Feature

The Coca-Cola Challenge

Coke's ad strategy has fluctuated between global and local for years. Jane Bainbridge asks if the new call for an iconic ad message will bring some consistency to the brand.

In ten years, Coca-Cola has gone from "always" to "enjoy" to "real" with a bit of "life tastes good" thrown in for extra spice. For the world's most valuable brand, this hardly constitutes a consistent advertising message.

Add its ever-changing global-versus-local philosophy into the mix and you have something of a rollercoaster strategy.

Last month, the "pendulum client", as one ex-agency source dubbed Coke, revealed that, once again, it was looking for a global advertising message in a bid to regain something of the iconic nature of its classic campaigns such as "hilltop".

The problem for Coke is that "hilltop" was 30 years ago. In the past decade, the brand has conspicuously lacked a global campaign of anything like comparable strength.

But it's not for want of trying. Ten years ago, its then-chief marketing officer, Sergio Zyman, shook up Coke's advertising by turning his back on global agency networks and hiring the likes of Creative Artists Agency (CAA), a Hollywood talent business. His philosophy was that he wanted the most talented people, no matter where they were from.

But despite breaking out of the confines of the agency networks, the focus remained global. "The rule was all creative ads came out of Atlanta and the exception was promotional work," one source says.

CAA's polar bears work under the "always" banner proved to be one of the most-memorable and long-running campaigns from that period and, along with the Christmas "holidays are coming" spots created by the US Doner Agency, aired globally for many years.

Zyman oversaw advertising for the brand at a time when the company's fortunes rocketed. From 1995 to 1998, its stock almost trebled to a high of more than $80 per share (it is currently standing at about half that).

But while Publicis was the European agency of record for main-brand Coke, its creative was limited to promotional TV ads. Other than these, UK viewers saw only global ads that often had limited local relevance - such as the spot where a woman tries to tempt her children into her isolated ranch using Coke, whereupon she suddenly finds her kitchen full of children, or the creative featuring Aborigines enjoying Coke in Outback Australia that ran through 1997 and 1998.

However, the late 90s, under the control of Doug Ivester, proved a difficult time for the company following the death of its chairman, Robert Goizueta, in 1997 and the Belgian contamination scandal of 1999.

When Douglas Daft took over as chief executive in 2000, he instigated a major reorganisation. Not only did he introduce the mantra "think local, act local" - quoted on Coke literature to this day - but he also ditched "always" for "enjoy". According to people close to the business at that time, the new strapline was introduced because the old one had lost focus on the product. "Always" was too far removed from the drink but "enjoy" was more product-focused.

Daft also gave in to calls from local markets for more power and less control from Atlanta. Regional divisions were given more freedom to hire, and were no longer required to swallow creative from the centre. But what subsequently happened to Coke advertising is variously described as "fragmented", "unstructured", "chaotic" and "complete anarchy", depending on whom you talk to.

In 2001, Coke used the global strapline "life tastes good" for a short period. In the UK, McCann Erickson won the Classic Coke account in 2001 and produced ads featuring a teen romance on an escalator that used the slogan.

But the impact of 9/11, combined with its then-president, Steve Heyer, asking other agencies to come up with creative, soon saw Coke on the move again.

Berlin Cameron/Red Cell came up with the "real" campaign, designed to highlight the brand's authenticity, and in 2003 Mother was appointed to the UK Classic Coke account .

While Berlin Cameron's "real" work resulted in the Courtney Cox-Arquette and Penelope Cruz ads, Mother's take on "real" was "I wish", a campaign that won praise from many sectors and gained those all-too-elusive comparisons with the venerable "I'd like to teach the world to sing" spot.

Andy Medd, a partner at Mother, says: "We were surprised how much of an impact 'I wish' had in other markets, such as the US, and delighted it ran in more than 20 countries. Its success indicates that advertising of this type, which touches people's hearts and reconnects them with what Coca-Cola is really all about, would be a good asset for the brand."

One example of Coke successfully striking a balance between "global" and local" was its campaigning around football. The "eat football, sleep football, drink Coca-Cola" strapline has been used across the world, with local markets creating their own executions under that banner.

In 1997, it manifested itself in the UK with ads such as "the community", where a blind man is watching a match, and "the eagle", about a local team mascot. For the 2002 World Cup, 25 different-themed ads were produced for local markets. In the UK, Wieden & Kennedy's quirky animated "Leggsy" character fronted the work.

