OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

Coca-Cola is massively revamping the marketing communications for its flagship brand in its home market, introducing a $250 million campaign that has at its central focus a new theme: "Coca-Cola ... Real."

But as the ambitious multimedia and promotional efforts start washing over American consumers like the gazillions of gallons of Coke they drink each year, Madison Avenue is wondering what's the real deal regarding the soft drink giant's agency roster.

The story behind the creation of the campaign for the Coca-Cola mainstay brand, known as Coca-Cola Classic in the US, offers a, well, classic example of how fraught with uncertainty agency-client relations are likely to be for the foreseeable future. To paraphrase that class ... er, immortal line from All About Eve uttered by Bette Davis, who was Coke to Joan Crawford's Pepsi: "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a burpy night."

Though the Interpublic Group of Companies has the coveted role as the global creative consultant on the brand, and McCann-Erickson Worldwide Advertising is the lead agency for Coca-Cola Classic at Interpublic, the idea for "Coca-Cola ... Real" - not to mention almost all the work based on the theme that consumers began seeing last week - emanated elsewhere, at Berlin Cameron/Red Cell, the New York outpost of the WPP Group's fledgling Red Cell network.

Andy Berlin and Ewen Cameron parlayed a toehold on the Coca-Cola roster, handling newer, smaller brands such as Dasani and Nestea, into a far larger role when corporate executives in Atlanta declared themselves dissatisfied with McCann-Erickson's attempts to find a way to help reverse the recent lacklustre sales for Coca-Cola Classic.

"Real", which fared better in testing than any McCann concept, offers a dynamic dual appeal to soda drinkers. The word echoes several familiar Coke slogans of the past, most notably "It's the Real Thing"; coincidentally, the "Real Thing" jingle was playing on the TV Tunes channel of Radio@AOL as I was writing this -spooky.

"Real" also is meant to address a contemporary trend noted by numerous market researchers, especially among the hard-to-impress members of the youthful Generation Y: an affinity for products perceived to be authentic and genuine. What's so bloody real about carbonated sugared water, you may ask, and the answer would be difficult to articulate rationally. Emotionally, though, "Real" could well tap into a powerful force in the American psyche, a longing for things as traditional as the Spencerian script in which the Coca-Cola brand name is written and at the same time as fresh as the carbonation in a just-opened bottle of Coke.

Indeed, with some notable exceptions, initial reviews for "Coca-Cola ... Real" have been favourable, surpassing the sub-par grades given its McCann-produced predecessor, "Life Tastes Good", which, for obvious reasons, disappeared soon after 9/11.

Whatever the fate of the campaign, for now McCann-Erickson finds itself sharing the Coca-Cola Classic account in the US with Berlin Cameron/Red Cell. Also, as Campaign reported, Coca-Cola GB has asked Mother to share some thoughts on how to sell Coke in the UK, while gamely reiterating that McCann remains its agency of record.

Those are the types of sharing arrangements that the Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood had in Grandma's bed. And anyone who's read a fairytale knows how grimly that turned out.

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