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Coca-Cola and the Mysterious White Holiday Can

Oh, Coca-Cola, you brand behemoth, you! Before I begin, I have to state a basic fact: Coca-Cola, a wonderful company on many levels, knows that one of its strongest assets is its long history of iconic marketing campaigns. The famous polar bear campaigns (addressed herein), the memorable "Hilltop" commercial (featuring the catchy tune “I’d Like To Teach the World to Sing” being sung by a group so deliberately multicultural that even the UN is jealous), and, of course, the Thomas Nast-inspired vision of Santa Claus that has come to be the definitive look of jolly ol’ Saint Nick.

So great is Coca-Cola from a marketer’s perspective that the company is often used as an example in introductory marketing courses. I use Coca-Cola to explain the importance of having top-of-mind awareness in a saturated marketplace. The idea is simple: if you ask a consumer to name a soft drink or soda, you want them to say Coke. Even better is if you ask a consumer to name a beverage and they say, “Coke.” That’s when you really know consumers are equating beverages, drinking, and thirst with your product.

For as wonderful as Coca-Cola is, however, there is one marketing misstep that the company surely wishes never happened. Of course I’m talking about the weird move in the 80s when Coca-Cola, in an attempt to respond to the competition from Pepsi, decided to tinker with its original formula (side note: rarely if ever a good idea). The result was a product referred to as New Coke, later changed to Coke II (the roman numerals seeming to subtly denote a World War or a movie sequel, neither of which is a positive thing), and extreme consumer backlash. Let’s just say the reason Coca-Cola Classic emerged was the huge mea culpa on behalf of Coca-Cola in offending its loyal consumers. The entire story is a great lesson in the importance of marketing research and competitive strategy, and is also a fun way to explain to confused marketing students just why Coca-Cola introduced Coke Zero instead of a branding its zero-calorie, same-taste offering as New Diet Coke or, heaven forbid, rebranding it as Diet Coke. Stories are told, lessons are learned, and Coke prevails again.

However, a few months ago I caught wind of Coca-Cola’s campaign for the 2011 holiday season. Having an extensive collection of adorable polar bear commercials in its repertoire, Coca-Cola decided it was time to give back to the bears. For the first time in the company’s history it decided to tinker with the packaging of its classic product (…remember what I said about never tinkering with a solid thing?). Although not given as much attention as their advertisements or their New Coke debacle, Coca-Cola’s packaging is another prime example of solid marketing. Red = regular, silver = diet, black = Coke Zero. Done. The iconic “red” color of Coca-Cola is probably one of the most easily identified brand colors in the market.

So you can imagine my surprise when I read which color Coca-Cola was planning to make all its red cans: white. Not just any white, but metallic white (they are cans, of course). And not just metallic white, but metallic white with metallic silver. Translation: they were putting regular Coke in what appeared to be Diet Coke cans.

When I first read this story months ago my first response was, “Aww, that’s nice of them,” and then, moments later, “Wait a minute! That’s a terrible idea!” Weeks later after the cans launched I was talking with a marketing friend who had the same thought about the certain doom awaiting the packaging redesign. About two weeks after we had our conversation, Coca-Cola decided to pull the cans from the shelves because of consumer confusion. Marketers around the world responded: duh?

However, just like any news-making story of terrible marketing, the conspiracy theorist in me wondered: maybe this was all part of the plan? I like to think that the marketing folks at Coca-Cola, super smart people I assure you (I once met a former marketing exec from Coca-Cola, and he was brilliant), would have realized at some point in the planning process that the new packaging might lead to some confusion. I imagine the conversation went a little something like this:

Coke guy: I can’t wait for the launch of the new polar bear holiday cans!

Coke gal: You know, I was thinking about that. When we received the mockups from the agency I thought the cans were Diet Coke cans. You don’t think anyone might mistake the cans, do you?

Coke guy: Oh, hmm. I hadn’t thought of that. (there’s a brief silence as Coke guy thinks) That could be an issue - consumers talking about the new cans, the confused mass of consumers calling their local newspapers and reporters, people talking at cocktail parties about how they almost grabbed the wrong drink… (longer pause) This is BRILLIANT! We win either way!

Coke gal: Come again?

Coke guy: If they love the cans, we’ve saved polar bears. If they hate them, we generate more buzz than we’d have ever created with the “save the bear” crap.

Coke gal: Brilliant!

Coke guy: Brilliant! Let’s go buy the world a Coke.

Okay, okay, so that’s a bit dramatized - maybe it wasn’t deliberate, but I promise you one thing: I bet people talked a lot more about Coca-Cola this holiday season than they talked about Pepsi. The best laid schemes of mice and men oft go awry, but sometimes, going awry isn’t so bad.


Of course, I am not one to criticize without offering a solution. So what would I have done if I were a brand manager at Coca-Cola? Well, if we were going to play with the can, I would be *very* careful not to toy with our iconic red color. Indeed, there are other, arguably better ways to have fun with our product packaging that does not involve playing around with a variable to which our loyal consumers are extremely sensitive. Instead of having an all-white can, I would propose an interactive can that actually starts entirely red with *no* artwork. Then, as the consumer drinks the beverage inside, the can’s exterior changes to reveal a polar bear. This would be a nice, symbolic gesture demonstrating the point of the campaign itself: the more you drink Coca-Cola Classic the more money we, Coca-Cola, will spend on saving polar bears. Thus, you go from a consumer removed from the experience of saving polar bears to a very active consumer symbolically saving polar bears with each can you drink. In addition to the appearing artwork, a thermostat/goal counter graphic appears on the can to reinforce two themes: dropping temperatures (a nice feature for a beverage consumed ice cold) and the contribution you are making to the cause by drinking Coca-Cola. Copy regarding the point of the campaign is also included so that consumers aren’t left confused or guessing about the purpose of the can. The word-of-mouth comes not from a campaign gone awry but rather from the, “Hey, did you see Coca-Cola’s cool new can?” demonstration at holiday parties where everyone wants to be the first person to show their friends how the polar bear magically appears. Talk about sharing some holiday magic!

Hopefully Coca-Cola will consider running the polar bear campaign again in 2012, and if they do, well, I guess this can be an early Christmas present from me to them.

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