One of the greatest hurdles for Coke has been that "global" has invariably meant "US-exported". But the current chief executive, E Neville Isdell, is an Irishman with extensive overseas experience, and a quick scan of the agency longlist pitching for the global work suggests the company is at last recognising its tendency to be US-centric. Agencies from South Africa, London, Singapore, France and Germany are all in the frame.

Isdell and his management team are Coke veterans who are looking for more consistent and effective communications and are said to be dissatisfied with the current creative.

There are some who think change can't come soon enough. As one source puts it: "Coke has spent the biggest amount of wasted money on advertising known to man. It's had the wrong people judging and the wrong people doing it. It's been consistently comical."

While there's no denying the strength of the brand and its positioning, Coke management knows something must be done. It issued a profit warning at the beginning of September and from 2000 to 2002 Classic Coke lost share in the cola market both globally and in the UK, according to Euromonitor.

Although the carbonates sector is growing slowly, water and fruit-based drinks are enjoying higher growth rates as tastes change.

Coke's reversion to global work is no doubt partly down to wanting a unified approach and the efficiencies global work affords. But it must still face up to problems it has with dealing with its agencies, be they networks or local independents.

"Hopefully, it'll listen to them rather than just use them as a production company. Agencies are so glad to get on the Coke roster they don't stand up to them and challenge them," one insider says.

It remains to be seen whether this latest search for iconic work will give Coke the rallying cry it desperately wants for its main brand.

Ben Langdon, the UK chairman at Euro RSCG Worldwide and a former chief executive of McCann, says: "Coca-Cola has the possibility of doing anything it wants creatively. Sadly, there are few occasions when it's ever managed it. I believe the opportunity for Coke to become as good a global brand as Nike still exists. It just has to get the most creative people in one room at one time and not confuse them with irrelevancies and politics."

WHERE NEXT FOR COCA-COLA: THE PLANNER'S VIEW

There are two Coca-Colas. There's Coca-Cola the brand and there's Coca-Cola the company. It's a distinction made all too rarely, not least by the company itself.

While brand Coca-Cola motors along, the managers of the Coca-Cola company stand accused of sleeping at the wheel: of failure, specifically, to innovate beyond cola and carbonates, and of failure, more generally, to set and adhere to a market-leading strategic path. A new corporate agenda to "recreate the relevance of carbonated soft drinks" and to increase spending on "more efficient advertising" hardly speaks of either a job well done to date or some bold new vision to follow.

In fairness to Coke (the company, that is), FMCG markets are generally mature and their brands less powerful and prized than they once were.

Google and eBay teach the world to sing these days. But others in the soft-drink jungle do dare to innovate and several among them have proved that value creation is still possible. (Fruit Towers, the home of Innocent, is just a stone's throw from Coca-Cola's UK HQ. How handy.)

By contrast, Coke's response to new market conditions seems somewhat heavy-handed: to assert the hero brand ever more aggressively. Witness its broad sponsorship footprint and its witless foray into online music distribution. Its managers might like to remember that, these days, we like our big brands to feel small. Lo-fi, not stadium rock, is the new tonal template.

So why the enduring pressure on one child in the family to perform over and over again, however exhausted? Is Coke still haunted by the 20-year-old ghosts of the "New Coke" debacle, just as a 30-year-old ad casts its own long shadow? Perhaps it's something less damning, though equally damaging: an exaggerated faith in the power of the Coca-Cola brand alone to displace all those "default beverages" out there. That's their term, not mine, by the way, and tells us something about the company's worldview. Can a client love a brand too much, as well as too little?

Make no mistake, the Coca-Cola brand itself still knocks spots off its turn-of-the-century peers: the Fords, Gillettes and Kelloggs of this world.

It boasts a heritage, a magic and a lightness of touch that eludes most billion-dollar brands. If the Coca-Cola company is guilty of anything, it is nurturing the jewel in its crown a little too single-mindedly, of polishing the family silver a little too vigorously. Under-nourished siblings, Diet Coke excepted, and underdeveloped revenue streams are the inevitable opportunity cost. Primogeniture always ends that way.

Time perhaps to let the Coca-Cola brand find a more natural place in the new brand order of things; time for sure for the Coca-Cola company to find a higher plane to operate on.

- Laurence Green is a partner at Fallon.