How the World’s Most Iconic Brand Was Saved From Itself

Coke is the Cannes Advertiser of the Year

David Turner and Dan Wieden, whose agencies have created some of the most memorable creative for Coca-Cola in recent years, actually came close to snubbing the world’s most famous brand.

Coca-Cola had approached Turner Duckworth seven years ago about redesigning the packaging for the marketer’s flagship brand, but the firm’s co-founder harbored doubts he could do good work and didn’t want to hurt his company’s reputation or staff morale. Wieden, whose agency already worked on some other Coca-Cola brands, was more blunt in his hesitation a year earlier, telling Coke marketing exec Pio Schunker he thought the brand’s advertising was terrible and needed to get back on track.

In the biggest surprise, the client agreed.

“Certainly at that point, our creative really didn’t have much value to it because it wasn’t very good across the board,” says Schunker, now svp, head of integrated marketing. “We were looked at as a money machine. An agency came to Coke because it was a great name to have on the door and it was a great paycheck. It wasn’t like you came to Coke because we were known for doing ground-breaking creativity.”

Schunker, who joined Coca-Cola in 2003 from Ogilvy New York, and then-North America CMO Katie Bayne knew they had to convince potential marketing partners that attitudes were changing at the beverage giant known more for watering down inspired ideas than producing them. Coke needed to get back into the cultural conversation, to become more relevant and modern to appeal to a new generation while retaining an emotional bond with older consumers. “Knowing that creativity could impact our business, we set out to work with the best agencies,” Schunker says, admitting he knew attracting them wouldn’t be easy. “We had such a bad reputation back then, jumping from agency to agency. In moving forward, we would need to have our agencies challenge our thinking, to let them know they could call bullshit, push back—and we would be receptive to hear that. That didn’t mean we wouldn’t push back at them, but they needed to know we trusted them to try, fail, succeed and innovate.”

That open, more collaborative approach won over W+K and Turner Duckworth, leading them to create some of the flagship brand’s most innovative recent initiatives, work that has Coca-Cola being honored as Cannes Creative Marketer of the Year for 2013. The brand picked up close to 30 Lions at the ad festival in 2012, its most successful haul ever. Outside Cannes, other accolades include the Clio Awards (sister brand of Adweek) this year selecting Coca-Cola for its inaugural Brand Icon Award.

Schunker loves the creative recognition but is just as proud of the business success driven by it. He was brought in to revitalize Coca-Cola’s signature product, a drink that defines the company and has a halo effect on its extensions. Recognition wasn’t a problem—that’s so valuable it’s carried on the company’s balance sheet as an intangible asset. Consumer excitement about Coke was another matter, meaning marketing would have to serve as the secret ingredient to refreshing a drink that hasn’t changed in 127 years.

It seems to have worked. From 2001 to 2006, Coke saw U.S. sales dip, but last year, in a carbonated soft-drink category where sales slumped 1.2 percent (the eighth straight year of declines), Coca-Cola’s sales rose nearly 1 percent, even as arch rival Pepsico fell by 1.5 percent, according to Beverage Digest. (Even more dramatically, in 2011 Diet Coke edged out Pepsi as the industry’s second-most popular soda.) Interbrand, which put Coca-Cola at No. 1 in its 2012 Best Global Brands Report, put its value at $77.8 billion, up 8 percent year over year.

While international sales over the past decade have held up, Coca-Cola’s biggest challenges have been in the contracting North American market. Aside from getting the right agencies on board, Schunker attributes Coke’s turnaround success in its home and largest market to internal support from former CMO Bayne, now president of Coca-Cola’s North American soda business and someone Schunker continues to talk with on a weekly basis.

Still, that wasn’t enough in a company of this size, one whose siloed marketing approach had to become more holistic. “We have to make sure our vision is well articulated around game-changing marketing, but how do you facilitate that vision through structure and process?” muses Alison Lewis, svp, Coca-Cola North America Marketing. “We need to integrate all of our functions—taking creative, digital, media, design, content and building it into one integrated group which can drive a big idea, soup to nuts, all the way down to the store shelf.”

Coca-Cola is serious about that, enough so that making it happen—or failing to—impacts everyone’s paycheck. Both the compensation of outside partners and that of the company’s 100-plus integrated marketing employees is based largely on how well they collaborate and innovate. The scoring system was implemented over the last 18 months, no easy feat considering that it affects stock options and merit bonuses. Additionally, Coke has a monthly agency council meeting. “It keeps us honest, helps us have an open dialogue and have us ask how we, as a client, can do better,” explains Schunker.

“It’s hard for different companies to work together,” admits W+K creative director Hal Curtis, who heads up the Coke business. “Early in the relationship, we resisted it or didn’t think of it. It’s a credit to Pio that he’s made it all work with everyone.”

