Red Cross, Coke results show peril of bland global branding

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As headlines go, "Red Cross denies banning Christmas" is more of a winner than "Diet Coke switches account from Lowe to FCB." But this is Advertising Age, not a mass-market tabloid. Nevertheless, there now follows an attempt to prove the two stories are really about the same thing.

The Red Cross in the United Kingdom was accused of banning Christmas after staff members found they could not put up nativity scenes or other Christmas-related decorations at the charity's 430 shops. A British Red Cross spokesman said, "People can put up tinsel or snow, which is seasonal."

The spokesman told the Daily Mail: "The Red Cross is a neutral organization and we don't want to be aligned with any political party or particular philosophy. We don't want to be seen as a Christian or Islamic or Jewish organization because that might compromise our ability to work in conflict situations around the world." Leaving aside the questionable seasonality of tinsel, this is clearly the British Red Cross trying to "do a Coca-Cola"; i.e., market itself globally with the least offensive messages and imagery possible.

The result in the case of Coca-Cola, as with so many other global marketers (Nike being an obvious exception), is global advertising that fails to make a genuine splash locally. The last Diet Coke ad I can remember, anywhere, is a laborer, much to the approval of a gaggle of female office workers, taking off his top to have a Diet Coke break.

On Diet Coke, as with other brands, Coca-Cola Co. has recently used some of the more creative agencies in the world, among them Wieden & Kennedy and the former Lowe Howard-Spink. But you don't need them if the end product is the type of "no offense," lowest-common-denominator advertising we have so often seen. This is not to say that Interpublic Group of Cos.' Foote, Cone & Belding Worldwide, the new Diet Coke agency, is not capable of breakthrough work. But it has not come from the agencies Coke has already discarded.

Here's a New Year's wish for multi-national advertisers: Don't be afraid of advertising. By that I don't mean simply increase your ad spend. I do mean let advertising do what it is capable of when the shackles are taken off: that is, break through the clutter with single-minded selling propositions while entertaining the viewer, listener or reader.

John Hegarty, the Bartle Bogle Hegarty co-founder, tells a story of a business meeting he had once where the client expressed disapproval of BBH's presentation. "But that's an idea," the client said nervously, leaving Hegarty to contemplate a new career in insurance.

Back to the British Red Cross. Inevitably, there was a local backlash to its global marketing. Christians protested proactively. Early press reports suggested donations were down significantly over Christmas.

To end on a note of practical sanity amid this rampant political correctness: The organization's name is not the Red Crescent or the red sausage; it's the Red Cross. Banning Christmas trees and plastic miniature wise men from the shop window will never disguise the charity's Christian origins.

Stefano Hatfield is contributing editor to Advertising Age, Creativity, and

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