A big idea is not enough
A view from Claire Beale

A big idea is not enough

In 1971, McCann Erickson's Bill Backer, one of the agency's top creative directors, was on his way to London when thick fog forced his plane to divert to Shannon Airport.

As a jumbo jet full of international passengers tried to make themselves comfortable overnight in the tiny airport’s cramped motel – sleeping in the lobby, sharing rooms – Backer noticed that people from all over the world were bonding over mugs of coffee, cups of tea… and bottles of Coke.

"Right there, I wrote it on an envelope… I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company," Backer later told Newsweek. "Like a lot of the best commercials, it was written while watching the product perform." The rest is advertising – and Coca-Cola – history.

But in last week’s respected BrandZ ranking of global brands, Coca-Cola has fallen from the top ten chart for the first time in the report’s history, with brand value down 4% to $80.3bn. Two things to point out up front: Coca-Cola’s slide in the chart is in part a reflection of the greater surge from tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon. And Coca-Cola is a 130-year-old brand: its continued ranking among the monsters from Silicon Valley is testament to its phenomenal long-term success.

Nevertheless, the brand is in decline, fuelled over recent years by an increasingly confused brand mix and a collection of advertising strategies for different variants that have added up to less than the sum of the parts. To turn the tide, Coca-Cola chief executive Muhtar Kent recently told analysts that the company is now more "focused on our core strengths of marketing and brand-building, customer value creation".

Not many chief executives would so readily define marketing as a core strength of their company, and few companies talk about their marketing strategy with Coca-Cola’s clear and very public sense of purpose. So a new marketing strategy was unveiled as the route to future growth. The "One brand" strategy pulls together all the variants under a single brand positioning for the first time in the company’s history. It’s the big play to arrest the slide. 

It’s early days but, so far, the accompanying "Taste the feeling" creative approach seems to have got stuck in a bland, lowest-common-denominator loop. Still, Coca-Cola knows how to do global marketing like very few other companies of significant scale. You wouldn’t bet against it getting it right.

The problem is not with Coca-Cola’s marketing strategy, the "One brand" approach or the "Taste the feeling" idea. The problem is the product category. Fizzy drinks, even sugar-free ones, face long-term decline as public awareness of the health benefits of limiting consumption grows. And it will take more than a big idea like "Hilltop" or "Taste the feeling" to propel Coca-Cola back up the BrandZ chart.