Since taking on brand Coke in 2005, W+K has created standout work dating back to early spots in North America like 2007’s “Video Game,” modeled on Grand Theft Auto, in which a tough character has a change of heart after drinking a Coke, and 2008’s “It’s Mine,” featuring inflatables from a Thanksgiving parade who become untethered and fight over a floating Coke bottle (in 2009, Adweek selected it as the decade’s best Super Bowl spot).

A turning point came with the 2012 Super Bowl, in which W+K used a two-screen strategy. Through TV and other media, viewers were directed to a livestreaming digital site where Coke’s iconic polar bears reacted in real time to the game, the halftime entertainment, ads and fans. Right up to the day of the game, the technology had to be tweaked. “If things were going to go wrong, they would go wrong live,” recalls Schunker. “We did a lot of advance testing, but the only thing we couldn’t test was success.”

W+K’s Curtis remembers the nerves on that day but goes on to credit the client’s resolve. “One of the great things about Coca-Cola is they have the courage to try really frightening, innovative things on big stages,” he says. Nine million consumers followed the bears, spending 28 minutes on average, the equivalent of 56 30-second commercials, compared to the two minutes Coke had anticipated. Critical recognition followed, including five Lions at Cannes in 2012.

During this year’s game, the company aired W+K’s “Chase,” which had consumers voting on the outcome of a desert chase for a Coke involving cowboys, showgirls and motorcycle toughs. The brand followed up with a coupon through the My Coke Rewards website, giving away 50,000 free drinks. Thirty percent of those redeemed were from new users.

From the start, designer David Turner told his new client what he thought about the ubiquitous brand’s packaging: It had all the impact of cultural wallpaper. “David said our can looked like crap, which hurt a lot of feelings—it’s like a child here,” recalls Schunker. Nevertheless, he returned the favor by supporting Turner Duckworth’s clean, simplified redesign, selling it up the corporate food chain even when early testing wasn’t great.

“A lot of what we wanted to do was logical, but it also involved courage—a lot of early research went against the ‘refreshing’ score,” says Turner. “Pio said, ‘We can get a refreshing in other ways. We don’t need that as much as the higher marks on cool and modern or the stronger emotional connection for older people.’”

Turner says it’s easier for brand managers to add elements to packaging rather than take them away, which contributed to Coke’s look becoming cluttered over the years. In the firm’s reductionist pursuit, the stakeholders reduced Coke’s palette (which had grown to include five colors) to emphasize red, a color the brand legitimately owned. Turner Duckworth argued for the removal of pictures of bubbles on the can, saying consumers already knew it was a carbonated beverage—and that proved to be one of the harder battles the firm faced with Coca-Cola.

Promotional tactics, the dull stuff of cents-off or event tie-ins, became brand-building opportunities. Whether a seasonal strategy like the current summer-themed cans, the Olympics or fundraising for polar bears, the design of the Coke cans today is visually much more minimalist and simplified.

Turner says turning down Coke would have been the biggest mistake of his career: “Pio comes to us and says, ‘If you see a brief from us you don’t like, don’t do the work. You can tell us it’s not right.’ That level of trust and respect rarely exists with a client.” The design overhaul won Cannes’ first ever Design Grand Prix in 2008. The brand picked up a Gold Lion as well that year for its aluminum bottle.

Leo Burnett works on Coca-Cola’s “Live Positively” social responsibility and sustainability program, and for the brand in global markets including China, Southeast Asia and India. Earlier this year, the company introduced its “Small World Machines,” developed by Burnett, in a pair of malls in India and Pakistan, aiming to bring together consumers in that divisive part of the world. The vending machines sport webcams whereby consumers in each country come face-to-face and can interact with one another by drawing peace, love and happiness symbols, each earning a free Coke in the process. “That’s a great example of our collaboration with Coca-Cola,” says Mark Tutssel, chief creative officer of Leo Burnett Worldwide. “This is a true partnership that has liberated creativity around the world and across channels. They’ve given us all freedom and a great sense of shared goals.”

Coke’s enduring association with bears, dating back to an ad in 1922, crosses over to entertainment in ways beyond even the polar bears of the 2012 Super Bowl. Schunker’s team had a film idea last year and took it to CAA; producer Ridley Scott and Dave Reynolds, writer of Finding Nemo and Toy Story 3, signed on. Even with that star power, no one at the company was sure the Coke bear film would work. Launching in Europe, it didn’t take long to find out. Sky TV in Britain aired it over Christmas, attracting a newer, younger generation to the brand. “That’s how we’re shaping integrated content in a new way,” says Schunker. “There was no product featured. It was about brand values, the idea that family always has your back.”

It seems Coke’s current family of agencies has its back, as well.

Publish date: June 9, 2013 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT