Coke Inks Endorsement Deal With Fictional 'Virtual Athlete' From FIFA Video Game

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With its newest athletic endorsement deal, Coke doesn't have to worry about its star getting into legal trouble, posting embarrassing tweets or demanding more money. That's because the person only exists in a video game.

His name is Alex Hunter, a creation of Electronic Arts for its popular FIFA soccer game. Hunter first burst onto the virtual scene last year in "FIFA 17" via a feature called the "The Journey." The cinematic mode allows game players to experience and influence how the fictional star navigates the competitive soccer circuit, like earning a contract with an English Premier League team. EA brought Hunter back for "FIFA 18" with a storyline about a comeback in Major League Soccer's L.A. Galaxy after falling on hard times in the English Premier League.

Coke enters the narrative when he signs an endorsement deal with the brand. Players of the video game go behind the scenes for the filming of the spot, which is based on Coke's iconic "Mean Joe Greene" ad, with some modern twists. (Instead of tossing the kid a jersey, Hunter takes a selfie with him.)

Coke plans to place the video in social media using paid ad support and show it on Coke's Times Square billboard. Hunter is also featuring Hunter on some Coke packaging in real life. The program spotlights Coca-Cola Zero Sugar, a rebranded version of the old Coke Zero. Coke declined to disclose financial terms of the deal with EA.

EA has been hyping Hunter's next chapter with videos such as this one.

Plenty of brands have been integrated into video games. Alex Hunter has even had an endorsement deal before; the character's narrative in "FIFA 17" included a pact with Adidas.

But for Coke, the "FIFA 18" integration is a big deal. Its the first time in Coke's long history that "we've ever signed a virtual athlete," says Matt Wolf, Coca-Cola Co.'s VP for entertainment, ventures and strategic alliances.

Inking a deal with a scripted digital creation has certain advantages. For instance, no one is going to spot Hunter drinking Pepsi, or doing any of the other things that have caused endorsement deals to go sideways in real life.

"Unless he has some sort of sentient AI that wakes up and goes rogue on us, we are pretty safe," jokes Wolf. But brand safety was not Coke's motivation for doing the deal with Electronic Arts. Hunter represents "the core of our DNA," Wolf says. "He is the democratization of football stars. Everybody that plays 'The Journey' really falls in love with Alex and embodies themselves into his persona."

The integration fits nicely with Coke's global soccer marketing strategy, including its sponsorship of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. EA's FIFA game is available in more than 190 countries and in 19 languages. "FIFA 17" sold more than 21 million copies, according to Matt Prior, creative director for Electronic Arts. About three-fourths of "FIFA 17" players interacted with the playing mode featuring Hunter, which from start-to-finish amounts to a 15 hour experience, Prior says. "FIFA 2018" hits stores on Sept. 29.

"FIFA 18" players get certain control over Hunter, another factor that separates the Coke integration from traditional endorsement deals.

And there's enough drama to potentially keep it interesting. The game features his life on and off the pitch. His personality is determined by how video game players answer questions for the media, for example, which can affect his on-field performance, just like in real life. "If you choose to be the fiery guy, the fans will love you more," Prior says. The downside is that kind of personality might get Hunter in trouble with the manager, who might not like dealing with the ego.

The setting for Hunter's Coke ad features a lowlight in his career, when he was booed off the field while playing in the English Premier League. The mood is similar to the 1979 Mean Joe Greene spot in which a fan cheers up the downtrodden football player with a Coke.

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