Brand: Coca-Cola Zero
Link: Click Here
Target: Men watching calories
Recreating the famous seventies commercial ‘hilltop’, this spot has a twenty-something guitar player singing a version of “I’d like to teach the world to sing” on a rooftop in a city, joined by other attractive young people in an appealing update of the traditional song. Instead of “I’d like to teach the world to sing,” we get “I’d like to teach the world to chill.” The spot ends with the stenciled Coca-Cola bottle icon with the Coca-Cola Zero logo drawn in.
This spot has been airing for months. Why are we reviewing it now? Because Coke is sticking with the brand despite obvious problems and because they’ve introduced advertising to clarify the confusion caused by this spot. And because we believe this potentially brilliant advertising was betrayed by bad strategy.
As a Coca-Cola spot (ignoring Coca-Cola Zero for the moment), there are a number of appealing things about this execution:
- Authenticity – One of Coca-Cola’s core brand traits is authenticity. Coke is the first soft drink that created an emotional connection to our life experiences. By updating a classic ad, Coca-Cola reminds us that they are the original, genuine article. This spot brings us back to the core of what is good about Coca-Cola.
- Social Connection – Coca-Cola is about shared experiences, not individualism. The best Coca-Cola advertising creates connections between people where they might not exist otherwise. By singing together from the rooftops (literally), Coca-Cola again shows the power of harmony and the power of the brand as a social connector.
- Mirror of the Times - Crispin Porter has chosen a nice theme “Chill” to update the classic ‘hilltop’ spot. In a world confused by terrorism, war, extremism and social division the ‘chill’ message is simple but effective. Bringing the spot to an urban setting is a simple way to mirror our changing reality.
- Execution – All of the executional touches on this spot are expertly handled. The models are appealing without seeming unreal. The hip-hop patter under the familiar tune gives the music an energy it might not have as a simple recasting of the original spot. The camerawork is crisp and well planned.
So why have we given this spot just one star?
This could be a great ad for Coca-Cola. But it is a disaster for Coca-Cola Zero. It is the best example we have seen this year of bad strategy killing a great execution. Coca-Cola has looked back into history and learned the wrong lessons from it.
At Coca-Cola, the advertising group used to operate very independently from the worldwide brand groups. At one point there was a rumor that a particular spot was shot for Coca-Cola Classic (the one with the elephant swimming and grabbing the can with its snout if you remember back that far) but the advertising group decided at the last minute to run it for Diet Coke instead by digitally cutting the Diet Coke can in place. The story (and we don’t know if it is true) is that the Diet Coke brand manager only heard about this spot when she saw it air on television for the first time.
Whatever the truth of that anecdote, there is a similar aura of brand confusion surrounding this ad. It looks like a perfect ad for an established brand – it is heavy on emotional connection and uses cues from older advertising to refresh the brand. It has good brand recognition but no product explanation. But it makes no sense as a new product spot. What is Coca-Cola Zero? What are we supposed to think about it? What does it do? How is it different from diet Coke?
To understand how some very smart marketers got themselves into this very obvious pickle, it is necessary to go back to Coca-Cola in the Sergio Zyman/Roberto Goizueta era. And to the introduction of New Coke.
New Coke is a little bit like Vietnam at The Coca-Cola Company. Everyone who was around at the time was traumatized by it. It made them feel like idiots at the time (in spite of the happy ending), and they passed that sense of trauma on to the next generation of marketers. In time, the Coca-Cola marketing corps learned lessons from New Coke – lessons that are enshrined in the marketing culture. The first lesson is “Thou Shalt Not Mess with a Leading Brand.”
The problem with self-evident lessons like this one is that they hardly ever give useful guidance for real-world dilemmas. And the dilemma facing Coca-Cola last year boiled down to one word: Splenda.
The problem was this: Splenda (marketed by Johnson & Johnson) had surpassed NutraSweet to become the #1 sweetener. Sucralose, the artificial sweetener in Splenda, also had a better flavor profile than aspartame or saccharin. So the obvious choice for Diet Coke was to switch from using NutraSweet to Splenda in Diet Coke.
This is where the First Commandment came in. All diet drinks taste bad (if you love diet drinks try to remember the first time you tried one) and each has a distinctive aftertaste. But none of them would be mistaken for a soft drink sweetened with sugar. So swapping NutraSweet with Splenda would make lots of people happy – but not everyone. All of these substitutes leave an aftertaste and sugar doesn’t have one. Coca-Cola was reminded of that the hard way last year when it introduced C2, a mid-calorie drink targeted at active men drinking Coca-Cola which was another disaster.
Now given the First Commandment (‘Though Shalt Not Mess with a Leading Brand’) and the bad experience with C2, Coca-Cola could not simply swap NutraSweet for Splenda in Diet Coke. It was bound to create a minority of unhappy diet Coke drinkers. After New Coke, every Coca-Cola marketer realizes that a vocal minority can create a PR and marketing disaster for the Company and might result in real bodily harm beyond losing a job.
The obvious solution was to introduce diet Coke with Splenda while keeping the traditional diet Coke around. We have mixed feelings about this as we feel that the Coke lineup is far too cluttered and confusing (look how far Red Bull goes with just 2 skus). On the whole, however, this seems like a reasonable compromise – and Coca-Cola did indeed introduce diet Coke with Splenda.
Unfortunately, a company that employs over 400 marketers on just a dozen big brands can have trouble leaving well-enough alone, and that’s where the evil we like to call ‘incrementalist marketing’ snuck in. Incrementalist marketing refers to marketing practices which try to squeeze the last ounce of juice out of the lemon, but end up giving you the seeds instead. To get the last ounce of juice from the lemon, Coca-Cola wondered – as they always do – how they could switch some Pepsi drinkers to Coke with this new, wonderful Splenda. They had failed with a mid-calorie drink. But what about a drink which was clearly a no-calorie drink (which theoretically signals inferior taste) but under the Coca-Cola brand. This is how Coca-Cola Zero was born. Ironically, it’s also how diet Coke was born in the first place.
But what is the real strategy behind Coca-Cola Zero? And how is it different from diet Coke with Splenda? The theory has to be that Coca-Cola is attracting different audiences with these two different brands peddling an identical formulation. But the reality is that it just confuses consumers who do not have time for these small distinctions. And it confuses loyal Coke and diet Coke drinkers the most. The confusion is increased by slapping the Coca-Cola Zero brand on what might otherwise have been a very effective spot. We have been somewhat hard on Crispin Porter in the past so we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and suggest that the decision to use Coca-Cola Zero as the brand for the rejuvenated Hilltop spot was a horrendous lack of marketing strategy and oversight on the part of Coca-Cola marketing leadership.
Which brings us back to the news today, where we learned that Coca-Cola Chief Marketing Officer Chuck Fruit will be vacating his position and that the CMO role will not be filled in the future because the organization he has put in place will eliminate the need for a marketing chief. Pardon us for being sceptical if we cannot see any signs of control or organization in Coca-Cola’s marketing strategy these days.
Branding Bottom Line:
Coca-Cola gives us Zero. And that’s just what we get.