions in Shanghai's eerie, futuristic Pudong district, the venue was fitting for the outlandish costumes worn by the avatars of online game players. The event was packed with hundreds of gaming fans, eager to see the game's designer in person and actors dressed as characters in the game.
"We can insert some unique elements for Coke Zero consumers as part of the game [in China]," Mr. Kiger said. "[The game has] about 300 million gamers, so there's been an explosion in this space. Our consumers are there and they're engaged and we're looking for unique opportunities to engage with them."
Through a branding collaboration with Shanda, Coca-Cola Zero is offering China's most creative young scriptwriter the opportunity to have his or her own storyline integrated into the Aion game. Gamers can send submissions to Coke's Chinese portal, www.iCoke.cn, where visitors to the site will judge and vote on their work.
The contest's grand prize is a trip to a video game expo in South Korea, one of the world's most innovative gaming markets, plus an internship at Shanda.
The Chinese game operator has also incorporated a Coca-Cola-based non-player character in a new version of the game introduced this month, but the promotion is about more than branding, said Mr. Kiger.
To drive sales, Coca-Cola and Shanda are offering $1.5 million worth of prizes to Coke Zero consumers, who register by inputting the 13-digit PIN numbers from Coke Zero products at iCoke.cn
"The gaming strategy links to the different possibilities it gave us to build the brand as well as to the popularity of online gaming in China," said Wayne Fan, Shanghai-based regional business director, Greater China at Wwwins Consulting. A division of Aegis Media's Isobar network, Wwwins helped develop the strategy and implementation of Coke's partnership with Shanda as well as the online marketing.
Coke is promoting the Aion competition in nine cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Ads are running in Shanda's internet cafes nationwide, in some McDonald's outlets through a drinks promotion with the fast food company, through special offers at convenience stores and supermarkets, and on LED screens at bus stops. The contest is also promoted in Milk, a magazine devoted to street fashion and style.
The creative was developed by Red Lounge, a dedicated team in Shanghai comprised of staff from all of Coke's roster agencies, including Leo Burnett and Starcom MediaVest.
Red Lounge also created a spot in which a struggling game developer meets some of the game's most popular characters and is inspired by the great taste of Coke Zero. The ad is only running on web sites and video-sharing portals like Youku, and will not air on TV.
"We thought it was more in keeping with the digital nature of the campaign to only run the ads online," Mr. Fan said.
Coca-Cola has used online games in the past to market its flagship Coke brand in China. In 2007, the company developed a nationwide online gaming tournament held in several thousand internet cafes in over 100 cities across China. The winners received a free trip to New York city, where they competed with the world's top players at the Digital Life Pro/Am Tournament.
In the summer of 2005, for example, Coke sponsored World of Warcraft (WoW), the most popular online game that year. The two-month promotion included ads plus co-branded product packaging and 40 million prizes such as laptop computers, WoW premiums and free gaming hours. The U.S. beverage giant also decorated 10,000 internet cafes with elaborate WoW and Coke branding, driving up Coke sales in the cafes by up to 30%, according to company executives.
"That promotion was effective but it was more passive. This gets our brand much more involved with consumers," Mr. Kiger said.
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