The word 'icon' is overused in branding, but Coca-Cola is among the more deserving of the description. From 'inventing' a Santa Claus clad all in red in the 30s, to the introduction of its distinctive contoured glass bottle, Coke is one of the greatest branding success stories in history.
Over the past month, a marketing push has informed consumers that Coca-Cola is 125 in May - though so far there seems little awareness of the anniversary (see box, page 31). TV ads have jingled with the 'I'd like to buy the world a Coke' anthem, and poster sites have borne classic work.
Yet the brand faces major competitive and regulatory challenges. A fragmented media environment now denies Coke the frequent mass-culture moments that fuelled its rise. The anniversary, then, reveals a business delving into its past for lessons about how it may reinvent itself.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the plaudits have been flooding in for Coca-Cola in the marketing world. This year alone, beer brand Carlsberg overhauled its branding and packaging, making no secret of its desire to ape Coke with the creation of a distinctive bottle.
Alongside its unmistakeable script logo, in the style once widely used by US accountants, Coke's glass bottle has formed an immoveable foundation for generations of marketers to build on.
Standout packaging is not the only marketing tool that has been exploited by Coke with aplomb, and copied by brands down the years. According to Ted Ryan, manager of archives and collections at The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, it was Coke's creation of 'couponing' in the late 19th century that ensured the brand's success. 'Couponing was essential, the company would never have grown without it. The concept was: give it away, and, if it's good enough, people will come back and pay for it,' says Ryan.
The most decisive and influential moment in the rise of Coca-Cola, however, came in 1929. After nearly half a century of trading, the brand's aggressive marketing had driven huge levels of awareness in the US. Former chairman Roberto Goizueta once stated: 'If it moves, sponsor it; if it doesn't move, paint it red.' Coke's erstwhile chief executive, Robert Woodruff, however, realised that the brand must achieve a greater emotional connection with consumers, declaring: 'The purpose of our advertising is to make people like us.' Hard-sell, product-led marketing was replaced with 'lifestyle advertising', giving birth to a series of memorable TV ads.
Since that moment, Coke's TV ads have permeated mainstream culture in a way that other brands can only aspire to. From its annual 'The holidays are coming' Christmas campaign, to its famous 1971 'Hilltop' ad featuring young people singing, the brand has displayed an uncanny knack for tapping into the zeitgeist.
Nick Robinson, Coke's marketing director for North West Europe & Nordics, agrees the soft drink's marketing is strongest when it resonates with society's wider mood. 'Coke has been at its best - celebrating the liquid and bringing emotion to the brand - when campaigns have tapped into a cultural insight. The Hilltop commercial came out of Vietnam at a time of unrest, and connected with a feeling of optimism,' he says.
Ubiquity is not Coke's only crowning achievement; its historical ability to bend the brand to regional tastes has proved similarly vital. The manner in which Coca-Cola won over the UK market, in particular, is a definitive case study in international expansion.
Since 1920, Coke had been sold at British soda fountains in retailers such as Selfridges, and the company was keen to begin selling bottled products. To investigate how this might be achieved, in 1924 it sent brand representative Hamilton Horsey to quiz local marketers and retailers on all things British. His report provided an insight into the need to adapt a brand to a local market. It stated: 'The introduction of our product into the English market will require ... great consideration to the business customs and the likes and the dislikes of the English people ... avoiding every show of pomp and the "braggadocio" attitude which sometimes distinguishes the American manufacturer in foreign markets.'
By the time the soft drink launched its first British TV ads in 1956, the message was understood. National celebrities such as ballroom dancer Alf Davies, racing driver Stirling Moss and footballer John Charles featured in the ads. In the 60s, the trend for marketing with a local flavour continued, with The Who recording a TV clip and song for Coke based on the line: 'Things go better with Coke.'
'From the beginning, we've always tried to adapt to the local market, and our 50s ads were so quintessentially British,' says Ryan. 'It all played off the 1924 document: don't be the brash American company. When we're not doing good marketing, we're probably not following that message.'
Such a formidable range of innovations that have influenced brand marketing across the globe makes it easy to suppose that Coke's glory days have come and gone. Jim Prior, managing director of consultancy The Partners, agrees that the brand has created a hard act for itself to follow.
'Coke is the definitive case study in how to build an emotional proposition, and the challenge is to continue to do things that are, and will become, iconic. It has to do new, brave and confident things - it can't just rely on what it's done in the past,' he states.
One thing is for certain: Coke cannot rely on the kind of mass-media environment in which it previously thrived. As fragmentation abounds, the brand must figure out a way to maintain its success now it is less able to reach tens of millions of consumers with a single TV ad.
The company is also being restructured to reflect globalisation. Chief marketing officer Joe Tripodi recently told a US publication that, in the wake of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, the brand had become focused on exploiting the 'similarities' of the global consumer and taking advantage of its scale. In the same interview, he bemoaned the corporation's tendency to work in geographical 'silos', insisting that large local marketing teams are a thing of the past.
The company's European country teams were recently reshuffled into four bigger units, lumping in the UK with territories such as France and Iceland in a North West Europe & Nordics division. The vast majority of Coke's above-the-line activity is no longer UK-specific.
Its global 'Open happiness' campaign has been designed to extend beyond country borders and the realms of traditional media, with the European marketing teams supporting the push online via the promotional 'Coke Zone' hub.
However, although Robinson claims that the campaign is proving highly successful across territories, it has yet to catch the popular imagination in the manner achieved by its predecessors.
More of the same
With more homogenous marketing across territories, and a disparate audience, it might seem that it is more difficult for Coke's marketers to deliver the type of knock-out campaigns that have captivated consumers over the past 125 years.
Robinson does not subscribe to this point of view, however. 'I don't think it's harder. We may need to employ different techniques and approaches in the way we market the brand, but at the end of the day it's about a daily connection,' he says.
'Maybe in the old days you would press a button and 20m people would see (the ad) and you would sit back and enjoy the rest of the year. Now you're going to have to be more varied and more flexible in your approach. It is still about whether the message connects, however it is delivered,' he adds.
Even if Coke is not able to get the world metaphorically singing in unison, Robinson is adamant that the brand can still create special cultural moments in the decades ahead. 'This company has a very ambitious strategy for the next 10 years about what it wants to be by 2020. After all, you don't want to be the marketer that took Coca-Cola from number one to number two,' he explains.
That fear may well prove to be the driving force that keeps Coke at the top of its game for a few more years yet.
Take a look at our timeline of the history of Coke, including its most iconic ad campaigns.